Are we still in the "Age of Reagan"? The election of Barack Obama 20 years after Reagan left office appeared to have closed that chapter in American politics. The American people, and the Electoral College for that matter, in that election put the first African American into the White House and, probably just as significant when looking at the historical arch of American politics, the first true left-of-center politician since perhaps LBJ.
While Reagan embraced conservative values intent on restricting access to abortions and defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, Obama essentially used a wrecking ball to destroy the "family values" conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s through supporting increased access to abortions and later same-sex marriage. But Obama, for all he did for progressive values, just couldn't close the lid on the Reagan Era, which likely would have required either the subsequent election of another true progressive POTUS or a majority of progressives on the United States Supreme Court.
Iwan Morgan, Professor of U.S. Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London, has been teaching and writing about American politics from across the pond for over 40 years. His just released book, "Reagan: American Icon", argues that "Reagan would probably not have felt at home in the polarized partisan environment of the twenty-first century" and that although "both Reagan and Trump ran against government and promised to return America to greatness ... Reagan grounded his appeal in his long-espoused ideas about freedom" while "Trump lacks a philosophical core."
"The two also differed diametrically in their appreciation of how demography was reshaping the electorate," Morgan writes. "Just before winning a respectable 34 percent share of their votes in 1984, Reagan remarked: 'Hispanics are already Republican. They just don't know it yet.' ... Trump, by contrast, seemed intent on causing Latinos offense with his tough stance against renewed amnesty and deterring illegals from entering the United States."
Morgan, like many who took on Reagan before him, struggled with where he stands not so much on the Reagan presidency (which he calls "consequential"), but on his own opinion of Ronald Reagan. "More often than not, biographers develop a more positive view of their subject as a consequence of engaging in detailed study of a life," Morgan admits. "Accordingly, this volume comes to conclusions that once would have surprised the author, who shared the conventional left-liberal suspicion of Reagan's competence and conservatism in the 1980s." Morgan continued,
The Reagan this biography portrays is complex rather than one-dimensional; someone who benefited from having a variety of careers before entering politics; a deep thinker if not an original one; a conservative but also a pragmatist; a committed anti-communist who was dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons; a passionate advocate of freedom who aligned the United States with repressive regimes for Cold War advantage in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; and an eternal optimist about his country's future who could not empathize with disadvantaged groups needing the assistance of government to get by in 1980s America.
Morgan acknowledges that there were areas that Reagan came up short, his response to the AIDS crisis and out-of-control defense spending to name just two, but spends so little time on those subjects that readers without a fine-tooth comb are likely to completely overlook the critiques. Morgan, for example, notes that Reagan "did not always live up to the ideals he espoused" but quickly lets him off the hook because, he writes, "perfection is not a human quality." Perfection may not be a human quality, but it is precisely the willingness to excuse imperfection from our leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, that opens the door for imperfections to fester into bigger problems, like sending American Marines into Beirut in the early 1980s without a clear mission.
Historians looking at the 2016 American election may very well determine that the election turned on values. Reagan, for Morgan, became an American icon by "giving voice to his nation's best values ... the fundamental qualities of decency, optimism, and belief in individual potential inculcated in the small-town Midwest of the early twentieth century to the White House of the late twentieth century." If that's the case, the values that won out in 2016 surely were not those of Reagan's childhood or even likely the values of traditional conservatives. In fact, it's not even clear what values Trump supporters share which may explain why Trump's election could end up keeping Reagan-era conservatism alive just long enough for Trump to be at the center of the last chapter in the Age of Reagan.
Highly recommended, "Reagan: American Icon" turns a complex subject into a readable narrative suitable for anyone interested in the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan.