In the spirit of this week’s Presidential Inauguration, I’m going to do something I rarely do: I going to share with you a personal correspondence. Early last year, just as the Republican primary was starting to get interesting, a classmate of mine who writes for the National Review went full speed into the “Never Trump” camp. In March, I penned this letter to her:
Too bad most of the comments on your “Good-Bye Reagan Revolution!” article are ad hominem attacks on you; thus, have no validity. I’ll speak to you on a more personal level since we grew up together in the midst of the Reagan Revolution. First some background, in case you forgot (and I have no reason to believe you remember). In 1979/1980 I was (and still am) a big Jack Kemp fan. Remember, he represented my district in the snow belts of Buffalo and I was very familiar with his inclusive style, his common sense pragmatism, and his utmost loyalty to the team. That Reagan failed to pick him as VP, opting instead for George H.W. Bush, I believe to this day represents Reagan’s greatest failure. For that decision sealed the fate of and forever doomed that which once was the Reagan Revolution.
Now, recall where we were in 1979/80. Many of us really liked Reagan – but for different reasons. The cultists believed in him from the very beginning. They were the only ones who never bought into the argument that he wasn’t electable. Others, like the doctrinaire conservatives and the blue collar conservatives, initially sought other candidates on account of Reagan’s “unelectability.” Many Yalies, including me, threw our lot in with George H.W. Bush primarily because: 1) He was electable; and, 2) School loyalty. My support for him did not diminish my blue collar conservative roots. Indeed, once, while campaigning for him in early 1979 in Vermont, I confronted him about Kemp’s across-the-board tax cut proposal and the Supply-Side economics theory that inspired it (this encounter occurred during his infamous “Voodoo Economics” era). The future Bush 41 told me to take Econ 101 (a comment I wasn’t impressed with, but whose advice I did eventually take – and it didn’t change my mind). My movement to Reagan arose while campaigning for Bush in New Hampshire. From the response I got doing the door-to-door thing, I was struck by Reagan’s deep-seated popularity. It cut across the entire political spectrum, and it was equally clear that Bush’s principal support was among country club “establishment” Republicans. If you remember my demeanor at the time (and quite possibly still today), I was the antithesis of the country club Republican.
Finally convinced of Reagan’s electability, it was at that point that I joined the Reagan Revolution. Now, I was a Nixon Republican, so the switch to Reagan was not unexpected. What was unexpected was the switch by my grandparents – Roosevelt Democrats – and the entire base constituency from Jack Kemp’s congressional district. These folks weren’t political hacks interested in elegant conservative theory. They were mostly union members who worked at the soon-to-be closed steel plants that once girdled the southern flank of Buffalo. Their biggest concern wasn’t “The Goldwater Legacy” but with putting food on the table and jobs for their kids (and, soon enough, jobs for themselves).
In other words, they represented the heart of the Reagan Revolution. They possessed those classic mid-western American values so often associated with fly-over country. For them, Reagan wasn’t a conservative icon, he was simply an icon – a testament to an American Greatness the vast cross-section of Americans feared was slowly slipping away. If Reagan was the general of this revolution, they were the happy and willing soldiers. Foremost and above all else, it wasn’t policy that drove them, it was the appeal of character, their belief in a greater good, and a desperation to return to an era of American Exceptionalism. (OK, maybe the “totally impossible” to build – er – pass and implement “across-the-board” tax cuts issue was the one policy provision that did generate “across-the-board” enthusiasm.)
Does any of this sound familiar? And I don’t mean “Do you remember feeling this way back then?” I mean, can you see the parallels between then and now. Then, Reagan was just as vilified by both the Republican establishment and the press as Trump is now. Then, Reagan was viewed as the spawn of some vulgarian right-wing uprising, just as Trump is viewed now. Then, no one gave Reagan a chance to win, the same as pundits are warning about Trump now. Finally, back then the media elite questioned Reagan’s political experience (his success as California governor they ironically positioned as a liability), and now we see a different generation of media elite questioning Trump’s ability to navigate the political labyrinth that is Washington (his success as a billionaire businessman/entertainer they perplexingly see as proof of this). And this coming from someone who began this presidential election cycle as an ardent Scott Walker supporter (since I felt he was the only one with the proven ability to confront and defeat the brazen bullying tactics of the usual suspects).
Decades ago, in one of our too rare but periodical communications, you once referred to me as a “Master of the Universe” (alluding to a then popular novel by Jay McInerney). (The hyperbole did make me feel awkward and undeserving, but, in a nod to your foresight, I should disclose that a few weeks ago in its Category Kings section, as it has done several times in the last decade, The Wall Street Journal again listed the fund I manage as one of the ten best performing mutual funds for 2015). If you think about the true legacy of Reagan – the ultimate fruit of the Reagan Revolution – it wasn’t a political doctrine, it was a philosophy, a philosophy of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and, in deference to all that is politically incorrect, the ability to freely thrust one’s middle finger towards an oppressive establishment and not only fail to suffer any consequence, but to grow stronger as a result. The seeds that Reagan sowed along these lines did not sprout a new political class as many expected. He never intended that. What those seeds wrought, however, were the first and best line of defense against the rise of any overbearing governing caste. The Reagan Revolution encouraged embryonic entrepreneurs, inspired innovative inventors, and, ultimately, fashioned a new paradigm based not on the color of your constituency, but on the true value you have created for yourself and, by extension, your community. In other words, it is (or was) a paradigm whereby you would never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for you. These individual acts of self-interest would (to use the term ironically) collectively build a better world. And it did.
At least for a while.
That revolution ended long ago and too soon after Reagan left office (and well before its departure was noticed). The Masters of the Universe reigned in the 1980s, but by the 1990s they were overtaken by a thousand points of light. Most shrank back into the camouflage of everyday life, content to grow, figuring whatever tithe they were forced to cede to the increasingly largesse that is Washington was just “the cost of doing business.”
Yet, though these soldiers and their offspring remained dormant, they never faded away. They took about as much as they could take, but knew the day would come when they could take no more. It was then that one of those Masters of the Universe – forged in the hearth of the bright lights of a big city during the acme of the Reagan Era – rose to lead a new revolution.
Not the Reagan Revolution, but a new revolution.
The Trump Revolution.
I don’t expect to change your mind (have I ever been able to do that?). I do, however, hope to get a few of your synapses zapping away.
Let me know if I succeeded.