The Reagan Phenomenon

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evisceration of Reaganism shows that the libertarian critique
of modern American conservatism applies whether the subject is
the Reagan or the Bush administration. It was first published
in Free
Life: The Journal of the Libertarian Alliance
, Vol. 4,
No. 1, undated (1984?). ed.

presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan has been a disaster for libertarianism
in the United States, and might yet prove to be catastrophic for
the human race. Reagan came to power in 1981 as the chief political
spokesman for the Conservative Movement, a movement which took
its essential modern form in 1955, with the founding of
National Review. Reagan has been the main conservative
politician since “The Speech,” delivered over nationwide TV during
the 1964 Goldwater campaign, established him as the “Great Communicator”
of the right wing.

Conservative Movement of modern times has had three basic, and
mutually contradictory, tenets: (1) “Getting Big Government Off
Our Backs” by rolling back statism and establishing a free market
economy; (2) crushing civil liberties whenever crime, “national
security,” or “morality” are threatened, i.e. whenever civil liberties
become important; and (3) seeking an all-out political and military
confrontation with “atheistic world Communism,” in particular
its satanic headquarters in the Kremlin, up to and including a
nuclear showdown.

is starkly evident that (2) and (3) are, at the very least, inconsistent
with (1). For one thing, how does one “Get Big Government Off
Our Economic Backs,” while at the same time spreading “Big Government”
into our bedrooms, and into our private letters and phone calls?
How does one secure the right to free trade and free enterprise
while outlawing pornography and all commerce with the Soviet bloc?
And how does one preserve the right to personal life and property
while engaging in the mass murder of civilians required by modern warfare? Whenever the Conservative Movement has become aware of
such inconsistencies (e.g. over free trade with sinners, or foreign
aid for our “allies,” or ever-greater military budgets), it has
opted unhesitatingly for (2) and (3) over (1). For conservatives,
the State as Theocrat and Moral Enforcer and the State as Mass
Murderer have always taken precedence over the feeble goals of
freedom and free markets.

a recent article (“The American Conservatives,” Harper’s January
1984), the scholar John Lukacs takes note of some of these inner
contradictions (Lukacs is an interesting and unique specimen:
a Hungarian-American Trad anti-libertarian traditionalist – who
is also pro-peace). Lukacs writes:

conservatives argued against big government, yet they favored
the most monstrous of government projects: laser warfare, biological
warfare, nuclear super-bombs. They were against the police state,
yet they were eager to extend the powers of the FBI and the CIA.
They were against government regulation of “free” enterprise,
yet at times they supported the government’s shoring up or bailing
out of large corporations.”

almost thirty years now, the Conservative Movement has flourished
by maintaining these contradictions. How have they been able to
do this? One explanation is that they are dumb, and don’t see
the contradictions. Certainly, this fact plays a role. What Lawrence
Dennis used to call the “dumbright” and Macaulay called the “stupid
party” still exists in America. But, after all, not all conservatives
are dumb, and there are now a goodly number of right-wing scholars
and intellectuals. No, much of the explanation is more sinister
than sheer stupidity. Conservatives know that the avenge Americano,
while scarcely an enthusiast for civil liberties, doesn’t like
the FBI (or still more, the Internal Revenue Service) snooping
in his private papers, and doesn’t like the idea of government
busily stamping out sin in his backyard. And while the average
American cheered the U.S. invasion of Grenada to the rafters,
righteously enjoying the sight of the U.S. clobbering a tiny island
devoid of even a regular army, he has quite a different view of
getting bogged down in some hellhole in a perpetual and losing
war, or in being incinerated in a nuclear holocaust.

average American, in short, possesses that “complex of vaunting
and fear” that Garet Garrett noted as the hallmark of citizens
of Empire. On the one hand, emotional identification with “your”
nation-State, and a desire for it to bully and dominate the entire
world. On the other, hysterical panic at the machinations of some
satanic Enemy or other, an Enemy who is monolithic, omnicompetent
and malevolent, and who can only be faced down with continuing
shows of force, the only thing which he can “understand.” To the
extent that he is non-interventionist, the American is interested
not in justice, but in fear of stalemate, fear of loss of face,
fear of not being able to show that his nation is the best and
biggest by winning a relatively quick victory.

