enry Olsen has written a book on Ronald Reagan’s conservatism that lavishes affection on Reagan and heaps contempt on conservatism. The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism is a strange work, enjoyable and often enlightening but marred by a remarkably unconvincing effort to connect the principled conservatism of the Reagan movement to the vacuous populism currently ascendant in the Republican Party.
Olsen provides some useful documentation of and context for the extent and intensity of Reagan’s early liberalism and his hero worship of President Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a good-government liberal whose political framework was forged in the robust consensus that obtained from the Roosevelt years through the Eisenhower administration and then found himself driven from the Democratic Party as its old-line progressives entered into a poisonous alliance with the more radical left. His intense anti-Communism put him at odds with the hippies protesting the war in Vietnam; it was Marxism that Reagan desired to see relegated to the ash heap of history, not the New Deal. Reagan, unlike so many of his epigones, understood the difference between socialism and Social Security, between a welfare state and a total state.
This is familiar history to almost everyone—except, apparently, Henry Olsen, who writes that his recent studies of Reagan caused him to encounter a shockingly unfamiliar figure. “Everything I had been told about Reagan’s philosophy, by the right and the left, had been wrong,” he writes. He dedicates himself to proving that Ronald Reagan was not a doctrinaire libertarian—thereby demolishing a position that is held, so far as I have encountered, by no thinker of any consequence on the right.
Libertarianism is the whipping boy of The Working-Class Republican. The word “libertarian” appears in seven of the book’s eight chapters, including 45 appearances in its sixth. But Olsen does not quite seem to know what to make of it: He notes Reagan’s much-cited remark to Reason magazine that libertarianism is the “heart and soul” of conservatism and then takes pains to highlight the differences between Reagan’s views and those of the Libertarian Party and its key figures, who at the time included David Koch. But with whom is he arguing the point? It stood to reason then, and stands to reason now, that the Libertarian Party’s members did not see eye to eye with Reagan’s Republicans, since they were working to organize the campaigns of a different political party rather than join the GOP.
Olsen also regards with some suspicion the embrace of the descriptor “libertarian” by William F. Buckley Jr. and other—pay attention to this phrase—“anti–New Dealers who called themselves conservatives.” Oh, they called themselves conservatives, did they? He cites the mission statement of National Review (where I am honored to work) in which Buckley et al. declare themselves to be “without reservations on the libertarian side” of the dispute between those who embraced the postwar expansion of government and those who believed that it tended to diminish prosperity and liberty. This sort of thing, he writes, shows the difference between Reagan and those who misunderstand him while claiming to carry his banner.
Among those in error, in Olsen’s view, is Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz, he writes, views Reagan as “essentially libertarian” and in doing so fails to appreciate that Reagan “followed FDR in believing that government action was good when pure freedom would lead to some people living lives without dignity or hope.” Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ronald Reagan, but I know Ted Cruz a little bit and feel reasonably confident in this bold claim: Ted Cruz is not an anarchist. Nor is Cruz under the impression that Ronald Reagan was an anarchist, either, even a right-wing anarchist on the Murray Rothbard model. The implied polarity here—between something called “pure freedom” and the radically opposed notion that sometimes “government action is good”—is daft. Aside from a couple of dingbats trying to sell gold coins to paranoid dry cleaners in Omaha, who denies the notion that government action is sometimes good?
Olsen is only marginally less cartoonish elsewhere, as when he describes contemporary Republican thinking as “cut taxes for the rich and cut entitlements for the rest of us.” This is beyond grossly unfair to contemporary conservative thinking; it is plainly and undeniably untrue. Olsen describes a version of “trickle-down” thinking so shallow and crude that Paul Krugman would blush to publish it. In the real world, conservatives and Republicans have been pressing for expanded entitlements, from Medicare Part D to the “reform conservative” enthusiasm for generous child-tax credits to ease the burdens of middle-class families in an economy that often seems positively hostile to child-rearing. Olsen has for rhetorical reasons adopted the Democratic caricature of Republican thinking, and it makes for sloppy analysis.
Olsen describes Reagan as being philosophically sui generis, ascending the heights of political power “almost exclusively because of his own ideas.” Olsen has failed to appreciate the influence such pointy-headed intellectuals as Leonard Read, F. A. Hayek and others had on the future president. Reagan was a reader of such publications as The Freeman, published by the surpassingly wonky Foundation for Education in Economics, as well as a reader of National Review and other journals of libertarian-inflected conservatism. (On the other hand, it speaks well of Reagan’s intellectual seriousness that his reading of Ayn Rand was limited to The Fountainhead, and Olsen may very well be correct in his guess that Reagan’s interest in that novel had much more to do with his cinematic ambitions than his political ones.) He corresponded with figures such as F. A. “Baldy” Harper, the disillusioned Cornell professor who founded the Institute for Humane Studies.
