From Morning to Mourning in America

My “Dear John” Letter to Reaganism

August 11, 2020

I almost lost a friend.

In these contentious times—when protests, a global pandemic, and an economic depression have us all on edge—the last thing anyone needs is a Twitter blowout.

I became guilty of something I charge my children with: over-relying on forms of communication that lack facial expression, tone of voice, context, and often, courtesy.

“Pick up the phone,” I tell them.

Ah, how I wish I had.

Instead, I lost my patience—not with my friend, exactly, but with what I believed he represented at that moment: equivocation about our current president, He Who Shall Not be Named.  

***

My decades-long friend is a Republican former mayor and university President whose opinion I value and respect. I admire his public service career.

Over the years, he and I have enjoyed some goodhearted political exchanges—we agree as much as, if not more than, we disagree.

My accomplished compatriot hails from a long line of prominent Republican leaders who cut their political teeth while coming of age on the University of Florida campus.

I got to Gainesville a few years later than he did, where I learned quickly how to stand my rhetorical ground amid young, white, fraternity men who worshipped Ronald Reagan.

***

Reagan was a masterful orator who inspired pride in an entire generation of young Republicans. The linguist George Lakoff characterizes Reagan as a strong father figure who leaned on rhetoric meant to imbue a sense of safety, righteousness, and cultural “propriety.”

Picture a TV commercial for Belk department stores, with preppy-clad families enjoying a picnic in the Southern spring sunshine.

Perhaps they’ve just come from church.

Perhaps Dad will enjoy an after-lunch round of golf.

The family is safe from harm, the outdoor scenery is well landscaped, and the picnic, abundant.

The voiceover in the ad crowds out whatever sounds might emanate—we imagine children’s laughter as they tussle with their fathers—but we know for sure there’s no rap music.

I love Belk. Belk has great sales. I shop at Belk, and my aim is not to pick at them.

Their ads are an illustrative fit, however, for the feeling I imagine Reagan conjured among his followers.

***

Belk is as apt to feature Black people as often as white people in their commercials now. On its face, there is nothing endemically white or Black about a portrait of middleclass “family values.”

Reagan used buzz words, however, designed to signify the exclusionary whiteness of his vision of “American family values.”

At a time when our nation was still busing for desegregation, during a stump speech in Mississippi, he made an appeal to “states’ rights.” He was invoking code for the rejection of federal court orders mandating school integration under Brown and other cases.

Even our current democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, opposed busing in the Senate in the 1970s and 80s. Senator Kamala Harris took him to task on the subject in a primary debate last year, insisting, by way of preface, Biden was no racist.

I wonder whether she would extend the same generosity to former President Ronald Reagan.

***

In addition to invoking the racial trope, “welfare queen” in other speeches, Reagan further restricted his vision of “family values” to straight people, with a preference for evangelical churchgoers.

After Reagan’s politics married Jerry Falwell’s religion circa 1980, the “Moral Majority” was born.

Reagan declared his era as “Morning in America.”

Soon, the Reagan-Bush years spawned radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s success, with all the misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, and climate change denial Limbaugh could cultivate. The Rush Limbaugh Show’s 1988 launch into national radio syndication followed the repeal of the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987.

The rest, as they say, is history.

***

In her August 4 essay, Washington Post columnist Laura Ellyn Smith explicates anti-intellectualism in the South.

She draws a bright, straight line between the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee and the anti-science, anti-mask-wearing sentiments now sweeping the Bible Belt.

Sweeping along with them is COVID-19.

As a liberal born and raised in the South, I was taught to respect the salt-of-the-earth opinions of literalist religious believers—unlike that rude, leftist talk show host, Bill Maher. I was taught, too, to respect the opinions of those with whom I disagree.

Respect does not include, however, tolerating racism under the guise of “family values;” nor does it entail abiding misogyny and homophobia under the guise of “religious freedom.”

Respect certainly does not mean indulging the ignorance sold by abusive demagogues as “political difference of opinion.”

***

To borrow from Isaac Asimov, we have entered an era in which some define democracy as, “My magical thinking is equal to your expertise.”

Living in a state whose Department of Health denies important epidemiology guidelines to our public schools, as Coronavirus deaths are peaking, is unacceptable.

Ignoring climate change as a matter of policy is, in my opinion, a sin against God.

Disparaging educated people because they tell us things we don’t want to hear is neither religious, cultural, nor political.

It’s just plain stupid.

***

While Limbaugh et al might persuade his listeners that “East Coast elites” want to run their lives, what he’s really rejecting isn’t “liberal ideology.”

He’s rejecting the idea that any of us should become specialists. God forbid anyone should defer to anyone else’s expertise on anything.  

I don’t fix my own car. While I might ask questions to avoid getting ripped off, I wouldn’t dream of micromanaging the mechanics tasked with tuning up my automobile.

I also don’t grow my family’s food, replace rooves, or perform surgery.

We are shifting, in our highly complex society, away from old, false hierarchies.

Collectively, we’re struggling to give up the vestiges of white supremacy, misogyny, and, to the extent it seeks to oppress, fear-based religion.

While we may no longer afford automatic deference to white men on the basis of their whiteness or their maleness, we are still called to defer to people who know more than we do on certain subjects, in certain circumstances.  

It makes no more sense for HWSNBN to flout expert medical advice than it does for me to fly a plane, or perform a tonsillectomy.

He Who Shall Not Be Named deliberately conflates cognitive error with “political difference of opinion” to perpetuate his own power, i.e., to keep himself in office.

Staying in office, after all—short of resigning and obtaining a presidential pardon—is the only thing likely to keep him out of prison.

***

The magical thinking now pervading our society; the wholesale rejection of reality, science, and the rule of law; the sh*tshow that we once called “the White House;” all of it stands on the shoulders of Republicans who benefitted from the “cultural politics” package they’ve been selling to white, Evangelical voters for the past forty years.

 Amalgamating fear-based religiosity, sexism, racism, otherism, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism—all for political gain—became the hot asphalt that paved the way for the man who tells people on national TV, in a time of global pandemic, to drink bleach.

(Go back further in my blog and you’ll find more on gun mania, which is also part of the “package” sold to the voters who put the bleach-drinker-in-chief in office.)

***

My republican friends would tell me there’s more to their political conservatism than the things I’ve mentioned in this essay.

But with HWSNBN sucking up all the air in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, it’s incumbent on them—Republicans—to tell the rest of us what those things might be.

Absent their clear pronouncements, the definition of Republicanism defaults to the autocratic antics of He Who Shall Not Be Named.

The silence of his fellow party members, aka his enablers, has become deafening.

Fortunately, there are exceptions.

Local republican business magnate David Miller has defected from HWSNBN.

Prominent local attorney and legendary tobacco litigator, W.C. Gentry, another registered Republican, stood up to the GOP by suing to prevent Republican National Convention events from occurring here. 

Last month, my friend the former mayor did well to publish his personal manifesto in the inaugural edition of Folio 2.0.

His essay, like mine, won’t fit in a tweet.

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