Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address. As I discussed in my previous post, the speech is rife with historical missteps. But revisiting Reagan’s address thirty years on also allows us to take note of another remarkable change that has occurred over the past three decades.
Let’s start here: Remember the polarized reactions to the ad run by 84 Lumber during Super Bowl LI back in February 2017?
When I first saw the ad, it immediately brought to mind Reagan’s Farewell:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
And yet, in 2017 America, many of the same people who give Reagan pride of place in the pantheon of Great Americans panned the ad as unacceptably liberal and vowed to boycott the company. Had they forgotten the Great Communicator’s words? (Of course they had!)
Today, much of the federal government, rather than humming with commerce and creativity, is closed. Hundreds of thousands of employees face the prospect of making ends meet when their paychecks fail to arrive on time. And almost thirty years to the day after Reagan spoke those words, Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office himself: “The federal government remains shut down for one reason, and one reason only, because Democrats will not fund border security.” Of course, Democrats did commit to continuing border security funding at its previous levels; they only rejected Trump’s demand for more than $5 billion to fund Trump’s long-coveted wall (or the “steel barrier,” which he seems to view as a compromise).
He continued, “Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside but because they love the people on the inside.” Of course, it’s entirely possible to both love the people on the inside and hate the people on the outside—those things are not mutually exclusive—but how different is Trump’s message from Reagan’s? Trump then went on to tell of the horrific rapes and murders committed by a minuscule fraction of those crossing the border. So much for wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.
At a time when many Americans despair for their country (there’s that pesky erosion of the American spirit again), there are millions who still believe in the “American Dream” and are willing to endure unimaginable hardship in order to achieve it—only to be treated as criminals because of where they were born. So much for the doors being open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
So, to wrap up this two-part post, how did we get here? Why would Reagan—the celebrated vanquisher of the “Evil Empire” and hero of the Christian Right—choose to end his presidency by quoting a proto-communist who banished people for practicing religious freedom, even as he called for Americans to learn their history? And how do we explain the shifts in the Republican Party symbolized by the two very different walls envisioned by Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump? Those are questions historians can really sink their teeth into.
To answer them, however, requires far more than a knowledge of historical factoids. One must be able to think historically—to contextualize Reagan’s speech, coming as it did at a particular historical moment; to consider the changes (and the continuities) in American immigration over the last three decades; to corral the many contingencies which led to Trump’s election. To say what caused all of this is a complex business.
To bring things full circle, rather than fret about the erosion of some mythical “American spirit,” I worry about the very real decline in Americans’ tolerance for complexity and nuance. The result is, increasingly, an electorate that sees the world in black and white terms and is not only vulnerable to sound bytes, but actually appreciates them because they “cut to the chase.” This, I would argue, is one under-appreciated casualty of the fact-based approach to history that Reagan advocated. Rather than study history in all its glorious messiness, we train our students to acquire their knowledge in discrete and incoherent chunks.
Maybe Jimmy Doolittle is even on a test somewhere; I don’t know. But how, exactly, does that help us today?