The front jacket for the hardcover edition of Bob Spitz’s tome, Reagan: An American Journey, shows its presumably heroic subject in a studly pose, leaning up against a rural white picket fence. The book itself is divided into four parts, corresponding to stages of Reagan’s life: “Dutch,” “Ronnie,” “Governor,” and “Mr. President.” And two photograph sections break up the nearly nine-hundred pages into neat thirds. The pictures alone seem to tell a riveting tale of boot-strapped success and uncomplicated grace. One could be forgiven, therefore, for dismissing the work as an attempt at best-selling hagiography.
Spitz, however, is up to something more interesting. It is not so much “Reagan” as “an American journey” that proves the operative title throughout. The president no doubt remains in sharp focus as the all-American par excellence. But he emerges as a vessel in which a less comforting story of the United States can be told. And if this story reaches its highest pitch during Reagan’s years in the Oval Office, it must also be understood at its roots, when the working-class lifeguard from the pastoral Midwest first began to morph into the charismatic prophet of America’s rightward lurch.
There is no way to grasp the significance of Ronald Reagan without approaching him as a convert. The fortieth president of the United Sates was not born a reactionary, after all. That required him being born again.
Reagan’s mother, Nelle, was a church-going lady and passionate adherent of the Social Gospel, and his father, Jack, was a populist Democrat. As Spitz puts it,
Jack Reagan was devoted to the kinds of social causes that would one day be construed as entitlements: relief for the working poor, trust-busting, child labor laws, a fair minimum wage, regulation of communications conglomerates, a graduated income tax.
Jack was an Irish-American who despised the English imperial crown. Like many of his Catholic brethren, he despised the Ku Klux Klan too, in large part because the KKK despised him. But he was repulsed by their anti-black racism and antisemitism as well, something that couldn’t be said for many of his fellow Democrats or even the Republican majority that made up Dixon, Illinois, the town in which he and Nelle raised their two sons.
It was Nelle in fact who did most of the raising. Jack was too busy getting drunk and making a mess of his forever troubled career as an itinerant salesman. But this didn’t stop “Dutch,” named by Jack for his supposed Dutch-like features as a baby, from adopting his father’s politics. In a way young Ronald was also following in the footsteps of his great-grandparents, immigrants who had escaped mass proletarian suffering in Ireland to avail themselves of US federal aid programs like the land-granting Preemption Act of 1841, a piece of legislation that allowed white settlers to purchase plots at discounted rates.
The Preemption Act suggests something about the settler-colonial birthright from which Reagan’s early populism sprung. The social investment helped establish relative economic security for droves of otherwise desperate European migrants, but it also functioned as part and parcel of the genocidal conquest of the western frontier.
Details in Jack’s biography point toward a related trajectory. Although his racial views were progressive for his time, he was also known for appearing on the local stage with his wife in blackface. Such casual racism was accompanied by a militaristic patriotism. Jack became an enthusiastic supporter of the United States’ involvement in World War I and even tried to enlist.
If there was one aspect of his father’s politics Reagan would never abandon, it was his nationalist pride. In a high school essay titled “School Spirit,” this central feature of his later philosophy was already coming into view. “Service,” he wrote, “is the only road to loyalty.”
Still, the trek from left-leaning trade unionist to right-wing Cold Warrior proved a slow and windy one. Reagan attended Illinois’ Eureka College on a generous scholarship, something afforded to most in-state students coming from humble countryside origins. It was there that he first came into contact with a sustained education not only in the Social Gospel but in socialism.
The timing helped. It was the beginning years of the Great Depression, and radicalism was in the air. The budding actor put his oratorical skills to use on behalf of a campus-wide anti-austerity campaign, where he would eventually lead a successful student strike. But it was also during college that Reagan began to define himself against the wayward dissolution of his old man. If Jack had run his life into the ground due to addiction and lack of discipline, his son would now seize a more dignified path through grit and determination.
This self-conception on Reagan’s part might be seen as the driving force behind his later political change of heart. He was not the first upwardly mobile son of a downtrodden immigrant lineage to adopt a self-made ethos susceptible to conservative cooptation. Nor would he be the last. (Ronnie’s older brother, Neil, would travel a similar course as an entertainment and advertising executive.) But there was another dynamic at work in the future president’s evolution.
It was not long after joining the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as a new arrival to southern California that Reagan was commissioned in the Army Reserves as a second lieutenant, a few years prior to the outbreak of World War II. It was then that he combined his cinematic pursuits with a growing interest in politics, turning to the anticommunist pages of Reader’s Digest to help make sense of the world.
