And in some ways, it was darker then
If you’re old enough to remember Neil Gorsuch’s mother, then you’re old enough to remember that the practice of appointing people to run government agencies whose mission they fundamentally oppose is nothing new. To put it another way, Donald Trump is hardly the first president to hire anti-government thugs to dismantle those parts of government that actually serve ordinary people—schools, parks, environmental protections, social security, etc. President Ronald Reagan did the same thing back in the eighties. The difference was, Reagan had a charming smile—and a lot more popular support than Trump will ever have.
Maybe calling Anne Gorsuch a “thug” is a bit strong, but she certainly did her part, as the first female administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to undermine its mission. Gorsuch (who conveniently shed that professional name after it had been tainted by scandal, remarrying to become Anne McGill Burford) cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, relaxed regulations, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, and hired staff from the industries they were supposed to be regulating. Her already-tarnished reputation was irreparably damaged when the EPA was charged with mishandling monies for toxic-waste remediation under Superfund, and she refused to turn over records that Congress demanded. Gorsuch then became the first agency director in US history to be cited for contempt of Congress. The EPA at that point was widely criticized for being dysfunctional, and Gorsuch resigned under the pressure.
I am not bringing this up to cast any shadow over Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy (if there are shadows to be cast, let them come from his own record). It’s just an interesting coincidence to be reminded, by bloodline, of a time when the US government was behaving in a manner not at all unlike it is behaving today. The extreme and unusual features of Trump’s early administration (Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, his widely questioned mental state, his administration’s near-daily barrage of jaw-dropping lies) mask the fact that in other ways, this is business-as-usual in the era of Republican governance ushered in by Reagan.
Unlike Trump, and George W. Bush before him, Reagan did have popular support: in 1980 he beat Jimmy Carter in the popular vote by almost 10 percent, and then trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 by a whopping 18 percent. But while his voters cheered, his administration set about undermining the long-term prospects of the American middle class, most notably by lowering income taxes on the wealthiest Americans, an upward redistribution of wealth that triggered a long-term structural income inequality that persists to this day. Favoring privatization and deregulation, the Reagan team took on social goods and institutions with contemptuous disregard for the needs of the ordinary. And if you’re worried (understandably) about what sort of dangerous entanglements Trump and his foreign policy wackos might get us into, remember (or read up on it) how the Reagan administration was committing terrorist atrocities in several Central American countries, most notably Nicaragua, where Reagan’s own wacko supreme, Oliver North, was caught funneling illegal arms profits to fight a covert and illegal war against a democratically elected government.
The Reagan administration did all this and more under the cover of a popular mandate, and while it did mobilize some amount of dissent, “liberals” were very much marginalized in mainstream culture and media. To any mainstream Democrats still sore at Bernie Sanders for stealing Hillary Clinton’s thunder with his 2016 primary appeal to progressive millennials, you might want to reflect on a term that was coined in the eighties: “Reagan Democrats.” Yes, some of you voted for the Gipper—what was your excuse then? And what did you think of the results?
Today, the liberal/progressive opposition to Trump feels strong, organized, potent—I daresay it even feels like a majority. If you’re part of it, take heart and keep fighting. And thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s okay to identify yourself as a socialist today without being laughed off whatever stage you happen to be on. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was afraid even to say he was a liberal. Speaking out in those days was trickier and more isolating. And we had no Jon Stewart or Samantha Bee to validate our feelings on national television.
Anne Gorsuch did not survive the fallout of her disservice to the American people, and perhaps more of Trump’s cabinet will meet similar fates. But Reagan’s legacy outlasted his presidency. Maybe it just took our nation too long to see through that wide cowboy grin.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon