Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Republican Right Offers Reagan Redux

The Republican right’s Pledge to America is widely being compared with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. But for those of us with long enough memories, it more clearly harkens back a decade further, to the early days of the Reagan Administration. Now, as then, the Republican agenda has two major political thrusts.

First, the Republicans are advancing a Reaganesque program based around defense Keynesianism, an economic pump-prime through military spending. It signals a victory for the Pentagon generals who have been fighting Obama to further expand what certainly appears to be a futile war in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan–one that can go on and on indefinitely. Moreover, the Republicans want to fund an expensive missile defense system. Just as with Reagan, once this kind of spending gets going, they will be congratulating themselves on new jobs making armaments. At the same time, they can talk of shrinking the deficit by reducing or eliminating domestic programs.

That’s the nub of the pledge, with one adroit addition. This document makes no mention of reducing or eliminating Social Security. This is good politics before the election, and it’s bound to undercut the Obama administration, which has created the fiscal commission to reduce deficits, and is widely assumed to have Medicare and Social Security in its sights. Reagan did his best to cut domestic programs of the New Deal sort. But in the end, he could never have entirely eliminated them because he always swore to maintain a basic safety net for the old and the poor–and such public pronouncements helped to undermine Democratic challenges.

The pledge provides a focus for Republican ambitions, but most importantly it removes any thought that the Tea Party people have or could ever have any real sway in Republican policy matters. During Reagan’s early forays into the countryside, there were plenty of what now would pass for Tea Party types, but they were largely excluded from the party’s overall direction. Gingrich and his New Right colleagues in Congress occupied the back benches of the House at the time, and they moved within the overall Republican party apparatus. There was–and is–no chance of a popular takeover from the fringes of the party. Instead, Reagan claimed the center, and then pushed that center further and further to the right, where it remains to this day.

The End of the Little Red Cars: Remembering East Berlin

In this week’s 20th anniversary celebrations of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, two images predominate: First,  Ronald Reagan stands before the Brandenburg Gate, intoning “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Next, throngs of jubilant Berliners stream through Checkpoint Charlie, while others clamber atop the Wall or hack at it with sledgehammers, often to the musical accompaniment of David Hasselhoff. Based on these images, you’d never guess that there were more than two years separating these two events–and you’d certainly never know how little they actually had to do with one another.

The mainstream media this week has been full of homages to what they call the “speech that ended the Cold War.” Some news outlets–along with Angela Merkel and the German people themselves–have had the decency to acknowledge that Mikhail Gorbachev had something to do with it, as well. Either way, most accounts attribute the destruction of the Wall to actions and policies that came from the top, from the leaders of the two great Cold War powers.  Largely forgotten or ignored are the ordinary citizens who for years had gathered in the churches of the GDR, placing themselves at great personal risk as they peacefully and persistently worked for change.  

I caught a glimpse of this grassroots movement when I went to East Berlin in the first days of October 1989, a month before the Wall was breached. Along with Sylvia Plachy, the photographer, and Bettina Muller, a young West German journalist, I was ostensibly covering the 4oth anniversary of the GDR; actually, we were there to cover the growing pro-democracy movement. For the better part of the decade, dissidents had been meeting in protestant churches in Leipzig and Dresden, as well as in Berlin–initially to protest the arms race, and later to advocate for political reform. These churches were tolerated by the government and allowed to provide a protective cover for the opposition–although, like everything else in the GDR, they were closely monitored by the Stasi. 

By the fall of 1989, the movement’s numbers had swelled, and there was a sense of excitement, but also one of fear: East German leader Erich Honecker was a hard-liner with no interest in perestroika. Some movement leaders had been arrested, and after the carnage in Tiananmen Square a few months earlier, there were worries that the government would choose a “Chinese solution” to the growing protests in the GDR.

I remember a cold, damp October afternoon when my colleagues and I tried to make contact with someone who had offered to direct us to a meeting of the pro-democracy activists. Entering a small square, we cast a quick look around and saw that at every corner there was a Trabant, the boxy little East German car, each with two men sitting in the front seats. All the cars seemed to be red: This was the Stasi, and they had no need to hide their presence. 

We turned up a sidestreet and went halfway up the block to an address we had been given, the office of an environmental book store. But the windows were shuttered, the door padlocked shut. As we retreated down the block, we passed a young couple, bundled up against the raw cold. They nodded, and walked straight past us. Their clothing was plain and worn and, like everything else in East Berlin, drab. But on the girl’s coat collar, tucked almost out of sight, was a little pin. “That’s it,” Bettina whispered. “They’re here.”

Keeping an eye on the Stasi vehicles, we watched as the couple crossed the square and disappeared into the door of a nondescript building. We followed, and found  ourselves in a small café with a dozen or so people. Noone talked much. They seemed to be waiting. Here and there among them we saw the little pin. Soon, paying no heed to us, they began to drift out in ones and twos.

Bettina had spoken briefly with a young man who gave her another address. We now doubled back out, got into a half-empty metro, went a couple of stops, and crossed another square to a large church built of red stone, with a parish hall next door. It was beginning to get dark, and lights shone through the windows. Outside, all around the building, were little red Trabants.

