Trump’s America Remains Stuck in the Shadow of Reagan (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, Ronald Reagan, Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980
Rick Perlstein
Simon and Schuster, $40 (cloth)

From a humanitarian perspective, the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster. But in the eyes of U.S. corporate leaders in a handful of the country’s wealthiest companies, Trump’s COVID-19 policy has been quite successful. The stock market has mostly recovered since the crash in March, and Jeff Bezos has made more than $70 billion.

In Washington it has long seemed that the well-being of corporations takes priority over the well-being of citizens—but there has never been such obvious proof. During a recent round of debates on further stimulus provisions, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that his primary concern is not relief packages for devastated communities, but a “liability shield”—that is, a provision that insulates corporations from COVID-related lawsuits.

When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, he and his pundits declared it a victory for the white working class. But the main beneficiaries of the past four years have been business executives and billionaires. Trump’s presidency, whether it spans four years or longer, will be remembered for its open war on democracy, its overt racism and xenophobia, and the frequency with which the president voiced open disregard for human life (as when he recently said that the pandemic-related deaths in blue states “don’t count”).

But in the end, Trump’s most enduring deformation of U.S. political life may derive from his slavish devotion to unchecked corporate power and his work in further consolidating power in the hands of a few billionaires. As Christian Lorentzen recently wrote in Bookforum, the Republican Party under Trump should primarily be understood as “an electoral entity that reliably obtains tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for big business, increased budgets for the military, and little of anything else for anyone else.”

How did the United States end up here? How did a country that prides itself on the opposing concentration of power—on extensive checks and balances—end up generating a corporate autocracy so complete that it is nearly impossible to imagine its end? Any attempt to understand and dismantle this current regime must begin with an appreciation of how it evolved in the first place. On this front, historian Rick Perlstein’s new book, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980 (2020), provides invaluable context, alongside a timely reminder that this political development is still quite new.

Reaganland depicts the rise of Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. It is the final volume of Perlstein’s four-book series on the modern history of U.S. conservatism (beginning with Before the Storm in 2001), which follows the movement from Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960s through Reagan’s election in 1980. The period of Reagan’s ascent bears countless parallels to our time: a politics that coalesces around a B-list celebrity, the deployment of racist dog whistles, the mobilization and consolidation of the Christian right, and the rise of radical conservatism. But most striking is the book’s depiction of how corporate power came to be enshrined in Washington. Perlstein’s is not the first book to deal with the convergence of corporate interests and Republican Party orthodoxy; other notables include Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands (2009) and Jane Mayer’s more recent Dark Money (2016). Yet Reaganland significantly contributes to our understanding of U.S. plutocracy by focusing on the moment in the late 1970s when corporate lobbyists became an overwhelming political force.

Read entire article at Boston Review