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Reagan, Bush, and the "Evil Other"
June 16, 2004
By Diane E. Dees

We used to have five cats in our household, and they got along quite peaceably, despite their differences. They ate, played and snuggled together. But on occasion, a neighborhood cat or a raccoon would wander over to our deck. When our cats saw the "enemy" through the French door glass, they would get worked up into a frenzy of aggression. Since they could not get through the glass to attack the intruder, they would attack each other, fighting, spitting, hissing, and growling, until we had to separate them.

Of course, the visiting animal wasn't really an enemy, nor could it cause any harm. But our cats perceived a threat, and their neurology took over.

It is that way in America, thanks to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. To say this is not to imply that America does not have enemies; our enemies are very real and do wish us harm. Reagan and Bush, however, have successfully exploited our fears to the extent that we have to attack something, and that something is each other.

Though many people like to say "Bush is no Reagan" (and he isn't), the similarities between them are so significant that they define an entire strategy for moving the country farther and farther right. Like Reagan, Bush has sprayed the air with enough testosterone to affect the national neurology, and the results, though ugly, are not nearly as damning of Reagan and Bush as they are of the national character.

Consider the results of Reagan's first term. In 1983, the economy was in deep trouble because of the president's failed supply-side economics program of deeply cutting taxes while raising defense spending. At that time, 81% of Americans said that the economy was the most important issue of the upcoming election. 42% said they had been hurt by Reaganomics, and only 17% said they had been helped. It should have been easy to defeat an incumbent who had created such an economic mess.

Granted, Mondale never took advantage of the many weaknesses in Reagan's campaign, but even then, it is extraordinary that Reagan not only won the 1984 election, but won it by a memorable landslide. This is what he did: he told the nation that "America Is Strong Again," a reference to the perception that America had been weak under President Carter. He sold the country on the idea that he was delivering freedom to Nicaragua by arming the contras, and that the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's leader at the time, must be crushed.

During the 80's, the image of the fatwa-creating Ayatollah was frightening to all Americans. In 1983, with the Iran-Iraq war escalating, Reagan removed Iraq from the list of countries that supported terrorism, and sent Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld to give the good news to Saddam Hussein. At the time, Saddam was already known to be using chemical weapons, but the philosophy of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" prevailed, as it so often does.

The images of Reagan protecting freedom in Latin America and protecting the homeland from the Ayatollah were enhanced by repeated images of the president as a cowboy. Ads showed him on his ranch, riding horses and chopping wood, a manly man who could bring America back from its alleged demise.

Reagan used this image of patriarchy and Old West machismo to address domestic issues, also. During his campaign, he declared he would not support ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and his opposition effectively killed it. Once elected, he set about dismantling the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a particularly nasty way: He appointed a right-wing minority bureaucrat (Clarence Thomas) to turn the commission into a mere shadow of its former self, with significantly less power to help those who faced job discrimination. It was Reagan who popularized the term "welfare queen," and it was Reagan who kept apartheid South Africa as a close ally.

In fairness to Reagan, there is nothing wrong with calling government oversized and inefficient. There is nothing wrong with cutting social programs, as he did, if you have a more efficient plan for replacing wasteful programs. In fact, doing so would have been a virtue. But Reagan didn't have such a plan; he just did the cutting, then wondered why the African American community was against him.

As governor of California, Reagan already had a reputation for harshly squelching campus free speech. As a Hollywood actor, he couldn't stop naming names to the McCarthy Commission. If Reagan stood for anything, he stood for anti-Communism and all that that has come to imply in conservative America: Speak out against the party line, and you are "one of them."

It was during the Reagan administration that this theory coalesced most dramatically, with the help of Jerry Falwell's ironically named Moral Majority: African Americans, feminists, gays, civil rights workers - anyone looked down on by "real" Americans - became the enemy. "Commies," "queers," "welfare queens" and "liberals" were not an ocean away in some strange desert land or behind an Iron Curtain, they were right in your neighborhood, and once you got all worked up into a frenzy, you could have a go at them.

Reagan had his Evil Empire, Bush has his Axis of Evil. This is not a coincidence. The entire purpose of creating an Evil Entity is to carve the image of "The Other." Once this image has been firmly established, it is easy to construct add-ons. "You're either with us or against us." Using the resulting flawed syllogism, if you oppose the war in Iraq, then you are "with" Saddam Hussein. If you speak against the president during wartime, you are "against" America. Oh, how easy it is to divide the nation into Good and Evil, and while you're at it, don't forget the queers, feminists and welfare queens - they're still the enemy, too.

Bush has taken patriarchy to new heights, also. After September 11, he cast himself as the stern father figure who would exact revenge on the terrorists, guard America's spirit, and protect the nation from its enemies. The tragedy is that people fell for this play-acting, and the result was the Patriot Act. In 2002, a shocking 49% of Americans believed that the First Amendment "goes too far." Now we have the trashing of art exhibits, the firing of teachers and professors, the implementation of "free speech" zones, and more death threats than can be enumerated.

Even more frightening is that - in the face of a war based totally on deception, a cuddly relationship with deeply repressive Saudi Arabia (who gave us most of the September 11 terrorists), and the abandonment of the victims of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan - Americans still consider Bush to be the person best suited to "fight terrorism."

He is certainly suited to fight progressive government, which seems to be good enough. Using extreme Christian Right yahoos as "consultants," he has waged an unprecedented war on women's reproductive rights, and he has carried that war to the far corners of the world, even slyly using it to sabotage his own AIDS program. He has attempted to appoint federal judges whose entire careers have been defined by their contempt for women's rights and civil rights. And just like when he was governor of Texas, he has made a special mission of defeating gay rights.

Bush, like Reagan, is giving people what they want - permission to hate an enemy, and to define that enemy as broadly as possible. Like Reagan, Bush puts on his jeans, goes to the Crawford Ranch and hacks away at the brush, or puts on a flight suit and presents his pelvis to the viewing public. It is all about testosterone, the Old West, and fighting off the perceived threat to "American values," about which (if we use the Constitution as a guideline), Bush and his adoring masses don't have a clue.

But "perceived" is the key word here. America, beware: the raccoon is at the door, and if you can't go out there and whip its ass, you can at least find some available Americans to spit at and stick your claws in.

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