The Two Ronnies

There ain't a dime's worth of difference

When Reagan died in 2004 I said this, in part: In the pre-Reagan years…

…easy access to benefits meant not only that you didn’t have to starve, but also that you didn’t have to worry too much. Life was good.

That was the post-war West. Then Reagan came in, and the slack got considerably taken up.

Many of us got some tax relief — though ordinary earners got less of this (and had some of it taken back by other means) than the more wealthy, who cleaned up. Entitlements petered out, and public service agencies were replaced by your dwindling savings account and the credit card companies — just like welfare, except you have to pay it back at 26% interest! Our current leaders may not like the resulting, massive personal bankruptcy rate, but at least (I imagine them laughing to themselves) they don’t have to pay for it.

In the Reagan era you were hooted off the carpet if you sought money for milk and bread — but you had much better luck if you had a business plan. Entrepreneurs were lionized for their grit and determination, even if they bent the rules a little (this thinking seems since then to have developed into a full-fledged alternative culture, of which the Enron generation represents the highest stage of development). Entrepreneurs became the new avatars of American individualism, and people talked seriously of electing boardroom clowns like Lew Lehrman and Donald Trump to high office...

Woooo — foreshadowing.

I was put in mind of this by a mention on Twitter of a recent New York Times story, headlined “How a Chase Bank Chairman Helped the Deposed Shah of Iran Enter the U.S.,” which seemed rather to bury the lede for those of us who lived and voted in 1980:

The hostage crisis doomed Mr. Carter’s presidency. And the team around Mr. [David] Rockefeller, a lifelong Republican with a dim view of Mr. Carter’s dovish foreign policy, collaborated closely with the Reagan campaign in its efforts to pre-empt and discourage what it derisively labeled an “October surprise” — a pre-election release of the American hostages, the papers show.

The Chase team helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release, a propaganda effort that Carter administration officials have said impeded talks to free the captives.

“I had given my all” to thwarting any effort by the Carter officials “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise,’” [Joseph V. Reed Jr., Rockefeller's chief of staff] wrote in a letter to his family after the election, apparently referring to the Chase effort to track and discourage a hostage release deal. He was later named Mr. Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco.

Mr. Rockefeller then personally lobbied the incoming administration to ensure that its Iran policies protected the bank’s financial interests.

The whole story is horrible, but to those of us who lived then and saw the disastrous effects of the ensuing Reagan presidency on the country, the part about his pals at Chase Manhattan working to get him into office by delaying the release of Khomeini’s American hostages (“But Mr. Kissinger was reassuring. Congress would never hold an investigation during an election campaign”) has a special poignancy.

You’ve all seen the charts that show the point in time at which rich people’s income started going into hyperdrive, while poor and middle class people merely got increases in debt and “productivity” (i.e. more work) — that was Reagantime. And some of you remember the before-time, when working people had job security and opportunities to get ahead, which thanks to Reagan and his heirs is now just history — and which conservatives either deny ever existed or say we’re better off without.

But what the Times story really reminded me of was how similar Trump and Reagan are.

The Iran story is shocking because we’re accustomed to think of Saint Ronnie as a nice guy. But he wasn’t — he was a prick, surrounded by crooks who were smoother than the goons and bagmen of the Trump gang but no less corrupt. The only difference is Reagan, being a movie star, acted the good guy to sway voters who got their moral sense from old Hollywood, while Trump, being a reality-show star, acts the bully to sway voters who got their moral sense from wrestling.

Both Trump and Reagan made huge tax policy transfers to the rich and put their boots on the necks of everyone less rich, each putting it over with his own version of patriotic rah-rah — Reagan’s sunny, Trump’s vicious. When in need of butch points, Reagan invaded Grenada, Trump blows up Suleimani, and both sluiced fortunes to the military.

And they both blew up the deficit while crying for welfare cuts.

We’ve seen the effect of Reagan’s malfeasance on our economy; Trump’s is just now eating at its foundations, and who knows what and how much will collapse because of it when the damage reaches critical mass. (In any event, as Trump has said, in one of those breathtaking bits of total nihilism he sometimes can’t help but expose, “I won’t be here” when it happens).

It’s interesting to me, too, how little you hear from conservatives about Reagan these days. They used to invoke his name like a paternoster, a prayer for the free market to bless them. Now he’s barely mentioned. It’s almost as if conservatives know as well as we do that the jig is up and even the historically illiterate masses have figured out that trickle-down — another term you don’t hear much anymore, except in derision! — was not America’s salvation but just another in a series of grifts that left us holding the bag.

I guess the shorter version is something I’ve been saying for quite some time — there are no good Republicans. Except it’s important to add: And there haven’t been for a long, long time.