Echoes of Reagan
Late in the second episode of the new documentary mini-series The Reagans, we are reminded of history’s echoes and how they continue to reverberate. Ronald Reagan, hailed as a saint of modern conservatism, laid the groundwork for what would unfold some five decades later during the Trump era. We learn that “Make America Great Again,” a phrase married so tightly to our perception of Trump, was lifted right from Reagan’s playbook. And even more than just political sloganeering, Trump also borrowed from him in more substantial ways, scapegoating the political left and using much of the same earlier language and strategy of Reagan in doing so.
In the spring of 1969, the UC Berkeley campus was one of the thriving epicenters of the nationwide protest movement against the Vietnam War. Fueled by political activism amongst the student body and the Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, adjacent to the campus, became a living symbol of political resistance. Students and community members planted trees, flowers, and handed out free food in the park throughout the spring, largely without issue. A “free speech” microphone, both a symbol and a tool, provided a voice for protesters, poets, and rabble-rousers alike.
But all of this beatific gathering met its end only four weeks later. On May 15th, 1969, then-governor of California Reagan, three years into his first term, abruptly ordered the park to be fenced in, cleared out, and cordoned off at 4 am. By morning, some 3,000 students amassed in Sproul Plaza, long a gathering place for campus rallies and protests. Framing the protesters, in concert with J. Edgar Hoover it was later revealed, as a “front for communist activity” and calling it a “plot,” with a “conspiratorial side to it,” Reagan reacted with brute force, sending in 791 local police and 2,700 National Guard. The skirmishes escalated and spread from the campus to Berkeley’s nearby neighborhoods, with tear gas flying, and eventually, real bullets as well. 128 people were wounded, 1,000 arrested, and 25-year-old James Rector died after being shot by local police in the melee.
It was a dark moment in history and one that mirrors recent events under Trump’s watch. Reagan blamed Democratic university leaders for not controlling the “violent mobs,” and Trump would take the same tack in claiming Portland’s Democratic leadership had “lost control of the anarchists and agitators.” Reagan sent in the National Guard; Trump called upon Customs and Border Protection.
Neither the local leadership of Berkeley in 1969 or of Portland in 2020 wanted federal assistance. In fact, they both explicitly spoke out against it. The Berkeley City Council voted 8–1 in support of People’s Park, as did a 642–95 yes/no vote in the UC Faculty Senate, as well as 12,719 out of 14,969 members of the student body voting in favor of letting the park stand. Likewise, Oregon governor Kate Brown didn’t mince words during several tumultuous months this summer, calling Trump’s response of force in Portland political theater, pleading along with Portland mayor Ted Wheeler that federal involvement was feeding the fire rather than dousing it.
It’s an adage that war-time presidents win re-election. Heading into a re-election year in 1970, Reagan met with a group of governors and famously said of the protesters, “if it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with,” and in The Reagans mini-series, Reagan’s chief political strategist at that time, Stu Spencer, flippantly says “bomb the bastards” when asked if he supported the tear-gassing of the UC Berkeley campus in response to the People’s Park debacle. Fifty years later, Trump would describe the summer protests across America in an eerily similar way, saying “it’s like a war. And we will end it fast.”
Such are the words of conflict, and Reagan carved his identity in this brand of incendiary and divisive politics. At war with the left, and at war with an undeniable surge in youthful activism, he consolidated his conservative base, sailing to a comfortable California gubernatorial win in 1970, getting 500,000 more votes than the Democratic challenger. And in borrowing Reagan’s strategy, Trump nearly did the same in the recent national election. But, the political echoes of 1970 had faded just enough in the intervening years, their resonance still heard, but not convincing enough to keep ringing on.