Just as Reagan Learned to Love Big Government
Many promoters of peace, while not necessarily supporting him, do hope that a Donald Trump presidency would curb or maybe even end the hyper-active militancy of the American empire. They see glimmers of promise in Trump’s foreign policy statements.
For example, while his Republican rivals vie with each other over who will most antagonize nuclear Russia, Trump talks about getting along with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump also veers off the GOP script when he characterizes the wars in Iraq and Libya as “yuge” mistakes (if not monumental crimes).
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with the rest of the world?” he recently asked. Trump often sounds like an non-interventionist, and many hope he will govern like one too.
Of course it’s all just campaign talk, which is never to be trusted. However, some of the cautiously hopeful seem to suspend skepticism in this case on the grounds that, unlike most peace-talking candidates, Trump is genuinely “anti-establishment,” and so is more likely to chart an independent course as commander-in-chief.
A Republican “maverick” is nothing new; many political insiders campaign as outsiders. What makes Trump seem like the real deal is the establishment’s (and especially the neocons’) seething hatred of him. If he makes Bill Kristol panic, the thinking goes, Trump must be an actual threat to perpetual war, or at least to the neocons’ sway over U.S. foreign policy.
Trump can afford to thumb his nose at the establishment because for now he doesn’t need it. Thanks to his own great wealth, he doesn’t need campaign funds from Goldman Sachs, Raytheon, or Sheldon Adelson; neither does he need guidance from the think tanks financed by such oligarchs. And thanks to his celebrity, his mastery of Twitter, and his uncanny knack for using plain speech to appeal directly to the American masses, he doesn’t need friendly coverage from Fox News or The Washington Post.
And yet, even while being bombarded by invective from most of the establishment, we find Trump surrounding himself with establishment advisors. As Chris Rossini recently wrote at The Ron Paul Liberty Report, Trump’s circle now includes such mainstream warmongers as Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, Richard Haass (current president of the Council on Foreign Relations), and Senator Jeff Sessions. Trump has even identified John Bolton, an Iraq War architect and close ally of the neocons, as a “go to” expert for advice on national security.
And, recently Trump has been striking a conciliatory tone toward the Republican establishment. In his speech following his Super Tuesday victories, Trump stressed that:
“…I’m a unifier. I know people are going to find that a little bit hard to believe, but believe me, I am a unifier. Once we get all of this finished, I’m going to go after one person, that’s Hillary Clinton…”
If Trump secures the nomination, will these gestures culminate in a complete rapprochement between the populist rebel and the Republican establishment? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The National Review crowd bewails Trump’s insurgency as a portent of death for their precious conservative movement and the “party of Reagan.” Yet, it was once the self-styled “conservatives,” including Ronald Reagan and earlier generations of National Review editorialists, who were the populist upstarts against the Republican leadership of the time.
In a 2010 article for The American Spectator, Jeffrey Lord characterized Reagan’s reception by that leadership as follows:
“They didn’t like him.
To be more precise, they thought him an extremist, un-electable, an ultra-right wing nut, dumb, ignorant and, more to the point, not one of their crowd. (…)
The “crowd”” was The Establishment. The Establishment as it appeared in all of its various incarnations during Ronald Reagan’s political life. First it was the California Republican Party Establishment. Then the Liberal Establishment. Followed by the national Republican Party Establishment. Next up was The Eastern Establishment. Last but not least was the Washington Establishment.”
In every political contest during his ascent, Reagan was on the “anti-establishment” side: from his 1964 high profile speech supporting Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy, to his two landslide elections as governor of California in 1966 and 1970, to his almost-successful bid to defeat sitting president Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, and to his victory over establishment man George H.W. Bush for the 1980 Republican nomination.
Like Trump’s, Reagan’s rise was fueled by popular discontent with the direction of the country and popular disaffection with its current leadership. Like Trump, Reagan tapped that disgruntlement by appealing directly to the masses using the newly dominant media technology of the time (for Reagan it was television). And like Trump, Reagan was castigated by the political and media establishments as a demagogue, a dangerous extremist, and a loose cannon.
But then a funny thing happened on the last stretch of road leading to the White House. After securing the Republican nomination in 1980, Reagan suddenly became, as Trump would put it, a “unifier.”
In his primary campaign, Reagan had vociferously denounced the Trilateral Commission, daring to call out that power elite institution by name. But, as Murray Rothbard recalled years later, the denunciations suddenly stopped shortly before the Republican Convention. This signaled a rapprochement between Reagan and the Rockefeller-led Eastern establishment, which, as Rothbard put it in his inimitable style, was:
“…symbolized by Reagan’s post-convention jaunt to shake the hand of David Rockefeller, and more importantly by Reagan’s choice of George Herbert Walker Bush, Trilat, for vice president. That was the moment when knowledgeable observers of the power elite scene knew that the so-called “Reagan Revolution” was already down the drain. From then on, it was all playacting, the only skill at which Reagan has always excelled.”
Indeed, Reagan continued to playact in office as a champion for the little guy against the powers that be. But his actual policies were quite satisfactory to the Republican establishment he had ostensibly vanquished.
Reagan’s “conservatism” was a blend of Cold War militancy, cultural traditionalism, and quasi-libertarian pro-market/anti-government rhetoric. Thus his rise to power was attended by an entourage of heretofore-excluded neocons, “moral majority” types, and free marketeers.
This platform boosted Reagan’s anti-establishment bona fides, because it ran counter to the policies of the Republican establishment at the time, which were perceived by the conservative movement as too appeasing toward the Soviets, too culturally liberal, and too big-government domestically.
Reagan’s establishment critics particularly disliked his “libertarian-ish” plank. For example, in the 1980 primary, Bush derided Reagan’s penchant for tax cuts as “voodoo economics.”
They needn’t have worried. As Rothbard makes plain in his must-read article, “Ronald Reagan: An Autopsy,” the Gipper failed to deliver on all of his small-government promises. Under Reagan, taxes actually rose, no Federal departments were abolished, government swelled, and the national debt tripled. Even the energy and transport deregulation he is often credited with was actually passed during the Carter administration.
While Reagan didn’t meet any of his promises, he did follow through on many of his threats. The ramped up militancy did come, not only toward the Soviet Union, but in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere (although this was later tempered by Reagan’s reinstatement of detente). And his cultural conservatism expressed itself in his administration’s puritanical crackdowns on drugs, smoking, drinking, and pornography.
This record supports Scott Horton’s practice of assuming that a politician will follow through on all of his horrible promises, and none of the good ones. This is such a useful rule of thumb, we might even want to call it “Horton’s Law.”
Establishment Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower accelerated the arms race with Russia and let his CIA run rampant. So did anti-establishment Reagan.
Establishment Republican president Richard Nixon (a protege of the Rockefeller-oriented Dulles brothers) empowered the Khmer Rouge and started the Drug War. Anti-establishment Reagan supported the Khmer Rouge and ramped up the Drug War.
Whatever his personal ideological inclinations were, it was virtually inevitable that Reagan would make his peace with the establishment and pursue their basic policy agenda. He may not have needed the establishment’s support to win the White House, but once there, his administration did need that support to rule. Without the cooperation of the establishment-directed Deep State, the Reagan administration would have had no real grasp on the levers of power.
Similarly, while Trump might be able to seize the presidency in spite of establishment opposition, he will never be able to wield it without establishment support. And since war is the health of the State (as well as the health of war profiteers), one of the power elite’s non-negotiable demands is the perpetuation of the empire and its wars.
Moreover, if you remove any rose-colored glasses and look at the entirety of Trump’s foreign policy statements, it is plain to see that he is both a mixed bag and a flip-flopper on the subject. This makes it all the more likely that he will eventually bend a knee to the imperialist powers that be.
So don’t be surprised if Trump ends up naming an establishment warmonger as his running mate. And don’t hold out hope that Trump will make good on his isolationist rhetoric, any more than Reagan walked his small government talk. Remember Horton’s Law, and expect Trump to renege on his peaceful promises while following through on his authoritarian, police state, and protectionist threats.
Also note that Reagan, for all his anti-establishment bluster, left the Republican establishment and its agenda quite intact. All he did was inject its leadership with new blood (i.e., the neocons, the moral majority, etc) and slap fresh branding on it (his own name and the “conservative” label). Don’t expect much more than that from Trump either.
Sure, some of the more snobbish moderates and the more fanatic neocons may jump the GOP ship, just as some establishment Republicans chose to back John Anderson’s independent run instead of Reagan in the 1980 general election. But most will hold their nose and get with the new marketing scheme. Meet the grand new party, same as the grand old party.
Such phony establishment “deaths” at the hands of “grassroots” outsiders followed by “rebirths” (rebranding) are an excellent way for moribund oligarchies to renew themselves without actually meaningfully changing. Each “populist” reincarnation of the power elite is draped with a freshly-laundered mantle of popular legitimacy, bestowing on it greater license to do as it pleases. And nothing pleases the State more than war.
Yes it’s fun to watch Trump troll the media, taunt the neocons, and humiliate heirs of political dynasties, just as it was probably fun to watch Reagan excoriate the Trilateral Commission. But don’t get so caught up in electoral Wrestlemania that you start fantasizing that yet another media celebrity seeking power will be some great agent of positive change. It didn’t happen with Ronald; it won’t happen with Donald. There may be ego-bruising and body slams during the campaign wrestling match. But afterward in the locker room, most of the theatrical combatants will make nice and perhaps even make dinner plans. Indeed Ronald Reagan not only shook David Rockefeller’s hand after the 1980 Republican Convention, but had him over for a dinner party.
There will be no peace through politics: not even populist, anti-establishment politics. Popular disaffection can stall the war machine, but only if it is channeled toward motivating less engagement with the State and its rituals, not more. The last thing the cause of peace needs is yet another charismatic leader who stirs among the masses new false hope that energetically supporting the right imperial commander-in-chief (one who is really looking out for them) is what will bring back “Morning in America” and “Make America Great Again.”