America is a country built on unearned hagiographies. Some of the country's worst villains — murderers, slavers, bigots, and crooks — are now venerated by those in power as saintly pioneers who helped make the United States what it is today, always for better, never for worse.
It is in this context of bizarre hero worship and gauzy, rose-tinted nostalgia that I earnestly beg of you to stop trying to rehabilitate Ronald Reagan, simply because Donald Trump is currently president. Specifically, please stop doing this:
The nearly two-minute spot is fairly straightforward: A rolling juxtaposition of Reagan's famous "City on a Hill" speech from 1980. The intent is clear: Comparing the dystopian realities of 2020 with, at least for both the ad's creators and intended audience, the supposedly ideologically-sound conservatism of the Reagan era.
But scratch even the dullest, most hard-bitten fingernail over the ad's glossy surface, and the problems with venerating Ronald Reagan over Donald Trump become painfully obvious; despite his infamous ability to turn a stirring phrase, Reagan's time in office was defined by grotesque inequality, rampant bigotry, and shady warmongering corruption.
The difference between the two is one of style, rather than substance.
Where Trump broadcasts his racism with public glee, Reagan kept his marginally hidden. Trump's frantic gambit to secure reelection by animating racists at the expense of the broader electorate can be seen as a distillation of Reagan's successful exploitation of the GOP's decades-old "Southern Strategy". If Reagan is the conservative moment's venerated ego, then Trump is its wholly predictable id.
Granted, this ad is from a group calling themselves "Republican Voters Against Trump" — itself a project of "Defending Democracy Together," a 501(c)4 political advocacy organization helmed by an array of conservative bigwigs, including former Reagan staffers like Bill Kristol and Mona Charen. Kristol, you may remember, was one of the loudest proponents of the Iraq war, and served as co-founder of the now-defunct Weekly Standard, a pre-Fox News Rupert Murdoch-funded outlet for the sort of politely ghoulish conservatism that has fallen out of fashion in favor of Trump's more overtly garish authoritarianism — something Kristol has, to his credit, condemned. So, it's understandable, I suppose, that these would be the people to venerate the former boss of the group's leadership.
The problem with the ad, its "never Trumper" creators, and its intended audience of disgruntled Republicans, is that its very premise is predicated on the false notion that Trump is an aberration from some idealized form of "true" conservatism, as embodied by Reagan himself.
In fact, this ad — and the sentiment behind it— affords Republicans who chaff at Trump's boorish authoritarianism and coarse bigotry a way of opposing the president himself, without having to undergo any sort of self-examination that might lead them to see Trumpism as a natural development of the conservatism they cherish. If Trump is, as the ad claims, the anthesis of Reagan, then the GOP can simply wash its hands of everything it's done to enable the president's ascendency.
In other words, holding Reagan as the "true" conservative against Trump-the-anomaly allows the GOP to return to policies and attitudes that enabled Trump in the first place. Any serious consideration of the ad, rhetorically titled "Has Your Party Left You?" should prompt a resounding "no" as a response.
It remains to be seen whether the ad will successfully peel off any voters from Trump's base, and if that will be enough to cost him a second term in office. But whether successful or not, the ad — and the flimsy myth of Reagan's noble conservatism — deserves the exact same level of scrutiny it asks of its audience.