During the Republican debate, various candidates invoked Ronald Reagan in his own temple. One could ask whether Mr Reagan is an effective bridge between the radical right of the 1950s and the radical right of today or whether he would be considered too moderate for the Republican red meat eaters of 2015/16?
Mr Reagan talked a radical game but in practice his policy enactments ignored the religious extremist segment of the Republican Party. An advocate of “freedom from government,” he barely pared the size of the national budget. He was more showmanship (see the carnival barkerish episode at the Berlin Wall) than substance. It’s very likely he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease as early as his first term in office. In his book Ronald Reagan, The Movie, Michael Rogin documents the numerous instances in which Reagan confused the experiences of his film characters with his own life. Reagan’s honouring of SS officers at the Bitburg cemetery bespeaks, if nothing else, early onset moral dementia. Reagan’s second term was a disaster, overwhelmed by the spectacle of the Iran-Contra scandal which made Oliver North (who fell on his sword for the “Gipper”) and Fawn Hall (the chief document shredder) household names. However, conservative pundits and their financers engaged in a campaign to make-over Reagan into a conservative FDR (whom Reagan had channeled and distorted in a 1987 speech on the “four freedoms”). The most effective — albeit empirically bogus — claim on Reagan’s behalf was that he had single-handedly ended the Cold War.
Reagan’s radicalism was more apparent in his effective demonisation of his political opponents. He was the first President to bring public political discourse down to the level of a street brawl. He activated and legitimated the most violent passions within an already deranged right-wing political culture. He was the House Un-American Activities Committee without the committee. If Reagan had not existed, there would be no Fox News, no Donald Trump, no Sarah Palin. This is his lasting legacy.