The spate of resignations by high level Trump appointees at 11:59 pm of the administration’s term has been noticed and noted as tardy and hypocritical. But little attention has been paid to a more insidious form of forgetfulness. Trumpism did not spring parthenogenically from Trump’s forehead. It has been brewing and building in the ranks and party Republican since at least Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign.
Like Trump’s first campaign, featuring his trip down the Trump Tower escalator in 2015, Reagan’s 1980 campaign featured racist symbolism and dog whistling. Most conspicuously in his “states’ rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair near the Philadelphia, Mississippi civil rights killing grounds. Reagan’s remodeling of the Party of Lincoln into one obsessed with “welfare queens” was not the only Reagan precursor of Trumpism. His appointments set the paradigm for those made by Trump 36 years later.
For the cabinet and major agencies, Reagan frequently appointed people who either had no credentials for their jobs and/or were hostile to the statutory mandate of the place they were appointed to run. Reagan’s never confirmed head of the Civil Rights Division was an enemy of civil rights and gutted federal enforcement, leaving the states a void they struggled to fill. Reagan appointees at the EPA substantially ignored the letter and spirit of the clean air and water acts.
The Reaganites who ran the FTC and the Antitrust Division reduced the staff levels by more than sixty percent and not only abandoned most consumer protection and antitrust enforcement, but repeatedly went to court to oppose state efforts to fill that void. HL was the chief antitrust enforcer at the state level and regularly led groups of states into court, including one involving all 50 (plus D.C.) to redress the federal abandonment of enforcement. We even testified at a congressional oversight hearing of the FTC where its Chairman opposed reauthorization of the commission. He was rewarded with promotion to cabinet level Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Ed Meese, Reagan’s second Attorney General, like Trump’s second, Bill Barr, viewed his job as being the President’s, not the nation’s or its people’s lawyer. In foreign adventures like Iran-Contra the Reagan administration engaged in many illegal and Congress-defying gambits similar to those that became routine under Trump.
During the Bush administrations, 41 and 43, the perfection of Reaganism into Trumpism was in a holding pattern. While campaigning and winning with racist messaging à la Willie Horton, Bush Père’s four years in many respects included modest restorations of integrity and fidelity to law. For example, in civil rights, where John Dunne restored the honor of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
The Bush Fils administration can’t be accused, like Dad’s, of having many high quality appointees, but at key moments the President’s conduct was not only exemplary but spotlight the utter bankruptcy and depravity of Trump and his ism.
On the pardon front, Bush 43 resisted and ultimately broke with his powerful Veep, Dick Cheney, by refusing to pardon Cheney’s former chief of staff, Irving. (“Scooter”) Libby, for his multiple perjuries and obstructions of justice. Scooter was helping to out an American CIA covert operative, putting her in peril of assassination. Contrast Bush’s principled resistance to Trump who has pardoned every manner of scumbag, including murderers of children. And he’s not yet finished.
On transition, Bush 43 is rightly credited with a seamless and highly supportive handoff to Obama at a time (like the present) when the nation is in deep economic distress. The iconic picture of Michelle Obama embracing Bush bears witness.
Trumpism is the coalescing and perfection of all the bad things first widely deployed in the Reagan years. Appointees ignorant of and hostile to the places they ran and the laws they swore to uphold. The belief that government is the problem that big business and deregulation will solve. How many Trump voters explained that Donald wasn’t a politician, had never served in government and would run the U.S. like a business? Trump took the Reagan racist dog whistles and supercharged them into overt racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic messaging that delivered bitter fruit in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and many other places.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that combustion is never spontaneous. And the Trump conflagration is/was no exception.