his magnificent blast against “The AngloSaxon,” Mencken put it
perceptively and hilariously four decades ago. Speaking of the
“hereditary cowardice” of the Anglo-Saxon, Mencken wrote:

accuse so enterprising and successful a race of cowardice, of
course, is to risk immediate derision; nevertheless, I believe
that a fair-minded examination of its history will bear me out.
Nine-tenths of the great feats of derring-do that its sucklings
are taught to venerate in school … have been wholly lacking
in even the most elementary gallantry. Consider, for example,
the events attending the extension of the two great empires, English
and American. Did either movement evoke any genuine courage and
resolution? The answer is plainly no. Both empires were built
up primarily by swindling and butchering unarmed savages, and
after that by robbing weak and friendless nations. [N]either
exposed the folks at home to any serious danger of reprisal …
Moreover, neither great enterprise cost any appreciable amount
of blood; neither presented grave and dreadful risks; neither
exposed the conqueror to the slightest danger of being made the
conquered. The British won most of their vast dominions without
having to stand up in a single battle against a civilized and
formidable foe, and the Americanos won their continent at the
expense of a few dozen puerile skirmishes with savages.

Mexican and Spanish Wars I pass over as perhaps too obscenely
ungallant to be discussed at all; of the former, U.S. Grant, who
fought in it, said that it was ‘the most unjust war ever waged
by a stronger against a weaker nation’. Who remembers that, during
the Spanish War, the whole Atlantic Coast trembled in fear of
the Spaniards’ feeble fleet, that all New England had hysterics
every time a strange coal-barge was sighted on the sky-line, that
the safe-deposit boxes of Boston were emptied and their contents
transferred to Worcester, and that the Navy had to organize a
patrol to save the coast towns from depopulation? Perhaps those
Reds, atheists and pro-Germans remember it who also remember that
during World War I the entire country went wild with fear of an
enemy who, without the aid of divine intervention, obviously could
not strike it a blow at all, and that the great moral victory
was gained at last with the assistance of twenty-one allies and
at odds of eight to one.

case of World War II was even more striking. The two enemies that
the United States tackled had been softened by years of a hard
struggle with desperate foes, and those foes continued to fight
on. Neither enemy could muster even a tenth of the materials that
the American forces had the use of. And at the end both were outnumbered
in men by odds truly enormous.” (In A
Mencken Chrestomathy
, New York: Knopf, 1949, pp. 173–175)

of their reluctance to welcome huge American losses or to engage
in a nuclear showdown with Russia, the average American has to
be gulled by the ideologues of the Conservative Movement with
the rhetoric of freedom and of “Getting Government Off Your Back.”
The true guiding message of the Conservative Movement was enunciated
clearly in a public anti-Communist rally years ago by the candid
and fiery I. Brent Bozell: “To stamp out world Communism I would
be willing to destroy the entire universe, even to the furthest
star.” It doesn’t take a radical libertarian not to want to go
the whole route, to dance the full dance, with Brent Bozell and
the Conservative Movement, the theme of which is not “better dead
than Red” but “better you-and you-and you dead than Red.”

a drive for Power, often the first thing to suffer is candor,
and it is no surprise that as the Conservatives became more respectable
and edged toward victory, they dropped as embarrassing baggage
all those elements who each, in their own way, were frank, principled
and consistent: Bozell himself, the Birchers, the Randians.


ideological revolution has to worry about selling out upon achieving
Power, on surrendering principle to the lure of pragmatism, respectability,
Establishment acclaim and the mushhead “vital centre” of the country’s
polity. All Reaganites liked to refer to their accession to power
as a “revolution.” But in order for such a revolution to succeed
in its goals it must be tough and vigilant, it must have indoctrinated
its members – its “cadres” – in resisting the blandishments
of the pragmatic. The Reagan Revolution, in contrast, sold out
before it even began. The tip-off came at the Republican convention
of 1980 when Reagan surrendered to the Liberal Republican enemy
after having defeated them decisively for the nomination. It was
not just making the defeated George Bush Vice-President; that
much of a concession to party unity is traditional in American
politics and usually means little. For Reagan also summarily got
rid of almost all of his hardcore ideological advisers, and let
back in to run the campaign, and then his Administration, the
very pragmatists and Trilateral Commission adherents he had previously
fought strongly against.

Reagan sell-out was the most thorough and complete on “Plank One”
– the free-market part – of the conservative triad.
Understandably: since conservatives don’t really care about
the free-market as they care about compulsory morality and especially
war with Communism. The sell-out on the free-market is massive
and enormous. A quick rundown will suffice. Reaganomics, as enunciated
by Reagan himself before the convention and by conservatives generally,
promised the following program: a sharp cut in the federal budget,
a drastic cut in income taxes, a balanced budget by 1984, deregulation
of the economy, and return to a gold standard. Reagan has managed
to convince both conservatives and liberals, and the American
public, that he did accomplish the first and second points of
this list. For a year or two, it was hardly possible to watch
news on TV without watching some bozo wailing about how he and
the rest of the world were about to come to an end because the
federal Scrooge had cut his budget or his grant. Conservatives
bought this myth because they wanted to see Reagan accomplish
what he had said he would; liberals were happy to adopt it so
that they could wail about how Reagan was causing untold misery
and starvation by his drastic cuts. Actually, the budget was never
cut; it has always skyrocketed under Reagan. Reagan is by far
the biggest spender in American history. He is also the biggest
taxer. Taxes were never cut. The piddling and, much publicized
income tax cut was always, from the very beginning, more than
compensated by the programmed Social Security tax increases, aided
by “bracket creep,” that sinister system by which the federal
government prints more money, thereby causing inflation, and also
thereby wafting everyone into a higher tax bracket, whereupon
the government completes the one-two punch by taxing away a greater
proportion of his income.

the early years of the Reagan Administration, I was accused by
some conservative-libertarians of not “giving Reagan a chance,”
and of not looking at spending and taxation in real terms, or
in terms of rates of growth, or in terms of percentage of the
GNP. So now Ronnie has had his “chance” (as if I could have ever
deprived him of it!), and he suffers in every conceivable department.
No matter how you slice it, Reagan is a far worse spender and
taxer than his “big-spending” and much-reviled predecessor Jimmy

knows about the deficits. Reagan’s deficit is enormous, astronomical,
regardless how you look at it, and it bids fair to becoming permanent.
The response of conservative Republicans who had denounced evil
deficits all their lives? To adopt the insouciant attitude of
liberal Keynesianism: who cares about the deficit anyway? Power
indeed tends to corrupt.

gold standard was buried by an “impartial” Commission stacked
to the gunwales by bitterly anti-gold Keynesians and Friedmanites.
As for deregulation, it has never gotten anywhere, except for
those programs that the Carter Administration had already launched:
deregulation of communications, airlines and trucking. Farm price
supports are even worse than before, with the Reagan Administration
“creatively coming up with the idea of the government
giving the farmers back their own wheat and corn stored for years
idly in warehouses, in return for the farmers agreeing to cut
their acreage some more. Reagan, who obscenely calls himself the
intellectual disciple of Bastiat and Mises, has raised tariffs
and imposed import quotas like mad, including forcing the Japanese
to “voluntarily” cut their export of automobiles, imposing a quota
on the import of clothespins (presumably vital for national security),
and summarily raising the import tariff on heavy motorcycles by
1000% in order to save the bacon of Harley-Davidson.

aid, at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, continues to abound
anywhere and everywhere, subsidizing U.S. export firms and fastening
the shackles of various foreign states (mostly dictators) on the
backs of their hapless subjects. In addition, the ostentatiously
anti-Communist Reagan Administration bails out the Polish government
for the benefit of Chase Manhattan Bank and other bank-creditors,
and helps to reschedule such loans to keep propping up the heinous
Polish regime.

