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Racism Wrapped Up in Sunny, Fatherly Love: Puncturing the Iconic Myth of Reagan in “The Reagans” Docuseries

By Daniel S. Lucks

President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982
President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library, National Archives and Records Administration

The ease with which Donald Trump took over Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party is one of the most significant political developments of the Trump era. For many Americans, this is surprising because the Gipper was a sunny and avuncular figure, and his projection of America as a “shining city on a hill” is the antithesis of the Trump’s polarizing dystopian view of “American carnage.” 

In The Reagans, journalist and documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer’s four-part Showtime docuseries, challenges the narrative of Reagan as an American icon by revealing a dark side to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s glamorous veneer. According to Tyrnauer, Reagan’s triumph marked an inflection point where America took the wrong turn and prioritized greed and selfishness, demonized government, eviscerated labor unions, and destroyed the social compact that created widespread middle-class prosperity in the post-war era. Though the now ex-President Trump is never mentioned in the nearly four hours of archival footage and commentary from a variety of historians, journalists, and a gallery of Reagan-era luminaries, Tyrnauer implies that Reagan’s political rise from Hollywood B actor to President of the United States laid the groundwork for the former reality star Donald Trump’s capture of the Presidency.

The Reagans is organized chronologically as well as thematically. The first episode narrates Reagan’s political odyssey from youthful allegiant of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism to his transformation to staunch conservative and corporate pitchman for General Electric. Tyrnauer’s treatment of Reagan’s role as an FBI informant in Hollywood, where he enforced the Hollywood blacklist as President of the Screen Actors Guild, will be news to many viewers.   Reagan’s background in Hollywood was pivotal in his facility in crafting an image of himself as an American hero based on a mythical America that never existed.

The second episode focuses on Reagan’s political rise from B Actor to Governor of California and explores his deft use of racially-coded dog whistles like “law and order,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare queens,” in appealing to white middle-class voters anxious over the racial and cultural dislocations of the 1960s. The final two episodes are a searing indictment of Reagan’s presidency. The third focuses on his quest to dismantle government programs for the needy while increasing the power of the wealthy through his tax cuts, ushering in our current Second Gilded Age. The final episode details some of the troubling episodes of Reagan’s final years, like the Iran-Contra scandal and his callous disregard of the AIDS epidemic. Most interestingly, Tyrnauer interviews Ronald Reagan, Jr., who believed his father exhibited symptoms of dementia during his Presidency. A main thesis of The Reagans is the central and indispensable role of the First Lady Nancy Reagan, an avid cultivator of the wealthy and powerful, and her reliance on an astrologer to determine Reagan’s schedule.

While much of the docuseries covers familiar ground, Part II, “The Right Turn,” traces Reagan’s early political career, backed by a powerful consortium of California millionaires, which is not as well known to the American public. Tyrnauer provides a great service by exposing the extent to which racism factored into Reagan’s political rise to Governor of California, and then the Presidency. As far back as the mid-1960s, Reagan aggressively appealed to white working-class Democrats by stoking their anxieties over the pace of the civil rights movement, which reached a crescendo after the explosive 1965 Watts riots. Capitalizing on fears that the ghetto and mayhem would spread to their communities, Reagan announced his bid for Governor in January 1966, claiming he wanted to protect Californians from the city streets that are “jungles” after dark, and crisscrossed the state excoriating California’s Fair Housing Act as an infringement on property rights. In 1976, Reagan campaigned for the Presidency, repeating the fanciful tale of a Cadillac-driving welfare queen chiseling off the hard work of white taxpayers. While Reagan never resorted to the overt racism of a George Wallace, his racially-coded dog whistles on “law and order,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare queens” resonated with white Americans.

The Reagans is a compelling, revisionist examination of the defining figure of the modern conservative movement who has been treated far too well by history. Tyrnauer succeeds in puncturing the myth of Reagan that a network of conservative activists and intellectuals fashioned in the years following Reagan’s exit from the political stage, and in apotheosizing Reagan as an American icon deserving of a coveted space on Mount Rushmore. The docuseries is a good companion to Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans and the Road to Trump, finalist for the 2021 Prose Award, in which I, too, indict Reagan and the conservative movement’s racist politics and policies and argue that Reagan’s white supremacist policies laid the groundwork for Trump. Both demonstrate Reagan’s genius in packaging his racism in a façade of fatherly love. 

Tyrnauer’s docuseries and Reconsidering Reagan are visceral reminders that Reagan was a media-savvy celebrity like Trump who deployed racism and convinced millions of middle-class whites to vote against their self-interest. Moving forward, it’s imperative that the conservative movement expunge the scourge of Trumpism, but they also need to reckon with the dark side of Reagan’s legacy. 


About the Author 

Daniel S. Lucks holds a PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley and is the author of Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War and Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans, and the Road to Trump. He is a graduate of the University of California Hastings College of the Law and lives in Los Angeles.