Although he was never deployed to the front, Reagan’s strapping image was commandeered by military public relations officers as a familiar propaganda set piece. In the eyes of most Americans, Reagan became the archetype of the ideal American war hero. As one historian quoted by Spitz put it, “No twentieth-century president, with the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been seen in uniform by more people.”
The Turn to the Right
Years earlier, as a middling actor and progressive, Reagan had dabbled with becoming a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. By the end of the war, he was a harsh critic of the reds and the pinkos, and he was rapidly departing from his New Deal liberalism altogether. What happened?
Spitz suggests that as Reagan became a familiar, if still somewhat precarious, member of the economic elite, he adopted his surrounding mores by growing increasingly peeved with what he saw as an excessive tax burden. This irritation was exacerbated by a mistaken conviction that he was owed an exemption for his wartime taxes since he served in uniform during that period (the exemption, in fact, was only afforded to those deployed overseas).
Spitz also spends considerable ink describing the ins and outs of internecine turf wars among various unionists, and how the uncompromising behavior of the Communists was already beginning to leave a bad taste in the soon-to-be SAG president’s mouth. This embitterment likely contributed to Reagan’s decision to name names to the feds as anonymous “Source T-10,” as well as his willingness to serve as a government-friendly witness at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) — even though at the time he criticized McCarthyite excesses, and blamed the feds’ intrusiveness into the Hollywood left for his waxing discomfort with big government.
This is all well and good. But one telling fact chronicled by Spitz that gestures toward a pivotal theme is that Reagan was attending a function for the American Veterans Committee when he was elected president of SAG. If the story of Reagan is first and foremost the story of a convert, and if that conversion is first and foremost about an ever-intensifying crusade against communism, then that crusade grew out of the triumphalist yet paranoid jingoism of post–World War II Pax Americana.
The instinct that lay behind the Preemption Act encouraging the violent settlement of Reagan’s ancestors was the same instinct that lay behind Jack Reagan’s support for the Great War; was the same instinct that lay behind the fetishization of Reagan as fairytale Nazi-killer; was the same instinct that lay behind the anticommunism that would culminate with Reagan’s support for fascists in Latin America as president of the United States.
It was an instinct propelled by an anxious, insecure, and therefore self-aggrandizing idea of the nation, one that always came with external bogeymen to be vanquished, and that displaced class politics with a status quo–reinforcing program of national greatness. Reagan’s conversion, in this sense, personified the corruption of American social democracy by American empire.
Spitz dwells at length on Reagan’s role in the 1950s as a spokesperson for General Electric, where he became the true-believing face of a propaganda campaign for US-led global capitalism. This campaign masqueraded as a return to American values and national unity, and Reagan continued that masquerade until the day he died.
Progressive taxation, an idea not only endorsed by Adam Smith but by most of America’s founders, became a foreign corruption spawned by none other than the author of the Communist Manifesto. Social insurance and a myriad of other social provisions became similarly criticized on the basis of an anticommunist “national security,” even though these policies were first popularized in the English-speaking world by one of Reagan’s idols, Thomas Paine, along with droves of nineteenth-century Jeffersonian admirers.
Reagan deemed John F. Kennedy’s Medicare proposal Stalinist, and wrote of Kennedy himself that “[u]nder the tousled boyish haircut it is still old Karl Marx.” The boy president’s soft Marxism could be discerned wherever Reagan looked. Kennedy may have launched the Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro’s government, but its failure signaled a deeper lack of capitalist resolve. The same could be said for the liberal commander-in-chief’s allowance of the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos or the construction of the Berlin Wall. These defeats, as Spitz writes,
comingled with what [Reagan] viewed as domestic boondoggles: the establishment of a food-stamp program, the raising of the minimum wage to $1.15 an hour under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the launch of the Peace Corps. The twin screws of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ began to tighten in his chest…. Communists, he insisted, were still ‘infiltrating all phases of the government,’ just as they’d edged their way back into the motion-picture industry.
Reagan’s existential panic about the nation was linked to a personal persecution complex. He surmised that Kennedy was responsible for him being eased out of his public relations gig at GE and that the federal government somehow played a role in him no longer receiving movie offers.
Such delusions, public and private, were matched with equally preposterous actions, like when he signed up as campaign chairman for California Senate candidate Loyd Wright, who was then threatening a nuclear strike against the Soviets. Or like when he accused his Republican opponent in the California Senate primary of being a fellow traveler. “Did [former San Francisco mayor George Christopher],” Reagan inquired, “jointly sponsor protest on US atomic policies with the chairman of the Communist Party in Los Angeles?”
