Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Despite widespread condemnation of the Donald Trump presidency, CJ Werleman argues that it was Ronald Reagan who caused more damage to America

Ranking the newest member of the world’s most exclusive club – the former Presidents of the United States – is an international news media event held once every four to eight years.

Comparing Donald Trump with his predecessors, journalists and historians have not held back.

“Donald Trump is quite likely to assume the title as the worst President in American history,” declared the Los Angeles Times. “The worst President in history,” wrote presidential historian Tim Naftali for The Atlantic. “Trump was the worst President ever,” stated The Washington Post. The San Diego Union Tribune agrees: “Trump is the worst President in US history. Period.”

When Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger polled more than 50 presidential historians for Life magazine, asking them to rank former US Presidents from first to last, Trump finished at the very bottom of the heap, mirroring the results from a 2018 Presidential Greatness Survey, in which Trump also came last, after finishing with a score of 12.3 (out of 100), compared with a top score of 95 for Abraham Lincoln. Barack Obama scored 71.1 in eighth place and George W. Bush 40.4 in thirtieth. 

Trump’s severe mismanagement of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response – which has so far led to 450,000 deaths in the United States – along with his inciting of a deadly domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol, two impeachments, insider corruption charges, impending law suits, assaults on democratic norms and institutions, 30,000 documented lies, a social media ban, and hateful and divisive rhetoric is why Trump is ranked the worst President of all time.

I would argue, however, that Ronald Reagan – his predecessor celebrity-turned-President – inflicted even greater harm on America and the world during his eight years in the White House. In significant ways, the negative consequences of his presidency continue to fester four decades later – and paved the way for Trump.


The Curse of ‘Voodoo Economics’

While Trump’s economic policies – specifically his cutting of taxes and regulations for corporations and the super-wealthy – exacerbated the ever-growing divide between the haves and have nots, it was Reagan that unleashed a ‘trickle-down’ economic policy on the country, one which has facilitated the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle-class to the rich in human history.

Trump and every other occupant of the Oval Office since 1989 has parroted and protected Reagan’s neo-liberal mantra.

“Voodoo economics” is how Reagan’s then Vice President George H. Bush mocked the idea that giving additional money to rich people would produce greater economic activity and higher incomes for the poor and middle-classes.

However, when extra cash is put into the bank accounts of the rich, it tends to stay there or be transferred to assets which don’t generate any wealth in the wider economy. When extra cash is given to the poor and middle-classes, almost all of it is injected directly back into the economy in the form of household spending.

Last year, the most comprehensive study into ‘trickle-down’ economics to date examined the effects of five decades of tax cuts in 18 wealthy countries. It found that the policy has succeeded in only making the rich richer and the middle-classes poorer, while delivering no measurable value to the overall economy. But still it remains the law of the land in the US today and an organising principle for the Republican Party and right-wing political parties in UK, Australia and Canada.

Reagan is squarely to blame for that. It was he who sold and implemented the breaking of the social contract that had existed between Government and the people since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – a move also favoured by the the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who followed suit in Britain.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; Government is the problem,” said Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. Decades later, his sycophants promised to “shrink Government to a size that can be drowned in a bathtub”.

Tax cuts for the rich and powerful corporations means less revenue for Government investments in welfare, healthcare, education and infrastructure – and by the end of Reagan’s second year in office, his administration had eliminated 500,000 Americans from welfare, one million from food stamps, and 2.5 million people from school lunch programmes, thus placing the greatest number of Americans into poverty since the Great Depression. 

Reagan’s policies sent the economy into recession in 1982 and then again in the first year of the George H. W. Bush presidency – a nine-year period in which average CEO remuneration grew from 50 to 100 times the average worker’s salary. Today, a CEO earns $270 for every dollar earned by their employees, with typical top executive salary surging 14% in 2019.

As the country’s underclass grew, and with racial minorities the worst affected by the hollowing out of the middle-class, Reagan stoked white racial resentment, describing African American women as “welfare queens” and African American men as food stamp-cheating “young bucks”, while mouthing neo-Confederate slogans (“states rights”) to Southern whites.

Whereas Trump called African nations “sh*thole countries”, Reagan racially smeared African political leaders as “monkeys” and suggested that “they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes”.

Reagan compounded the problems facing the country’s growing under-class and deepened social ills by deliberately flooding American streets with imported cocaine, at the same time as he was telling American kids to “say no to drugs”, because Congress opposed his proposal to fund right-wing militias and death squads in Central America.

Reagan bypassed Congress and violated a dozen federal laws when he secretly sold US weapons to a foreign adversary – Iran – and then used the proceeds to fund the Contra rebels in their violent plot to overthrow Nicaragua’s left-wing Government. When covert CIA airplanes delivered guns and cash to the Contras, they returned home filled with bundles of cocaine to be sold to US drug dealers – the proceeds allowing Reagan to buy more guns for the Contras, a circular process repeated dozens of times between May 1984 and April 1985. 

Iran-Contra flooded US cities with narcotics and made drug cartels and gangs more powerful and violent, turning American streets into war zones and driving up demand for guns across the country. It resulted in tougher anti-drug laws, a national gun violence epidemic and an overcrowded prison population, thus creating a series of interconnected crises that are still raging today.

The shipment of hundreds of thousands of guns to Central America is also blamed for fermenting civil wars throughout the region, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the 1980s and spawning the deadly drug-related violence that continues to send caravans of Latino refugees to the US-Mexico border today.

Reagan’s charming demeanour concealed his racism and disregard for human rights. Lest we forget he sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, who used them to gas hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Iraqi Kurds to death, and armed and trained the violent extremists that attacked the US on 9/11.

By the time news of the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1987, White House aides sent a memo to Reagan’s chief-of-staff Howard H. Baker Jnr raising the prospect of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office, claiming that he was “inattentive and inept” during his daily briefings.

“He was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job,” recall journalists Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus in Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988. “They said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him – even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work – all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.”

The exact same observation has been made of Trump by former White House chief-of-staffs and aides.

Reagan also waged a war against the environment by making it easier for corporate polluters to spew toxic waste into the skies, water and food supply chain. He discouraged smaller fuel-efficient cars, stacked the Environmental Protection Agency with coal and oil lobbyists, and infamously blamed trees for causing air pollution.

He also made political discourse more toxic by ushering in the age of hyper-polarisation, self-serving greed, patriotic jingoism, militarism and anti-intellectualism. His was the first presidency in which Republican law-makers put party before country.


A Post-Reagan Presidency?

In almost every way, Donald Trump was the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.

He continued ripping apart what the latter had already torn. Both left the country sicker, poorer and decisively more violent than they found it.

If there is a reason to be optimistic about the future, however, it is because President Joe Biden has shown early signs of governing as the “first post-Reagan presidency”, as observed by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.

“He takes power at a time when what was once conventional wisdom about deficits, inflation and the proper size of government has fallen apart. That means Biden, who has been in national office since before Reagan’s presidency, has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan President”.

All but the super-rich can only hope.

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