Liberties and ‘Social Issues’

conservatives are less interested in the free market than they
are in suppressing civil liberties, the Reagan Administration
has been predictably more diligent in pursuing Point 2 than Point
1 on the conservative agenda. The libertarian view is that the
government should have no right to pry into the lives of its citizens,
while government officials have no right to conduct their machinations
of power in secret, free from public knowledge. The Reagan Administration
has pursued the diametrically opposite, conservative agenda. The
FBI and CIA have been unleashed once again to do their dirty work,
and a law has been passed so restrictive on freedom of the press
that the publication of even publicly available documents embarrassing
to the government may be considered illegal. Under Reaganite law,
the press’s publication of the Pentagon Papers would now be illegal.
Reagan is now trying to push through an order imposing lifetime
censorship on all government officials, so that they could not,
after their return to private life, publish memoirs embarrassing
to the Reagan regime. The ability of citizens to uncover files
on themselves secretly collected by government snoops under the
Freedom of Information Act has now been severely restricted.

particularly vital interest to libertarians, compulsory draft
registration has been continued, and young resisters have been
thrown into jail. The snooping and harassing powers of the infamous
Internal Revenue Service have been strengthened, and tax resisters
have been jailed. One tax resister, Gordon Kahl, having been given
a sentence of five years’ probation, broke probation by daring
to attend a peaceful anti-tax meeting in North Dakota. For daring
to do so, he was ambushed by a posse of heavily armed sheriffs
and deputies; Kabl resisted arrest for the high crime of attending
an anti-tax gathering, and shot and killed several of the ambushing
officers. Widely hunted, this dangerous citizen was finally shot
down and burned to death by the polizei. Another victory for freedom
had been achieved by the Reagan Administration.

has been just as concerned about the civil liberties of foreign
residents as about citizens. He has tried hard to pass the Simpson-Mazzoli
bill, which would crack down on undocumented aliens, and eventually
force every worker to carry an identity card, so that employers
would be able to distinguish between legal (good) and illegal
(bad) workers. The Reagan Administration has been much tougher
than Carter on allowing foreigners to enter or to remain in the
Land of the Free. One of the abiding resentments against Fidel
Castro, for example, is that he sent several thousand dissidents
and other “criminals” to the U.S., and the U.S. has been desperately
trying to get Fidel to take them back. The latest Reagan atrocity
is that he is now cracking down on applications of Polish immigrants
and Solidarity members to enter or remain in the U.S. No less
than 85 per cent of Polish requests for asylum in the U.S. have
recently been rejected, and measures are underway to deport these
opponents of the Stalinist Jaruzelski regime back to Poland. In
a nice Orwellian touch appropriate to 1984, Verne Jervis, chief
spokesman for the U.S. Immigration Service, announced that this
rash of rejections of asylum represents “no policy change to be
tougher.” “No,” he added, “we are trying to reduce the backlog
by accelerated processing of the cases.” Indeed … It perhaps
never entered the head of Mr. Jervis that there is another way
of “accelerated processing”: namely letting these poor bastards
in and granting them asylum.

way Reagan has been handling the Polish Question is an apt summary
of his general modus operandi: gobs and gobs of impassioned
anti-Communist and especially anti-Soviet rhetoric; matched by
the reality of bailing out the Polish Communist government in
tandem with Wall Street banks; and keeping out and deporting back
out Polish Solidarity members who would like the opportunity of
tasting the freedom that we are always bleating about.

this record of success from their point of view, conservatives
have been unhappy about Reagan’s pragmatism on “social” issues.
He has been only paying lip service to their cherished goals of
outlawing abortion and putting prayer back into the public schools.
And while their other objectives of stamping out pornography,
prostitution and homosexuality are state rather than federal matters,
Reagan has not used his “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to take
the lead on these items on their theocratic agenda.


conservatives are most interested in the war-against-Communism
and Russia plank of their platform, it is understandable though
unfortunate that Ronald Reagan has given in least to pragmatism
in the foreign policy arena. One problem is that the Republican
“pragmatists” are not very dovish. Not only are the grand old
Republican isolationists of the pre-1955 era dead as a dodo, but
there are not even any dovish Establishment realists of the Cyrus
Vance or George
Ball variety, let alone such Grand Old Men as George Kennan. The
battle is between the hawks and the ultra-hawks. On the merely
hawk side are the Vietnam war criminal Henry Kissinger and his
many followers, war-mongers who, however, want to stop short at
the brink of a nuclear holocaust. This evil “pragmatism” is scorned
by the ultras, the Kirkpatricks, the Van Cleaves, the Aliens,
the Pipeses, all they who want to burn out the universe to the
furthest star.

