Toward the end of a video released recently by the conservative anti-Trump group Republicans for the Rule of Law, Paul Rosenzweig, a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security under George Bush, says, “Conservatives are all about conserving — conserving history, conserving morality, conserving the country.” During this statement, we see footage of Ronald Reagan making a speech, flanked by a huge, flowing American flag.
Reagan’s appearance gives the lie to the line promoted by anti-Trump right-wingers that Donald Trump is an aberration instead of the logical end of nearly 40 years of GOP destruction. There is a reason that Reagan’s election has long been deemed the fulfillment of the radical insurgency that began with the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and a reason that, before 1980, the GOP considered Reagan too far right to represent it nationally.
Trump may be the first president to openly side with white supremacists. But Reagan began his campaign for the presidency with a speech praising “state’s rights” near the site of the most infamous civil rights murder — that of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, in Neshoba County, Miss. He began his presidency by firing air traffic controllers, seriously weakening organized labor’s established ability to strike for better wages and working conditions. His embrace of supply-side economics and deregulation began the erosion of the social safety net that Franklin Roosevelt built to save the country from disaster in the Depression. And his administration’s refusal to confront AIDS marked what was arguably the government’s first response to a public health epidemic with moral condemnation rather than an attempt to arrest it.
Trump may be the first pathological liar to occupy the White House, but in 2004, an unnamed “senior advisor” to George W. Bush (widely believed to be Karl Rove) told New York Times reporter Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The Trump administration detains refugees in subhuman conditions, but the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina effectively made Americans refugees in their own country.
This isn’t to say Republicans for the Rule of Law doesn’t have a point. Neither Ronald Reagan nor the two Bushes were crazy men. They damaged America, but they did not represent an existential threat to its survival as a democracy or to the survival of the postwar Western alliance. That is the level of danger that Trump represents, and the left, forever susceptible to the temptations of ideological purity, would be foolish not to welcome the alliance of anti-Trump conservatives. For my part, had the 2016 election been between Trump and any GOP presidential nominee from Nixon to Romney, I’d have had no trouble voting for the Republican.
But the conservative figures who have become prominent in the media as anti-Trumpers — William Kristol, director of Republicans for the Rule of Law; MSNBC host Nicole Wallace, former White House communications director for George W. Bush; the columnist George Will; and Steve Schmidt, the often stirringly articulate senior strategist to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign — are engaged, perhaps unconsciously, in the dislocation of historical memory. Just as Reagan wanted to sell the notion of a glorious and unsullied past (“It’s morning again in America”), these conservatives want to sell the last 40 years as a golden age of principled conservatism instead of a deliberate and thorough destruction of the social contract so radical that even the man who inspired it, Barry Goldwater, eventually described himself as liberal in relation to the rest of the party.
The existential threat that Donald Trump represents means welcoming unlikely allies into the fold, and the work of Republicans for the Rule of Law deserves praise. But Trumpism will not end with the exit of Trump, and defeating it will necessitate recognizing its poisonous roots, instead of celebrating those beginnings as an honorable past.
Charles Taylor is a writer living in New York.