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American History

Confronting an Icon’s Flaw

by D.J. McGuire

The day after the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare the Chinese Communist regime to be the rightful holder of the Chinese seat at the United Nations (removing the Chiang Kai-shek regime of Taiwan), President Richard Nixon took a call from Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. Tim Naftali reported on a particularly odious piece of the call in The Atlantic.

The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.

The particular reference was aimed at a delegation from Tanzania which, according to Naftali, “started dancing in the General Assembly” when the body voted as it did.

When an icon is revealed to be flawed – and, being human, we’re all flawed – the first instinct is to ignore it, then to minimize it. For those of us who see Ronald Reagan as a successful president – and I still do – these are mistakes which would compound on Reagan’s 1971 error. There are three reasons in particular.

First, minimization makes no sense. Unless there is another recording somewhere in which Reagan called Pierre Trudeau a “frog” or aimed ethnic epithets at the European nations that also enabled the CCP to seize the seat (Naftali notes that Nixon’s own State Department pointed the finger at Britain and France), then this particular criticism was not only racist, but particularly racist toward Africans. It is an odious statement and should be called as such. It is a stain on Reagan’s legacy and a sign of his flaws.

Secondly, it can inform on Reagan’s foreign policy – and not in a good way. Reagan’s anti-Communism galvanized the democratic world and enabled the Cold War to be won with minimal actual conflict. That doesn’t mean it was mistake-free. The Reagan Administration badly underestimated Nelson Mandela – who, contrary to the panicked assertions of the apartheid regime in South Africa, marginalized and effectively froze out the South African Communists. Historians need to examine – if they haven’t already – how much of our Angola policy could have been different had we paid more attention on the ground, rather than look to the first anti-Communist with South African backing. Is it possible a different anti-Communist leader could have been more effective in transitioning to a political battle in the 1990s, rather than maintaining the civil war?

Such lack of attention is obvious in other Cold War flashpoints outside of Europe. In Afghanistan, the reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia propped up unreliable faction leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rather than Ahmed Shah Massoud. The former enabled the Taliban to take power and al-Qaeda to establish a presence there in the 1990s. The latter fought the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance until the day they killed him – September 9, 2001. Reagan was out of office when Nicaragua was able to vote out Manuel Ortega, but his successor largely abandoned Central America to its own devices, allowing Ortega to retake power in 2006. He is still there as Nicaragua slides into tyranny and destabilizes its neighbors again.

We now know that democracy and freedom were just as important to anti-Communists in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America as in Europe. Many knew then, too – including folks in the Reagan Administration like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliot Abrams. This 1971 conversation should force us to ask how much that was reflected at the top.

Finally, it has vital importance to the arguments we have today. For nearly all Never Trump conservatives (including myself), Reagan is the political model of what Trump is not: optimistic rather than cynical, opposed to tyranny rather than admiring it, welcoming to immigrants rather than fearful of them. This incident, even from 48 years away, gives supporters of Trump the chance to claim a piece of Reagan’s mantle. The more conservatives outside of Trump’s orbit refuse to condemn the racist statement, the easier that claim will be.

For all of Ronald Reagan’s successes, whitewashing his mistakes is never worth it. That Trump backers could use his predecessor’s private racist statement to validate his own public racist statements and policies simply makes the price of ignoring the past all the more unacceptable.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

Was the New Deal Racist? Yes.

by D.J. McGuire

The more one looks at the actual policies enacted during the Roosevelt administration, the more one comes to the painful conclusion that FDR, whatever his intentions, allowed the government under his command to build a welfare state not for all, but for whites only. Perhaps I’m coming to this realization later than most who are younger (I’ll turn 45 next week), but I am painfully certain I’ve reached it faster than those who are my age or older.

For me, the revelation that racism in the New Deal was the norm rather than the exception came in a column from Jacob T. Levy of the Niskanen Center. His entire column is worth the read, or several reads, but the economic conservative in me was struck by the following line.
When the FHA was insisting that neighborhoods be segregated in order to be eligible for mortgage or building subsidies, it contributed a great deal to the racial wealth gap that persists to this day.
In other words, the practice of “redlining” (racial discrimination in mortgage lending) was not something banks developed on their own. It was not an example of market failure. It was the result of a policy directive from the government agency most responsible for mortgage insurance and lending subsidies (see The Atlantic for more on the FHA policy).
On one level, this is merely a counterpart to the policy of the urban planners of the era: namely, put a highway through every urban African-American community one could find (Atlantic). However, when one also considers some recent economic analysis that shows wealth and income inequality in America may largely be driven by housing (Medium), suddenly the arguments surrounding those topics shift from economic discussions to racial ones.
From a historical perspective, the New Deal wasn’t a departure from the Democratic Party’s record of racism. It was the continuation – dare I say, the triumph – of its racism. It was Andrew Jackson’s Master Race Democracy updated to the circumstances of the early 20th century.
Lest anyone think of the other major party is blameless, it should be noted that by the 1950s, the Republicans have made their peace with the white welfare state that was the New Deal. They could have  attacked it as the hallmark of racial engineering for purposes of dismantling it. They chose not to do so. Moreover, as the Democrats attempted to extend the welfare state to more people of color in the latter third of the 20th century, the GOP decided that the mid-century safety net was enough.
This isn’t to say that making the welfare state larger was necessarily correct from an objective point of view; one could argue that the welfare state of the 20th Century only “succeeded” by relying on exploited minorities that were denied it benefits. However, the Republican Party didn’t advance this argument. Instead, the GOP chose to defend big government for whites only.
I still think the welfare state needs serious reform. At the same time, any reduction or reform needs to take history into account, lest we end up repeating it (to wit: one of my preferred methods of addressing Social Security/Medicare issues – raising the retirement age – faces a limitation from racial life expectancy gaps).
Still, I think if we recognized the racism inherent in the New Deal – still arguably the center-piece of all arguments for greater government intervention in the economy – we would be more able to recognize that reducing the impact of institutional racism involves scaling back the historically racist institutions which fueled it.
D.J. McGuire is the conservative Democrat on More Perfect Union podcast – and sometimes feels like he is the lone conservative Democrat in the country.

Bring Back the Well-Regulated Militia

by D.J. McGuire

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. – United States Constitution, Amendment II

The Las Vegas carnage has reopened the debate on gun rights. This should neither surprise nor disappoint (the reopening of the debate, that is; the carnage should – and I’m sure does – sadden all of us). Also completely expected is the focus on the constitutional amendment cited above, part of the Bill of Rights passed by the First Congress over two centuries ago.

Strangely enough, the entire amendment never gets the attention it should, in particular the opening phrase.