The nine most terrifying words

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” —Ronald Reagan, 1986

When Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, I was fourteen and too young to vote, but (according to the mock election we had in my junior high class) I would have voted for Reagan. He seemed like a nice man. Carter seemed nice, too, but he also seemed weary, worn down by the job, ready for someone else to take over.

At the time, I didn’t see a particularly stark difference between Democrats and Republicans. The differences weren’t quite as stark then, but also, I was young, and relatively new to paying attention to presidential elections.

By the time Reagan uttered the quote above, I was a college student who cast my first-ever vote for president against him. During the years from 1980-1984 it became apparent that what Reagan Republicans believed in was pretty much exactly 100% the opposite of anything I personally believed in. Reaganists were on the wrong side of both feminism and environmentalism, causes I had embraced since I was a young child. They were also against LGBTQ rights and religious liberty, two causes I came to support as a young adult.

(Note: I mean actual religious liberty, as opposed to “religious liberty” used by the Religious Right as a euphemism to describe “being allowed to impose our particular religious views on everyone else”)

Republicans, under Reagan, seemed to unite under a shared vision for the country: Reaganism. Low in taxes for the wealthy and services for the public, high in performative symbolic expressions of patriotism and religious piety. “Government” is always assumed to be dysfunctional and burdensome, but military and police are, somehow, never considered to be “government.”

As a social and political movement Reaganism was astonishingly successful. Even though it was a new idea, it was almost immediately accepted as the norm, default & center from which all other political opinions deviated. Maybe it was the way Reaganism dressed itself up as a symbolic return to the 1950s.

This Washington Post article, Haunted by the Reagan Era, does a pretty good job of explaining some of the dynamic:

Democratic leaders like Pelosi, Joe Biden, Steny Hoyer and Chuck Schumer were shaped by their traumatic political coming-of-age during the breakup of the New Deal coalition and the rise of Ronald Reagan — and the backlash that swept Democrats so thoroughly from power nearly 40 years ago. They’ve spent the rest of their lives flinching [..] crouching into the defensive posture they’ve been used to since November 1980

The article characterizes older Democrats as having been so traumatized by a one-time electoral shellacking that they surrendered utterly: accepting Reaganism as the defacto law of the land. Which leads us to the last forty years, in which Republicans act bold, empowered, and forceful even when they lose, while Democrats act timid, cautious, and careful even when they win, with a supposedly neutral news media cheering this on as good and proper and wise.

But is that really the whole story? How does getting an electoral smackdown ONE time lead an entire political party to FORTY YEARS of flinching and learned helplessness?

One theory:  mainstream political reporting has, for most of the last forty years, been extremely wary of directly addressing the racist dynamics at work in US politics. One of the reasons Democrats lost so much ground during the 1980s was the post-1960s realignment of the parties, as Democrats became the party of Civil Rights and Republicans became the party of “segregation forever,” but mainstream political reporting on Republican victories and Democratic losses almost never tied this back into the Civil Rights movement.

Until Trump made it virtually impossible to ignore the racism at the heart of the Republican party, the default narrative seemed to be that the Civil Rights struggle was all safely in the rear view mirror, that it was no longer controversial in any way, and that the people who opposed the Civil Rights movement — most of whom were still alive, many of whom were still involved in politics — had simply — vanished? Given up? Stopped opposing the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s?

We know, now, that this is simply not true.

Just as the defeated Confederacy never really gave up — they licked their wounds and hid in a cave for a while and re-emerged with a “noble lost cause” narrative and a plan for “Jim Crow” racial apartheid — the defeated segregationists never gave up either. They licked their wounds and hid in a cave for a while and re-emerged as the Religious Right, their fight against Civil Rights repurposed as a proxy fight focused on denying rights to LGBTQ people and women. (Being openly racist was, for a time, frowned upon, but being openly misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic was still considered acceptable in polite company.)

With such a huge part of the story simply ignored, most people — including Democrats themselves — came to entirely false conclusions about why Democrats lose and why Republicans win. They helped perpetuate the myths of Reaganism. People weren’t racist at all! They just really, really liked low marginal tax rates and hated legal abortion.

Another factor: because Reaganism proceeds from a small & simple set of rules, it was able to establish powerful feedback loops that led to enormous social, political and economic ramifications.