the beginning of the Reagan Administration, I was trying to explain
the foreign policy stance of the Administration to my academic
colleagues, who are not familiar with any political movements
to the right of John Kenneth Galbraith. “Look,” I said, “you know
crazy Al Haig” (then Secretary of State and Kissinger protégé).
“Yes,” they nodded, shuddering. “Well, fellas,” I continued,
“I hate to say this, but crazy ‘I am in charge’ Al is the last
best hope for maintaining world peace.”

the first two years of his Administration, not much was done in
foreign policy, except of course engaging in mammoth increases
in military spending so that the Russkis can be wiped out 30 instead
of 20 times over (or whatever). In another nice Orwellian touch,
Reagan dubbed the latest U.S. missile of mass destruction “The
Peacemaker.” But for his first two years, Ronnie was concentrating
on domestic policy, and on selling out totally to the Establishment
statists. That mission accomplished, he has unfortunately turned
his attention to foreign policy and the Russki threat, and the
world had better hold on to its collective hat, at least until
Ronnie is hopefully deposed in January 1985.

lately it’s been boom, boom, boom and Lord knows where it will
stop. Stung by a Shiite car-bombing of the U.S. military in Beirut,
Ronnie retaliated by invading tiny little Grenada, a land of 100,000.
As a friend of mine put it, “Ronnie was anxious to Win One for
the Gipper, and so he picked a country he could – probably
– beat.” Even now, U.S. forces, supposedly in quickly
for a week, are only getting out after three months, and 300 soldiers
are remaining there permanently, half of them MP’s armed to the
teeth, but dubbed “non-combat” for Orwellian political purposes.
The whole operation was marked by egregious lies beamed out by
Reagan and his team, so much so that even Margaret Thatcher turned
appalled dove for the occasion. The U.S. officer in charge has
set up the dormant British Governor General, Sir Paul Scoon, as
the little dictator of the island, and democracy, it looks like,
will be a long time a-comin’ to Grenada. The only consolation
for the Grenadians is that, like the land in The Mouse that Roared,
the U.S. will be pouring many millions of dollars into that tight
little island for many years to come.

pragmatic hawks were all for the Grenadian invasion. What the
hell, there was no danger to the U.S. in that. Lebanon is a bit
of a stickier wicket, but even there Secretary of State Shultz,
scorned by the conservative ultras as a dove, has been whooping
it up for escalation. Unfortunately, not only the Republicans
but the Democrats – starting in the last two years of the
Carter Administration when the hawk Brzezinski won out over the
dove Vance – have bought the DeBorchgrave-Sterling-Moss hogwash
that every “terrorist” who bombs anything anywhere is controlled
by a mighty chain that leads to Khomeini’s Iran (who seems to
have overtaken Colonel Khaddafy, the previous right-wing bogey
man), and somehow through Khaddafy-Khomeini to the Satanic figures
who sit in the Kremlin. As a result, in the fevered American mind,
anyone who seems to be a “nut” and is also “anti-West” must be
a tool of Moscow. (It would be instructive if U.S. hawks received
some of the treatment that Khomeini metes out to Communists or
their fellow-travelers in Iran.)

so the U.S. sends the Marines, like a bull in a china shop, into
Lebanon, without knowing or caring about any of the dozens of
ethnic and religious groups that have been there, and have been
hating and battling each other (often with good reason) for literally
hundreds of years. We land there, and all of a sudden there are
these pesky folk with rifles, calling themselves Druze, or Shiites,
or Sunnis. Bunch of Arabs, undoubtedly all tools of Moscow. And
so when the U.S. Embassy or military headquarters is car-bombed,
the U.S. comes to the conclusion that whoever did it are “pro-Iran
Shiites.” Not being able to find the people responsible, the U.S.
engages in a Nazi-like spiral of ascribing collective guilt. If
these are “pro-Iran Shiites,” it must mean that the Iranian government
is behind the bombings, and by God, since they are, that means
that we keep bombing Syrian positions in Lebanon. Go figure that

then there are other nifty escalations in El Salvador, in trying
to bring down “covertly” the Nicaraguan regime, and in pouring
lots of troops into our new base in Honduras. All in all, there
are lots of hot spots that could spiral into a major war, and
in all of which the hawks and the ultra-hawks are racing each
other into seeing who can be more militarist. Only the cowardly
but healthy fear of another Vietnam or of a nuclear holocaust
among Congress and the country is restraining the Reagan Administration
from its mad-dog instincts toward all-out war.

is impossible to tell at this point which force is going to win
out. Someone once said that “Providence looks after fools and
the United States,” and perhaps the religious amongst us can boost
our cause with some fervent prayer. We’re going to need it.

