A Party Without a Past

Republican presidential hopefuls, (L-R) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate Donald Trum
Republican presidential hopefuls, (L-R) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participate in the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump stepped into a campaign hornet's nest as his rivals collectively turned their sights on the billionaire in the party's second debate of the 2016 presidential race. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

They trooped to Simi Valley like pilgrims to a shrine. The second GOP presidential debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Library in order for all the candidates to genuflect at the altar of the Last Great Republican President.

It was easy to notice that most of those on the stage had only a wobbly grasp of who Reagan actually was or what he actually did. No mention of Reagan the Raiser of Taxes. Or Reagan the Creator of Massive Deficits. Nary a word about Reagan, Denier of HIV/AIDS. Reagan, who left office almost 30 years ago, has become a blank screen onto which Republican politicians can project almost anything they like. No mention either that Reagan's approval ratings when he rode off into the sunset were under 50 percent.

This isn't the first time a party has engaged in this kind of ancestor worship of course. The GOP lived for a generation at least as The Party of Lincoln, and "waving the bloody shirt" of the Civil War was a central campaign tactic. In 1948 the Democratic Party, despairing of Harry Truman's declining popularity, campaigned by playing recordings of Franklin Roosevelt's old speeches, never mind that he had been dead for three years. (Ronald Reagan campaigned for Truman that year as it happens. No one at the GOP debate mentioned that either.)

The difference nowadays is that the current Republican party doesn't simply misunderstand Reagan -- it has no conception of any history at all. Individual GOP politicians might be unhinged, as several have been described, but the entire party is now unmoored from any understanding of the past.

Since 1896 there have been 11 Republican presidents who have occupied the White House for a combined 64 years. But no one in today's GOP wants to claim the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt or George H. W. Bush. Dwight Eisenhower would be polling behind Rand Paul were he running for the GOP nomination right now. Karl Rove admired William McKinley but only as a political tactician -- McKinley promoted high protective tariffs, not the sort of policy that would pass the free-trade litmus test today.

This collective case of amnesia does not just suggest that GOP luminaries slept through their history classes. More importantly, the absence of any historical perspective helps explain what strikes many of us as the utter incoherence of the party's discourse at the moment.

Whatever their particular differences, all Republicans candidates, even those not named Trump, promise to make America great again. That implies, of course, that America is in decline now. That narrative of decline is an historical argument: We were great once, but we aren't any more. But that declension story begs a basic question: when, exactly, was America better than it is now? And what, precisely, defines the greatness we have lost?

This is where the history-challenged Republican candidates, and the party as a whole, begin to stumble. So, for example, as GOP leaders fulminated about the nuclear negotiations with Iran they suggested that the United States is now "weak" where once it was "strong" and could throw its weight around anywhere across the globe and achieve whatever results we wanted.

This is, of course, historical nonsense. The record of American interventionism since 1945 is checkered at best -- from Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, to Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s, to Central America in the 1980s. No one in Simi Valley mentioned the phrase "Iran-Contra" during the debate, though that Constitutional crisis helped drive down Reagan's poll numbers.

Likewise, the economic lessons of the past are those the current Republican Party does not want to learn. The golden age of the American middle class -- say between 1945-1975 -- was also a period dominated by liberal economic ideas: a regulated economy, taxes higher than they are today, public investments and the like. Reagan, of course, presided over the triumph of the economic orthodoxy that replaced the liberal consensus and which has given us the pillage-and-burn capitalism we enjoy today.

For many of the current crop of GOP contenders, however, the issues that drive them aren't economic or foreign. They are the social changes that have taken place over the past half-century. These people are still fighting over the 1960s -- women's rights, civil rights, gay rights... it's all wrong! They have forgotten that prominent Republicans were once at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and women's rights. Prescott Bush, after all, Republican Senator, father of a Republican president and grandfather of another, served as treasurer of Planned Parenthood in the 1940s and Barry Goldwater became something of a gay rights activist late in his life.

Needless to say, people who are so ignorant and incurious about the past have a shrunken capacity to analyze the present and plan for the future. Today's GOP is filled with members who dismiss science when they find those truths inconvenient. The Republican denial of history may prove even more reckless to the nation's politics.

Steven Conn is W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.