As I have written before, Reagan explained at nearly every stop that there was a woman in Chicago who “used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
But it was not as it seemed.
As my colleague Paul Krugman wrote in 2007: “Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.”
As Gene Demby perfectly summed up on NPR in 2013: “In the popular imagination, the stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ is thoroughly raced — she’s an indolent black woman, living off the largess of taxpayers. The term is seen by many as a dog whistle, a way to play on racial anxieties without summoning them directly.”
So, then as now, economic anxiety and throbbing xenophobia were convenient shields behind which brewing racial animus could hide.
Indeed, Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again” was first used by Reagan.
And yet, Democrats in 1984 were quick to look for the lessons they could learn on how to reach out to the Reagan coalition, instead of condemning it.
In the days following Reagan’s win that year, The New York Times reported:
“Democratic Party leaders began yesterday what they foresee as a long and agonizing appraisal of how they can renew their appeal to the white majority in presidential elections and still hold the allegiance of minorities, the poor and others who seek federal assistance.”
In a telephone interview with The Times for the article, then-Representative James R. Jones of Oklahoma, a fiscal conservative, said, “’I think we should adopt the slogan of compassionate conservatism.” He continued, “We can be fiscally conservative without losing our commitment to the needy and we must redirect our policy in that direction.”
But in truth, there was no compassion to be had in that conservatism then — and definitely not now.
In 1981, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who was then president of the National Urban League, stung the Reagan administration:
“I do not challenge the conservatism of this administration. I do challenge its failure to exhibit a compassionate conservatism that adapts itself to the realities of a society ridden by class and race distinction.”
But while Reagan at least operated under the veneer of positivity and hopefulness with the language of a “shining city on a hill,” Trump has pursued a blatant appeal to anger and hostility with his talk of a nation in decline.
Over the years, compassionate conservatism has had its moments, including being espoused by Jack Kemp and President George W. Bush. That all feels like quaint, retrospective ephemera now.
Compassionate conservatism is dead; Trump and his band of backward-thinking devotees killed it.
Trump is rushing headlong into Muslim bans and mass deportations, wall building and Obamacare dismantling. Indeed, it feels like the campaign promises Trump is keeping have to do with cruelty and those he’s flip-flopping on have to do with character.
For instance, it is now abundantly clear that Trump had no intention whatsoever of draining the swamp in Washington. He is simply restocking it to his liking.
This is why I have no patience for liberal talk of reaching out to Trump voters. There is no more a compromise point with those who accept, promote and defend bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia than there is a designation of “almost pregnant.”
Trump is a cancer on this country and resistance is the remedy. The Trump phenomenon is devoid of compassion, and we must be closed to compromise.
No one need try to convince me otherwise. The effort is futile; my conviction is absolute. This is a culture war in which truth is the weapon, righteousness the flag and passion the fuel.
Fight, fight, fight. And when you are finished, fight some more. Victory is the only acceptable outcome when freedom, equality and inclusion are at stake.
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