It may very well be that the link between Reagan’s reiterated New Deal liberalism and his later conservatism is the classical liberalism he encountered in Hayek and other midcentury liberals such as Ludwig von Mises, whose terror was not of a Scandinavian welfare state but of political totalism of a kind all too well-known to Austrian refugees who had seen Hitler to one side of them and Stalin to the other.
Olsen is correct that, for all of his interest in ideas as such, Reagan was no narrow ideologue, and he was neither a radical libertarian nor a doctrinaire one. But that says less than Olsen imagines it does: While Reagan was not a radical libertarian compared with Ron Paul or Nick Gillespie, he was a radical libertarian compared with Jimmy Carter, Tip O’Neill, Richard Nixon, and Ted Kennedy. His policies shifted the country and its politics in a libertarian direction. In the real world, policies need to be understood in context of the political starting point rather than in comparison with abstract absolutes, and Reagan did not run as a libertarian conservative in 1940. No, he ran in 1980, when the New Deal he so admired had been subsumed under a much larger and more ambitious social-welfare project launched by Lyndon Baines Johnson. If forswearing any ambition to undo the New Deal in its entirety makes one a “working-class Republican,” then, yes, Reagan was that, and so were Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, and so is Paul Ryan. So is Mitt Romney.
There must be something more to it than that, and Olsen understands as much. Donald Trump in 2016 was elected president while forswearing much of the standing conservative agenda—promising to preserve Social Security payments and Medicare benefits, and winning the support of a substantial share of blue-collar voters in places such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, who had not been part of a winning Republican presidential coalition since Reagan. Olsen wants us to understand the Trump phenomenon as the fulfillment of the Reagan model rather than a repudiation of it. There is something to this: While Trump’s politics of resentment are very unlike Reagan’s politics of aspiration, both men enjoyed a talent for communicating a sense of solidarity with ordinary Americans, including those of modest means and those who feel condescended to by high-handed Washingtonians. Both Reagan and Trump told Americans that it was okay to love their country, to consider ourselves the good guys in the great dramas of the world, and to enjoy the good life made possible by American prosperity. Reagan’s glitzy Hollywood style and his sunny dismissal of Carter’s cardigan-wearing malaise were, like Trump’s raging against “political correctness,” public invitations to Americans to stop feeling guilty about who they are and what they want.
But as a certain anti–New Dealer who called himself a conservative once put it: “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” Social Security and Medicare already are suffering from negative cash flows, with the former scheduled to become officially insolvent by the time today’s 50-year-olds retire and the latter liquidated in a mere 12 years.
The math is the math is the math, and all the Reaganesque optimism in the world will not change the fact that refusing to deal with our entitlements and their unfunded liabilities is grossly irresponsible and cowardly. The set of problems that Reagan proposed to address in 1980 were stagflation, sky-high interest rates, and the menace of the Soviet Union. The problems the country faces today are slower economic growth, persistent underclass pathologies, and the Islamic State.
Appeals to solidarity with the working class will not go very far toward addressing those problems, and, indeed, many of the policies necessary to mitigating their damage inevitably will annoy and alienate many of the blue-collar voters who pulled the lever for Trump in 2016. The problem for Republicans is that many of the policies that Trump used successfully to attract these voters are dumb and destructive: trade protectionism, the see-no-evil prescription for entitlements, the confused and contradictory approaches to health care and taxes. Reagan accepted the value of New Deal programs to help ordinary Americans make the most of their lives, but he did not deal himself the losing political hand of trying to out-welfare-state the Democrats.
Reconciling the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan with the Republican Party of Donald Trump is a project destined to end in frustration, because Trump is something new and different in Republican politics: a successful demagogue. Trump is a creature not of politics but of celebrity, and his rise to the presidency, while not entirely alien to the modern political experience, is alien to the modern American experience.
We owe it to ourselves to understand the Trump phenomenon for what it is, and Trump for what he is, which is not a branch on the Reagan tree. “Trump voters,” Olsen writes, “believed that they had played by the rules and that they had been unfairly punished because political elites simply didn’t care about people like them.” Electric stuff, politically. But it isn’t true, and in the long term we cannot be governed by lies. Looking squarely at the present means looking squarely at the past, and Henry Olsen’s book, for all its merits, is an exercise in working too hard to see something that isn’t quite there.