Battle Of The Cults
Far be it from me to cite The Columbia Bugle, the Trump-supporter on Twitter most known for posting clips of media agreeing with him — but when that man is right, he is right. While making fun of Paul Ryan’s recent plea to the Republican Party to not be a cult around Trump, Bugle responded by posting a clip of Ryan mentioning Ronald Reagan seventeen times in that same speech. The clip, which has been viewed nearly a quarter-million times at time of writing, makes a rather solid point: Paul Ryan is not against cults of personality, he just wants said cult of personality to be around a politician he likes. Or, as Pedro L. Gonzalez put it in the populist-right journal The American Spectator:
After whispering a prayer to St Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan rose to his feet, solemnly kissed his bible, Atlas Shrugged, and gave a speech at the Gipper’s presidential library in Simi Valley about the perils of personality cults.
Of course, everyone has mocked Reagan’s cult of personality among Republicans, many of whom talk about Reagan as a Christ-like figure who is to be worshiped. The 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism — a film about the Fox News Channel and how it effects media and politics — made note that every 2/6, the birthday of Ronald Reagan, Fox News would sent a cameraman down to his library in California where he would record from dawn until dusk. Will Bunch’s book Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion Of The Reagan Legacy has multiple chapters on Republicans using “Reagan” in replacement for an actual argument. In fact, during the 2008 Republican Primary — while George W. Bush was horribly unpopular — Republicans spent months trying to out Reagan each other instead of actually coming up with policy that would help the country. (It says something that their 2008 nomination, John McCain, was a moderate who was most well known for his occasional breaking with the Republican Party. Of course, he then spent his entire 2008 campaign acting like the same stereotypical Republican he once despised.)
Going back to Tear Down This Myth, it makes the point that Ronald Reagan’s name has been put on so much — despite being such a recent President — that it makes sense why some would assume he was an amazing man:
Indeed, even though it’s been just a few short years since Reagan joined Gipp and departed this world, it seems as if one could drive from coast to coast on one long Ronald Reagan Boulevard, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, especially across the hot asphalt of the Sun-belt, where Reagan and his acolytes worked so hard to build up a permanent GOP majority. You could start your tour down the Ronald Reagan Freeway, the main highway leading out of Simi Valley. The first stops could be the Ronald Reagan Elementary School, one down in the Central Valley in Bakersfield — billed as home of “The Patriots” — and one in the Valley town of Chowchills, where the new structure with a bust of the fortieth President was dedicated in September 2007, with the necessary fanfare of a military helicopter bearing an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol. Be sure to stop in the small town of Temecula, where a sports park that Reagan mentioned in a speech to raise money for the 1984 Olympics is now named for the late president, or at Ronald Reagan Park in Diamond Bar in Orange County, the heart of his political base. Another small shrine erected at the time of his passing is the Ronald Reagan Community Center in El Cajon, California, a small community near San Diego that Reagan apparently never visited, even in eight years as the state’s governor. The local newspaper did note a connection, however: Nancy Reagan showed up once to select an Olaf Wieghorst painting for her husband’s birthday. Said a glib archivist from the Reagan Library at the time of the 2004 renaming: “I don’t know if he’s ever been to El Cajon, but I do know he set policies as governor that affected El Cajon and its citizens.”
If you’re a parent who doesn’t buy into the Reagan myth, it’s likely your kid rides the bus on Ronald Reagan Street to Ronald Reagan Elementary/Middle/High School, all while thinking you’re insane for your thoughts on President #40. (Luckily, the plan to put Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore has thus far been unsuccessful.) Grover Norquist, who first rose to popularity through leading the Republican backlash against George H.W. Bush’s 1991 tax increase, founded the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project shorty after Reagan left office, with the goal of putting something named after Reagan in every county in the United States. From their website:
In addition to ensuring that every February 6th is known as “Ronald Reagan Day,” we work to encourage the naming of landmarks, buildings, roads, etc. after Ronald Wilson Reagan. We continue compiling a list of Reagan dedications that remind American society of the life and legacy of President Reagan. Each one of these dedications serve as a teaching moment for those who were not yet alive during his presidency or to grant those who remember him with the opportunity to reflect on his accomplishments. Whether it be the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Indianapolis, IN or Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, VA; each and every dedication will serve as a teaching moment for generations to come. Our goal is to eventually see a statue, park, or road named after Reagan in all 3,140 counties in the United States. The first project that RRLP worked to name after Ronald Reagan was National Airport, in 1998 renamed Ronald Reagan National Airport.
This is especially funny because many Republicans have no idea what Reagan actually did. In 2014, The Daily Show ran two segments on Republicans asking President Obama to act more like Ronald Reagan in response to the crisis in Ukraine and Russia. So, Jon Stewart showed what Ronald Reagan actually did; he funded people he later became the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, sold weapons to Saddam Hussein, and had some trouble with the idea of cutting a vacation short.
Reagan did many other things Republican today would never consider; he signed amnesty for illegal-immigrants who came here before 1982, he socialized emergency room treatment and made it so they could not turn patients away regardless of if they’re unable to pay, he signed legislation that banned automatic weapons, and he was a massive advocate for an end to nuclear weapons. He was also a firm believer in diplomacy, and it’s widely believed his willingness to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev is what caused Gorbachev to embrace more free-market policies near the end of the Soviet Union.
Could you imagine Donald Trump saying this?
I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.
With that said, some Republican commentators have tried to justify Reagan’s less conservative actions. In 2015, Bill O’Reilly published a book called Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency, which argued all the “bad things” Reagan did was the result of early onset Alzheimer caused by the bullet John Hinckley Jr. fired at him on 3/30/1981. However, this book caused controversy when George Will wrote a Washington Post column criticizing it, saying in an interview with O’Reilly that the book was the work of liberals who want to discredit Reagan. (George Will is also married to Mari Maseng Will, who started her career in politics as an advisor to — you guessed it — Ronald Reagan.)
