Henry Olsen, author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, challenged popular conceptions of Ronald Reagan, during a Friday interview on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Rebecca Mansour.
“The Reagan that you presented in your book reminded me of the Ronald Reagan that members of my family voted for in Michigan in the 1980s. I am proudly from Metro Detroit, and Michigan was Reagan country,” said Mansour, noting that Macomb County, Michigan, was the home of the “Reagan Democrats.”
“When I read the Reagan that comes out of the conservative think tanks,” Mansour continued, “I don’t remember that guy. That’s not the one I remember the folks in Macomb County voting for.”
“I started looking at Reagan as an intellectual matter after the debacle of 2008,” explained Olsen. “The Republican Party [after the 2008 election] was in the worst position it had been in since 1978. I’m old enough to remember 1978 and Ronald Reagan, and I thought he brought us back before. Maybe we can learn something from how he did it. And what I learned was a Ronald Reagan that was completely different than what I had been told about. He was a Ronald Reagan who was interpreting the New Deal rather than opposing it. He was a Ronald Reagan who, most importantly, put the welfare of the average person ahead of any particular set of ideological dictums, and that meant that he could appeal to people in a way that conservatives often have failed to in the decades since.”
“One of the things that I remember about Ronald Reagan is how he championed the auto worker and the auto industry in 1980,” said Mansour. “How he talked about how we were going to bring back the auto industry. We’re not going to let it die. That was the Ronald Reagan that I remember that won Michigan, and Michigan loved him. This sounds foreign to the GOP today, which is just horrified, horrified, I tell you, that we would do anything to protect our own industry — as if we’re committing some sort of sin against the dogmatic high church of free trade.”
“What Reagan did with the auto industry was — go back to 1981 [where] there was the beginning of the import explosion — and Reagan said to Japan, ’Why don’t you voluntarily restrain the number of imports that you’re putting into the country?’ And they agreed, and what they did to get around it as build all those transplant auto plants in Kentucky and Tennessee and Ohio that are employing Americans,” said Olsen. “If Reagan had not protected American jobs, those jobs would not exist, and hundreds of thousands of Americans who work for them would not get their paychecks.”
“I remind people all the time that in terms of jobs here in the United States, Toyota is the biggest American car manufacturer, because they employ more Americans in their assembly plants all over the country,” Mansour said.
“Ronald Reagan was a free trader, but he was a fair trader, and he put Americans first, and what he said to Japan and other foreign importers that basically, in order to get access to the American market they had to share wealth with the American producer, with the American worker,” explained Olsen. “That has been a win-win for America ever since. We get great cars at lower prices, and Americans gets good jobs at good wages.”
“I am sure that there are people at the Heritage Foundation and at the CATO Institute that are just now screaming… ‘Heretic! Blasphemer!’ at you,” jested Mansour. “How is it that we got so far from the truth on what Reagan actually stood for all these years? He’s been turned into an Atlas Shrugged type of figure, something that sprung from Ayn Rand’s head.”
“I think what happened was that people who are on the losing side of American politics saw somebody who, to be fair, agreed with them on some things, and took over the interpretation of his legacy,” assessed Olsen. “Since he departed from the scene intellectually pretty soon after his presidency due to Alzheimer’s, there’s no one left to correct them. So you have the high priests of supply side saying, ‘Ronald Reagan was only converted to tax cuts because of our interventions.’ Well the fact is, and I’ve done the research, Ronald Reagan was talking about tax cuts when Art Laffer was in college and David Stockman and the other people were in diapers.”
“It would be about as stupid as making that claim to say that they influenced JFK,” mocked Mansour. “JFK was saying the same damn thing.”
“Ronald Reagan, if you go back, as I have, through the records — you can’t ever find him saying that he was a supply sider,” noted Olsen. “Ronald Reagan, in a number of places says, ‘I don’t know exactly what it means to be a supply sider, and I don’t agree with all their tenets, but I’ve always believed that reducing marginal tax rates for everyone was important,” said Olsen. “He was never part of the worship of the entrepreneur and the top one percent the way the supply siders are. Reagan believed that everyone should have their taxes cut, and he believed that everyone’s rates — and other things — should be done to reduce the marginal and tax bite out of an average person’s paycheck.”
“I like to remind people, just to see their reactions, that Ronald Reagan voted for FDR four times, and he never denounced FDR,” said Mansour.
“In fact, as I show in my book, Reagan had an intellectual debt to FDR that’s never really been fully brought out,” Olsen replied. “There are many times in his career, when not only did he openly cite FDR, he was the first Republican presidential nominee to mention that man’s name in his acceptance speech of 1980 of any Republican nominee, even to attack him. And he invoked Roosevelt’s name positively more times in his acceptance speech to Republican conventionists than even ever mentioned the word Republican. That just shows how Reagan was not rejecting that legacy that he had from his youth, but rather interpreting and moving it rightward, and that’s why I call him a New Deal Republican.”
“He used FDR’s [phrase] the ‘rendezvous with destiny,'” recalled Mansour. “When you look at the way that Reagan viewed the presidency, his style of speech, his mannerisms, his Great Communicator aspect, it reminds you so much of FDR,” observed Mansour, noting that both Reagan and FDR shared a “great sense of wit” and a “sunny optimism.”
“I think they were both natural in their temperament,” surmised Olsen. “Reagan was an ambitious but optimistic person, and FDR was, I think, more politically ruthless than Reagan, but equally optimistic and sunny. There are so many times I uncover in the book that Reagan would be quoting or paraphrasing FDR. Unless you read the fireside chats, which is what Reagan used to listen to, you wouldn’t know it, but when you set them side-by-side, you go, ‘Holy bleep! Ronald Reagan was ripping off FDR even when he wasn’t citing him.’ That’s how deep the connection was.”