The rules of Reaganism, as I intuit them based on 40 years of watching Reaganism dominate our country, are that the federal government has three aims and only three aims:

  1. Have a military
  2. Consolidate money and power in the hands of the wealthy
  3. Prevent, by any means necessary, effective opposition to Reaganism

Note that I say rule 1 is “have a military” not “provide for the common defense.” Under Reaganism, the actual purpose of the military is mostly to exist for its own sake. Republican presidents use the military as a propaganda tool (Aim 3) and as a way to channel money and power in certain directions (Aim 2), but whether their efforts actually protect American lives or our identity as a sovereign nation is neither here nor there.

Even though Reaganism specifically pertains to government at the federal level, Republicans who buy into Reaganism tend to implement its principles at a more local level as well. This is how the police got so heavily militarized, because it’s where they fit under the three aims. Like the military, the main purpose of the police is merely to exist, but they also serve the other two aims.

But the really insidious part of Reaganism is Aim 3: prevent, by any means necessary, effective opposition to Reaganism.

Because “by any means necessary” includes lying, cheating, voter suppression, and even violence, all of which we’re seeing right now. But it also includes propaganda. In 1987 Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine and since then we’ve seen the rise of a vast Reaganite media empire: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sinclair Broadcast Group, not to mention a small army of right wing pundits who spread Reaganite gospel regularly on supposedly neutral news outlets.

We’ve also watched the Religious Right — Reaganite Christianity — take over the evangelical church to the point where it’s no longer possible to distinguish between faith and politics.

People talk a lot these days about the growing “division” in this country, as the gulf between the political parties gets deeper. But this was inevitable under Aim 3 of Reaganism. If you cannot permit opposition to Reaganism at all, then you certainly can’t permit a real opposition party, now, can you?

Democrats, on some level recognizing this, have often tried to adapt by practicing a kind of “Reaganism Lite” (see: the presidency of Bill Clinton) under the theory that this will be accepted as a bipartisan effort. But, no. Actually. Under Reaganism, “Reaganism Lite” is still regarded as communism, and Democrats are still the Devil.

Under Reaganism, opposition to Democrats, leftists, progressives, etc. (any non-Reaganite group) must be immediate, knee-jerk, and all-encompassing. Look at anti-maskers: folks whipped up into such a powerful anti-Democrat fervor that they are willing to literally risk death from a virus rather than do anything a non-Reaganite thinks is a good idea.

It’s this relentless focus that has made Reaganism so successful at dominating our country for so long. Democrats might try to accomplish many different things, pulling their resources in multiple directions. But a Reaganite Republican is ultimately trying to accomplish only three things.

Not one of those three things is helping you survive a pandemic.

When Reagan uttered the quote about the “nine most terrifying words” people cheered and applauded. One of the supporting myths of Reaganism is that a real man doesn’t need “the government” — he’s self-made and all-powerful and “the government” just gets in his way.

Non-militarized disasters like hurricanes, fires, floods, or global pandemics are a problem for Reaganism, because Reaganism has no provision for dealing with them. Which means, under Reaganism, you don’t. You can’t.

Donald Trump is not a deep man, but he gets Reaganism. He’s a creature of the 1980s, shaped by its myths and slogans. Things like:

Greed is good!

This country should be run like a business!

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.

In the 1980s, my biggest fears from Reaganism were 1. global thermonuclear war 2. complete environmental collapse 3. fascist police state.

I wasn’t alone in fearing these things. A lot of 80s pop culture reflects these fears. In fact, a common trope for dystopian SF of the era combined them: nuclear war, causing a complete environmental collapse, giving rise to a fascist police state. If there was a pandemic, it was usually zombies. But it still more or less looked like what we have right now, in the sense that the federal government basically did… nothing. Except maybe make it worse.

One thing I will say about Republican presidents until Trump: I think they saw pretending to care about the American people, at least a little bit, as an important part of Aim 3. They didn’t just march right up to the podium and say, “our plan is to do nothing and let millions of Americans die.”

George W. Bush wouldn’t have done anything more substantial than DJT, but I think his messaging would have been different. Based on how he handled 9/11, I think he would have had no problem at all delivering a “we’re all in this together, wear a mask” message. And I don’t think he would have deliberately attempted to prevent effective state-level responses the way Trump has. He would have been perfectly happy to let states like California or Washington do a great job handling the pandemic, knowing he would get a lot of the credit himself.