We had found our way to the Erloeserkirche, or Church of the Redeemer, where that evening thousands of people had gathered by candlelight. Some represented various pro-democracy groups, who were drafting a joint declaration laying out the terms of a new society in East Germany, with free speech and free elections. (Capitalism, at least then, wasn’t on their agenda.) Many others had come to Berlin from deep in the east to catch a glimpse of Gorbachev, who was about to arrive in the city to celebrate the GDR’s anniversary. They wore–timidly at first, then proudly–their little perestroika pins, proud emblems of what seemed to be a peaceful revolution.

I couldn’t understand what was being said, so I watched the crowd; they listened quietly and seriously, but the air buzzed with subdued energy. When the meeting came to an end, we followed the crowd outside. Suddenly, the doors of the little red cars slammed shut. Their engines turned over. The men inside glared out as they began to follow their targets off into the night.

If this all sounds too much like a John Le Carre story, it’s because things really were like that in East Berlin, right up to the end. While there was some sense that things were changing, my colleagues and I didn’t know that we were witnessing the run-up to a cataclysmic transformation in global politics.  Neither, I think, did most of the people inside the church. But that week, churches in Berlin, Leipzig, and elsewhere would become the site of mass demonstrations and mass arrests. Another week more and Honecker would resign. In a month, half a million people would demonstrate in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; a few days after that, the Wall would be breached. 

The members of pro-democracy movement who gathered in those churches invoked the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler and was executed by the Third Reich; they paid homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., who launched a liberation movement from his pulpit in Atlanta. They cheered on Gorbachev, whom they saw as emboldening their revolt, and they were hungry for news of dissdents in other parts of Eastern Europe. But not once did I hear any of them mention Ronald Reagan.

Although it may be lost in the bombastic rhetoric of Western, especially American, self-glorification, the fact is that the fall of the Berlin Wall–and in fact, our so-called victory in the Cold War–had almost nothing to do with us. It didn’t result from the billions the United States spent on nuclear arms, or the thousands of spies we  deployed (none of whom, by the way, saw this coming). It did owe some debt to the maverick Soviet premier who created a  window of opportunity. But in the end, it was down to people like these unassuming  young East Berliners, who braved a 40-year habit of repression and a fleet of little red cars to gather in a church on a raw October evening.

(For those interested in this history, I recommend this piece by Andrew Curry in the Wilson Quarterly.)

church

Gethsemane Church, East Berlin, October 9, 1989

alexander

Alexanderplatz, East Berlin, November 4, 1989

Fear in the Heartland

The health care “debate” has been transformed into a confusing screaming match fueled by wild nativist fears. As Senator Chuck Grassley has found out at town meetings in Iowa, health care really is not the issue that’s on the minds of many. Instead, it’s all about the nation’s economic turmoil: People are hurting, and don’t see the stimulus plan helping them. From there, its a short leap to attacking the Federal Reserve, and what many perceive as a threatening, directionless federal government that is bent on controlling their daily lives.  And Grassley appears to be ready to capitalize on the anger:

Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grassley said. “They’re seeing the stimulus not working. They’re seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They’re seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it’s not good for the country.”

The anger and paranoia directed at the government in general, and Obama in particular, that can be glimpsed at the tea parties and town hall meetings are ugly and often racist, depicting the president as everything from a socialist granny-killer to the anti-Christ himself. They’re also downright frightening, considering the fact that so many of these people own guns. But they are based on genuine fear, and sometimes on real suffering. 

These fears remind me of the fears that ran through the Midwest more than 20 years ago, during the 1984 presidential election. Back then Walter Mondale was vainly fighting Ronald Reagan, against a backdrop of farm foreclosures,bank crackdowns, penny auctions, and fight back by rural people in the heartland. Then as now, people showed up in angry knots–not unlike today’s town meetings–at foreclosure s to shout down the auctioneers, trying to save a farm. The gun of choice at that time was the semi-automatic mini 14, which was held by some in the same esteem as the Colt 45 did back in the day. Some turned to the Bible, watched the skies for Soviet bombers, dug themselves into bunkers.

All in all, then as now, what we faced was an outpouring of nativism–fears of the unknown, of the foreigner coming across our borders, of a sinister hegemonic government, of things going out of control. This was the desperate response of people who had lost farms that had been in their families for generations, had lost their way of life, and were scared and angry and looking for someone or something to blame–and who found no viable populist alternative on the left.

If you can’t remember those days, rent Country starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard and written in part by Shepard, who knows this world well.  It was shot in Iowa in 1984, and showed a couple struggling to save their family farm, against greedy banks and government policies that paved the way for a takeover by large agribusinesses.  At that time Reagan said the film “was a blatant propaganda message against our agri programs.” The film’s tag line was “In this country, when the land is your life…you fight for your life.”

Progressives then waited anxiously for the movie’s release, hoping it could channel the nativist far right politics into a constructive force. Things didn’t quite work out that way: Folks in the heartland stuck, literally, to their guns. They aren’t likely to work out any better now.