The list goes on. Reagan preferred total war in Vietnam (his second-best option was no war at all). As governor of California he refused a boxing license for Muhammad Ali because the champ refused to fight in Indochina. He perceived Jimmy Carter, like Kennedy, to be another effete leader whose suspect sympathies encouraged the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, expressed his desire to turn Cuba into a “parking lot” he was not speaking just for himself but for the wanton belligerence of an entire administration.
That same administration would spend almost a decade tearing apart the likes of Nicaragua and El Salvador. And the bloodlust always came wrapped in an American exceptionalist bow. As Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said of the invasion of Grenada, “the price of freedom is high.”
What is so striking about the career of Ronald Reagan, never mind the career of the United States, is how much it was fueled not only by poisonous fears but by even more poisonous conceits. The president’s catastrophic meddling in Central America — responsible for today’s migrant exodus to the southern border — followed from alarming reports about the potential rise of new Castros. The desire to oust the original Castro followed from a conviction that he signaled a little Stalin on Yankee turf. The atomic leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was designed to terrify into submission Stalin, who Truman and his advisers saw as the sequel to Hitler.
The dread that informed such decisions, a dread customary of all nervously overcompensating hegemons, rendered any hope of wise judgment impossible. The failure to interrogate the idea of America as anything other than a great and noble crusader against evil — as perhaps, for example, a great and ignoble source of evil — guaranteed the worst of judgments.
Partisans of Reagan like to see the fall of Communism as a poetic bookend to their beloved politician’s legacy. It’s hard to deny that Reagan’s willingness to move from truculent militarism to affable diplomacy (arguably thanks to robust opposition to the nuclear arms race) went some way in bringing official closure to the Cold War. But in light of the past three decades, characterized by disaster capitalism and endless war, a more unsettling assessment is warranted.
That’s why Spitz’s choice to position the Iran-Contra Affair as the denouement to his narrative is so welcome. For if there is one event that captures not only the meaning of Reagan but the meaning of the late American imperium, it is the sight of rich and powerful scoundrels from around the world scrambling to cover up one of the grisliest and most absurd acts of war-profiteering in modern memory. As Spitz concludes, “A cavalcade of rogues was implicated in the aftermath — CIA station chiefs, intelligence analysts, a Texas dowager heiress, a beer magnate, gun-runners, Arab princes and potentates.”
During the earliest stages of the scandal, Reagan was pressed on his role in the madness. “What we did was right,” Reagan said, “and we’re going to continue on this.” The president was forced to reconsider as the public learned more about the controversy.
But there is a way in which the American elite still thinks what it has done is right and it all ought to continue. This has become abundantly clear of late. The elevation of Iran-Contra veteran (and war criminal) Elliott Abrams as Trump’s Venezuela envoy was met with general acceptance by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, an establishment that is more than happy to go along with another US-backed right-wing coup in Latin America.
The backdrop to this has been the unabashed return of neoconservatives and other George W. Bush–era officials to the media mainstream, where they now occupy rarefied perches at places like MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. No one can make a coherent argument as to why the next round of meddling and war will prove any less calamitous than the last, but it sure pays to pretend to have one. And to have one in the name of a forever shape-shifting “human rights” and an ever-elusive “national interest.”
It is in this final sense we still live in the age of Reagan. Anticommunist hysteria has morphed into a never-ending barrage of anti-Putinist conspiracism. The Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile defense system commonly known as “Star Wars,” has taken a backseat to Space Force or just building a medieval wall. Liberal and conservative centrists speak of NATO and its enlargement as if prerogatives like containment and rollback had never left the scene. Trump keeps availing himself of the fortieth president of the United States’ 1980 campaign slogan about making America great again. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party leadership keeps insisting on returning to a pre-Trump moment that was already great, a moment, as it happens, that accorded with the Reaganite program and vision in all its fundamentals.
This is not to say we are all Reaganites now. And it makes sense that it has taken a Jew like Bernie Sanders, a Puerto Rican like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Somali-American like Ilhan Omar, and a Palestinian-American like Rashida Tlaib to remind us of this fact. These are all members of groups that have historically borne the brunt of jumpy ruling classes looking not just for more resources or markets to exploit but more colonial or neo-colonial living spaces to expand into. They are also politicians who formed their political identities at a time when class politics, of one form or another, were on the rise.
If Reagan sacrificed the class-driven world views of his Irish immigrant ancestors for a nominally unifying but effectively oppressive conception of the nation, the task today is to reverse that formulation. Any left coalition that attempts to hold onto such nationalist baggage risks repeating the story of Reagan, and the story of America, all over again.