“He came of age at that time,” said Mansour. “He always said, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, they left me.’ He always made that very clear. It’s astonishing to me that people didn’t get that.”
Mansour asserted that “the two presidents of the last century that had the biggest impact” were FDR and Reagan. Both, she reasoned, had “an inherent understanding of the ordinary person, the forgotten man and woman in this country, and what needs to be done to hold a country together.”
“People on the left will disagree with Reagan’s means, and people on the right will disagree with some of FDR’s means, but what both had was an idea that the average person wanted dignity, respect and a decent opportunity to make their own way, and that what they needed was help when they needed it, and they needed government to get out of the way when it wasn’t necessary, and that resonated with the average person,” said Olsen. “When FDR said, ‘The Constitution and the Declaration say you should have the right to liberty, but our current economic system is holding you back,’ they agreed with that. When Reagan said, fifty years later, ‘You know, actually, we’ve made government grow too big so that it’s our master and not our servant, but we don’t want to do away with government,’ the same people agreed to the same thing because it was the same principle. It was just different means dealing with different challenges.”
“FDR would have, I think, been appalled at what happened with many of the programs, what they morphed into, because his attitude was not to make you dependent on government,” speculated Mansour. “He had a phrase [about] how a person doesn’t need help in the summertime. You can fend for yourself in the summertime of life. It’s in the wintertime that you need some assistance and some help to get through.”
Mansour noted that Olsen’s groundbreaking book explains “Reagan’s inherent belief in the social safety net.”
“Reagan always believed in the social safety net that was created by FDR,” said Olsen. “Medicare is an extension of principles that [FDR] had fought for, and Social Security was created by him as was unemployment insurance. Reagan never abandoned those. He didn’t want, like FDR didn’t want, that [benefit] going to people who didn’t need it, but as far as the basic understanding that this is something that government ought to be doing, Reagan supported that throughout his career many times, and you can find that in many of his speeches, even in his most conservative times.”
“When he endorsed Barry Goldwater on television, the speech that made him a national political star, he said that we should tell our senior citizens that no one should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds,” noted Olsen. “So when he endorsed Barry Goldwater, he basically endorsed the idea of making sure that poor people who needed health insurance would have the government provide it. That’s how committed he was to social insurance.”
“I’m illustrating this because I think the GOP is still in reeling in shock and can’t understand how Donald Trump won,” said Mansour. “It was very obvious to me, coming from the background that I did from Reagan country in Michigan, that [Trump] was appealing to this broad group of people who hadn’t voted for Republicans in many years, if at all, because he was appealing on these same commonsense themes,” Mansour said. “How do you feel Donald Trump is doing in building up and revitalizing this old Reagan blue collar coalition?”
“Trump is doing well with the blue collar side, particularly this year when he’s focusing back towards concerns that they have,” considered Olsen. “The reason why people who switched parties to vote for him did so is because they’ve been under attack economically and culturally, and Trump said, ‘I understand you. I’ve got your back, and I’ll fight for you,’ and with immigration and trade, he’s brought those issues up to the forefront. What Trump needs to improve doing is [how] Reagan added, he brought those people into the coalition, but he also didn’t alienate the old line Republicans. He could keep the liberal Republicans in the same party as the new working class Democrats, and Trump needs to do a little bit better at adding rather than just replacing, but that’s something that he can learn on the job.”
“Do you think the Never Trumpers will ever come around, or are they just a hopeless cause and not really of concern? How do you feel about that?” asked Mansour.
“I am less concerned with the Never Trump intellectuals — many of whom are my personal friends — than I am with the many people who voted for Mitt Romney and John McCain who voted for Hillary Clinton,” Olsen said. “Those people should be part of a center-right coalition, and I think the president should be trying to move them back, but not by becoming an old line Republican, because then all you’re doing is getting the suburbs back and telling the blue collar person to get lost. What he needs to do is bring both sides in, so that he creates a broad-based natural majority coalition that exists, because Americans don’t want progressive policies, they want reasonable pro-active for the common person of all education backgrounds center right policies. They need someone who will deliver for them.”
“I don’t see them getting it from the Democrats, as you mention,” commented Mansour. “The Democrats have just completely abandoned any semblance of standing up for the working class in this country, even to the point where Nancy Pelosi’s out there talking about ‘crumbs’ and being dismissive of families getting an extra thousand dollars a year, which isn’t ‘crumbs’ for working class folks.”
“The Obama administration talked about a $500 opportunity to work credit that went to the working class, and the tax cut is giving the average person with kids more than that, but yet the contempt that drips from Pelosi’s lips when she talks about this just betrays the true source of their values,” said Olsen. “They no longer want to help the average person get ahead. They want to help their friends in wealthy enclaves pursue their chardonnay-based identity politics, and that’s just out of step with America.”
Asked by Mansour to give his predictions for the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections, Olsen argued that “it would be a mixed bag.”
“If the election were held today, it would look good for the Republicans in the Senate, but it would not look great for the Republicans in the House,” assessed Olsen. “It would be like 50-50 whether they would win, or not, and it’s because of those suburbanites who are not blue collar people and they feel out of touch with the agenda that’s being put forward, but that can change. Three more jobs reports like this one, and the president makes peace with North Korea, things like that could change. Right now, it would be a mixed bag.”
Listen to the full audio of the Breitbart News Tonight interview with Olsen above.
Breitbart News Tonight airs Monday through Friday on SiriusXM’s Patriot channel 125 from 9:00 p.m. to midnight Eastern (6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Pacific).
Follow Robert Kraychik on Twitter @rkraychik.