Even though Will has more facts on his side than O’Reilly, it’s still easy to see his dislike of the book has a little to do with its implication that his idol could do anything wrong. In the article, Will writes:
Reagan was shot on the 70th day of his presidency. In the next 2,853 days, he produced an economic boom and the Cold War’s endgame.
Actually, the Reagan economy grew at a sluggish yearly rate of just under 2.5%. 1982, the year after Reagan entered office, saw a worse recession than anything seen under Carter and an unemployment rate of over 10%. As for the Cold War, well that’s a complicated conversation but the internal corrupt within the Soviet Union combined with the conflict between the Marxist hardliners and the young and flexible Mikhail Gorbachev would have done the Soviet Union in, Reagan or no Reagan. Reagan’s defenders often like to point to the fall of the Berlin Wall as something Reagan did, but that was the stupidity of the Soviet Union combined with the desire of unification by both East and West Germans than anything Reagan did. (Adam Ruins Everything did a great segment on this, but long story short, the wall was going to come down because the people of East Germany were sick of communism.)
It’s likely Paul Ryan thinks he’s going to have a sympathetic media tour, much like John Boehner recently had, and he is almost certainly correct in that assumption. However, as the media tells us that Paul Ryan has broken with Trump (something he waited until after Trump left office to do, might I add) I imagine nobody in the media will ask him this rather simple question: What separates the Reagan policies Ryan loves so much from the Trump policies Paul Ryan hates? It’s likely Paul Ryan himself cannot answer that question, because while in Congress he voted with Donald Trump 100% of the time.
It cannot be on immigration, considering Ryan voted against the DREAM Act. It cannot be on the issue of guns, because Ryan has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.
But again, all of this assumes Ryan actually likes the real Ronald Reagan — you know, the one who President of the United States from 1/20/1981 until 1/20/1989 — and not the cartoon character version who was best friends with his other hero, Ayn Rand.
Actually, it’s funny Rand is Ryan’s other hero, because Rand herself was not a fan of Reagan. In her final public appearance in October 1981, she said the following about Ryan’s lord and savior:
What do I think of President Reagan? The best answer to give would seem to be “but I don’t think of him, and the more I see the less I think.” I did not vote for him, nor for anyone else, and events seem to justify me.
Rand, a strong atheist who famously told William Buckley “you’re far too smart to believe in God,” could not stand Regan’s buddying around with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, along with other religious-right/Moral Majority members.
Rand was also pro-choice, writing in 1964 (nine years before Roe v. Wade):
Abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is strongly pro-life. In 2009, Ryan even co-sponsored the Sanctity of Life Act, which would ban courts from ruling on the issue of abortion.
Of course, Ayn Rand’s Objectivity movement has been criticized as a cult dating back to its beginning. Talk show host Dick Cavett once recalled this incident when he tried to get Ayn Rand on his television program:
She was supposed to be on my show; I was kind of sorry she wasn’t, because I was kind of laying for her. I did not succumb, as a kid, to being enthused by Ayn Rand, and that sense of power, as every kid was at one time until they outgrew it. The old bag sent over a list of fifteen conditions for appearing with me, or for appearing with anyone, I guess. One of them was, “There will be no disagreeing with Ms. Rand’s philosophy”… I wrote at the bottom of the list, to be sent back to her, “There will be no Ms. Rand, either.”
Even other libertarians, most notably Murray Rothbard, hated Ayn Rand and her cult of followers. And make no mistake, it was a cult. When Whittaker Chambers wrote an article trashing Atlas Shrugged for National Review in 1957, Rand responded by banning any mention of him and her lectures. Although some libertarians admired her, Ludwig Von Mises even wrote this to her in the late 1950s:
You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.
Here’s Nathan Robinson explaining Rand’s cult in Current Affairs:
Reading Jennifer Burns’ excellent biography Goddess of the Market, one is struck by how lonely, even sad, Rand’s life was. At first, her certainty in her own rightness led her to relish intellectual debate. Eventually, however, it led her to retreat into a private bubble. She built a small cult around herself, tolerating absolutely no dissent among her followers. This made sense: after all, if her views were all the product of objective rationality, disagreement was illogical. She’d probably say something about how the negation of reason was the negation of life, or whatever, as she explained why it was illegitimate to disagree with her about anything.
Goddess of the Market makes Rand seem pitiable, especially later in life. Her long affair with a young acolyte, Nathaniel Branden, ended in vicious acrimony when he lost sexual interest in her. Her husband, Frank O’Connor, was devoted but somewhat of an ineffectual daydreamer, exactly the opposite of the male heroes from her books. She constantly tried to portray her life as consistent with her philosophy (“I have always lived my life by the philosophy presented in my books — and it has worked for me”), even when it was clearly shambolic. (Editions of The Ayn Rand Newsletter were even later than copies of Current Affairs, a summer 1973 issue having finally come out in spring 1974.)
Again, I highly doubt Paul Ryan knows any of this, because Paul Ryan views these people the same way a comic-book fanboy views his favorite characters. Paul Ryan once said:
The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.
However, his opinion on social issues would horrify Ayn Rand if she were alive today. While Ryan did write the famous memo encouraging the Republican Party to stop focusing on social issues after the 2012 Presidential Election, that doesn’t change the fact that Ryan still agrees with Republicans on all of the social issues. Ryan is not some brave libertarian conservative standing up against a cult, he is a cult member begging the Republican Party to leave their cult and join him. Paul Ryan is playing “my cult is better than your cult,” and nothing more.