If he were around today, a time-warped Ronald Reagan would probably be denounced as a RINO by Reaganites, especially if they’d read Henry Olsen’s new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism. Simply put, many self-appointed keepers of the Reagan flame are far more ideological and uncompromising than the 40th president ever was (an argument this magazine has long made—see “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy” by Joshua Green, January, 2003). Olsen seeks to set the historical record straight and use it as a lens for understanding life in Donald Trump’s America.
Reagan is, of course, the central figure in the story of modern American conservatism. Yet the movement behind the man was just as important. The rebirth of conservatism in the U.S. is often traced to William Buckley’s founding of National Review in 1955. In the decades that followed, the magazine was, depending on one’s perspective, hailed or denounced for reviving an ideology that was on the verge of extinction. Just as importantly, it policed the boundaries of conservatism (purging extremist elements like the John Birch Society) while developing the ideas and policies that allowed the movement to reach beyond abstract intellectual discourse and establish a foothold in the realm of practical politics, taking root in the GOP.
By 1964, conservative Republicans were in open revolt against their party’s old guard and had gained enough strength to wrestle the presidential nomination away from the squishy moderates—epitomized by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The San Francisco convention that nominated Barry Goldwater is routinely seen as the moment that conservatives began their hostile takeover of the Republican Party. But while GOP delegates may have been ready for change, the country wasn’t, and Lyndon Johnson was reelected in one of the great landslides of American political history.
It took another 16 years before conservatives would finally claim the presidency. (In this telling, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford represented the moderates’ last hurrah.) But fittingly, it was Goldwater’s loyal protégé and ideological heir who finally succeeded in taking conservatism to the White House. And while the wait was long, for conservatives it was well worth it because that 1980 election ushered in a fundamental realignment of American politics in which a bloated government grounded in Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was to be transformed into an era of liberty, limited government, and individualism.