Rhetoric versus Reality

can Reagan get away with the systematic betrayal of the conservative
agenda on domestic policy? Or, how can conservatives swallow the
free-market rhetoric while ignoring Reagan’s anti-free market
actions? One answer is that conservatives care more about foreign
policy, and the macho invasion of little Grenada has probably
won all the dissident conservatives back into Reagan’s camp. Just
before the invasion, the conservative weekly, Human Events,
was piteously begging Reagan to “please, Mr. President, give
us something in your policy that we can cheer about.” Well, they
got Grenada.

apart from that, Reagan has been a master at engineering an enormous
gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his actions. All politicians,
of course, have such a gap, but in Reagan it is cosmic, massive,
as wide as the Pacific Ocean. His soft-soapy voice appears perfectly
sincere as he spouts the rhetoric which he violates day-by-day.
He is, after all, an actor, trained to read his lines with brio
and sincerity. Perhaps that is why, as Alexander Cockburn wrote
recently, while Nixon knew that he was lying and appeared uncomfortable
when doing so, Reagan cannot tell the difference between the truth
and a lie. We can also note the illuminating insight of shrewd
old Republican Congressman Barber Conable (N.Y.).

1982, when conservatives were appalled at Reagan arguing with
equal moral fervor for higher taxes as he had not long
before for lower taxes, Conable lectured them on the facts of
life. (Reagan, however, didn’t admit they were higher taxes:
only “closing the loopholes,” and “revenue enhancement” –
a nice touch of creative Orwellian semantics.) Reagan, he pointed
out admiringly, has the amazing capacity to keep his mind in hermetically
sealed segments: Rhetoric, where he talks about getting rid of
big government; and reality, where he does just the opposite.
Conservatives just don’t seem to understand that.

as Conable’s point is, it does not go far enough. For the next
question is: if rhetoric in politics has no relation to reality,
why does Ronnie, or any other politician, bother with the rhetoric
at all? Why not just pursue the usual statist game without all
the lies? The reason, of course, is that it is the rhetoric that
sucks the conservative masses into voting for Ronald Reagan. And
so Reagan has cleverly put together a working coalition for Republican
victory: quasi-libertarian rhetoric, by which he sucks in the
dumbright conservative voting masses, and statist reality, by
which he preserves the rule by the special interest groups of
the centrist Establishment.

Reagan is even more curious a phenomenon. For he has the astounding
capacity, not just to continue the old rhetoric, but to levitate
above the action, to act as if he is not sitting in the Oval Office
at all, but is somehow still out there giving his little semi-libertarian,
semi-warmongering homilies, using his 3×5 cards with all the fake
little anecdotes that he has collected from dumbright sources
over the decades. And somehow he is able to convince the public
that he is not really in the White House, doing monstrous things
as Head Honcho of the most powerful State apparatus in the world;
but that he is still outside the State, a private citizen inveighing
and leading a crusade against Big Government.

so it goes – a winning combination that can only become unraveled
in the unlikely event that the conservative masses realize they
have been had, and “go on strike” and stop voting for Reagan.
And what of the man himself? What explains him? There are only
two logical explanations of the Reagan phenomenon. Either he is
a total cretin, a dimwit who really believes in his own lies and
contradictions. Or, he is a consummate and conniving politician,
the shrewdest manipulator of public opinion since his hero FDR.
Or is he some subtle combination of both? In any case, Reagan
continues to enjoy enormous personal popularity, the nice guy
and the soothing-syrup voice topped by that truly odious jaunty
smirk of self-satisfaction, that smile that says that he is objectively
lovable and that the public adulation is only his due.

what we have to worry about is a question far more serious than
the key to the puzzling Reagan personality. Not only as libertarians,
but still more as human beings and members of the human race,
we have to ask ourselves the question: Is There Life After Reagan?
The jury is still out on that one.

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