Under Bush, during the Katrina disaster, we saw a bit of pushback on Reaganite messaging. For a moment, we saw it clearly: when you’re standing on the roof of your house and the floodwaters are rising and somebody comes by with a boat and says “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” those are actually the best nine words you could possibly hear.

But, right away, the spin started. The Katrina disaster quickly came to be seen not as a failure of the hands-off principles of Reaganism, but rather as a New Orleans-specific problem, one which surely could never come to plague anywhere that wasn’t a city in a hurricane zone and prone to flooding.

Trumpism is Reaganism plus open authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and performative cruelty. To his fans, this is a selling point: they’re relieved by the lack of expectation to pretend they care about other people. They revel in it. Wallow in the utter depraved filth of it.

But I’m very disturbed by the rise of a major political faction that has taken the already-heartless “greed is good” dictum and escalated that to “sadistic cruelty and violence are also good.”

When some Republicans opposed Trump’s nomination back in 2016, they were worried that his more extreme and openly bigoted style would result in him losing the general election (a violation of Aim 3). But when he didn’t lose (barely) they got on board.

Literally, if Senate Republicans didn’t approve of Trump’s performance as president, they could’ve removed him in February. He was impeached, remember? And the Senate, under Mitch McConnell, took the official position: we don’t care what he did, we’re not impeaching a Republican.

This is, I believe, based on McConnell’s personal interpretation of Aim 3: preventing opposition to Reaganism demands 100 percent Republican solidarity at all times, laws be damned. So far it has paid off for him. He managed to stack the Supreme Court with three of his hand-picked justices, who are already busy ruling against voting rights. And the Republicans haven’t lost the Senate or the presidency — yet.

They might lose today.

They might not.

But I suggest to you: if Republicans win today, we all lose.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” isn’t a cute laugh line, it’s an admission that you’re a failed state.

That’s what Reaganism did. It normalized the idea of America as a failed state. And here we are. Failing.

This gives an interesting spin to Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again. Almost as if his supporters know, on some level, that forty years of Reaganism has devastated our country. They know the economic situation of the average American is precarious, that most of us live heavily in debt and paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to fall back on if something (like a pandemic) disrupts our ability to collect that paycheck.

They know our health care is extremely expensive and delivered in a strange piecemeal fashion, that we’re all just one bit of bad luck — or one particularly nasty case of Covid-19 — away from complete financial devastation or even death.

Trump even caught the virus and got very sick from Covid-19! But, as president, he had access to immediate, intensive health care measures, millions of dollars in treatment that most of his followers couldn’t possibly access. And yet he’s out there, telling them the virus is no big deal.

Even most Republican voters seem to know, on some level that Democratic policies are better for them in a material sense — for the welfare of average Americans — but they are also true believers in Reaganism. They believe effective government services that make our lives better — everything from the National Parks to the US Postal Service to what could, under Joe Biden, be a coherent national response to the pandemic — are bad in the sense of being a moral hazard.

Sure, we could have the protections of the Affordable Care Act, plus a public option, but at what price? We could have an economic stimulus to help us cope with the economic disruption of the pandemic, but what about our souls?

If you’re somebody who typically votes for Republicans, I understand that Reaganism has made “being a Republican” a huge part of your identity. You vote a certain way because you’re “pro-life” or “pro-gun” — odd juxtaposition there, don’t you think?

Maybe you’re a Christian who has become convinced that your faith demands you vote for the Republican. There are certainly people pushing that view. In fact, that partisan politicization of faith was what drove me away from the evangelical church.

But isn’t it also a bit peculiar, to have your church telling you that you have to vote Republican? Doesn’t it suggest that maybe you have, in some way, turned “being a Republican” into your religion?

I urge everyone to vote today, and specifically, I urge everyone to vote against Republicans. Whatever they might once have been or intended, it is clear that, under Donald Trump, Republicans have rapidly turned toward reckless, lawless authoritarianism, coupled with an absolute refusal to address the pandemic that threatens the life and well-being of millions of Americans.

When a Republican tells you, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” you can believe them. They mean it.

They mean they will not, ever, help you.

Vote ’em out.

Because the actual nine most terrifying words in the English language are “four more years for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.”

1 Comment

  1. Great essay Julie. I may say that I stopped voting Republican around 20 years ago now, when I realized that their family values only included their own families. Under Trump, I have found the Republicans to have neither spine nor patriotism. They shout about their love of our country, yet hate everything our country used to stand for. “May you live in interesting times”.

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