Culture & Conversation Politics

Thanks, Ronald Reagan: Today’s ‘Kill It to Save It’ Politics Are Not New

Eleanor J. Bader

The Trump administration's slash-and-burn approach to governing has its origins in the Vietnam conflict and the Gipper's rhetoric blaming the poor, liberals, and supposed over-reliance on government for U.S. ills.

Sociologist Corey Dolgon’s astute look at the conservative turn in U.S. politics, Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism’s Triumph Over Democracy, offers a fascinating look at the phenomenon that made Donald J. Trump the preferred choice of many voters in the United States. Dolgon calls the trend “kill it to save it,” and notes that the approach goes back nearly 50 years, to the Vietnam War. Then, the phrase was used to justify the 1968 Ben Tre and My Lai massacres to “save” the Asian country from communism.

The approach is undeniably twisted and involves the creation of narratives that ascribe blame, vilify enemy Others (both domestic and international), and distort both real and imagined threats to national wellbeing and sovereignty. Policy decisions follow and reinforce these storylines, which are vociferously repeated and publicized.

The Vietnam War provides a cogent example. During and after the conflict, “at issue was the very idea that the U.S. had lost both the war itself, and its own cherished images of virtue and invincibility,” Dolgon writes.

What was needed, conservatives felt, was a way to bolster confidence and restore the idea of U.S. infallibility and supremacy. Shortly after the wounds of losing the Vietnam War had begun to heal, a savvy band of semantic spin masters helped shift the political landscape and altered mainstream perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. Their work also changed domestic expectations and led to the ascendance of Ronald Reagan.

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

DONATE NOW

“Reagan would promote the narrative that we lost Vietnam because America’s hands were tied by an antiwar ‘liberal media’ and an ‘activist minority’—the people Vice President Spiro Agnew once called ‘long-haired hippies’ and an ‘effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,’” according to Dolgon.

Dripping with hatred for the idea that government should provide material help for those residing within the nation’s borders, Reagan put forward a hyper-individualism that was steeped in absurd, but clearly effective, mythology. “Reagan,” Dolgon writes, “blamed poor people for their own poverty and for causing the federal government endless budget woes.” In a startling feat of ideological misdirection, Reagan and his cohorts demeaned the poor and insulted unions and public educators. They then cavalierly slashed public expenditures on subsidized housing, schools, and other programs that most liberals and progressives believe are essential.

But Reagan would not be swayed to help the needy. He was “saving” them from a life of dependence and promoting “personal responsibility.” Indeed, as cutback after cutback took hold, his smile remained effusive and his statements remained direct and simple: People in the United States would succeed only if unfettered by government programs and regulations—you know, pesky things like environmental safeguards, wage protections, anti-discrimination provisions, and income supports—and unburdened by the high taxes used to support social programs. And in a trick worthy of Houdini, a large swath of the U.S. body politic was convinced by the racially coded rhetoric, sure that this was the best way for the United States to regain its perch as world leader and “be great again.”

Needless to say, the hogwash on which this premise rests is legion, but in harking back to a middle-class American Dream that predated the New Deal, Reagan was relying on what Dolgon calls “immense historical amnesia.” In fact, the Gipper seemingly “forgot” that for most U.S. residents to achieve even a modicum of prosperity, they needed a quality, free public education; health care; clean water; nutritious food; well-maintained highways, roads, and bridges; reliable buses and railways; and jobs and income supports. Unfortunately, instead of shoring up these provisions, Dolgon writes, “Reagan helped rewire the American mind, creating a cultural and political instinct against the public good supposedly for the benefit of the public good. Kill it to save it.”

The upshot is that during Reagan’s years in office—and throughout those of his Bush family successors—Republican politicians and what was then called the New Right relentlessly hammered away at the idea that economic woes were not the fault of corporate bosses, but were instead caused by tax-and-spend liberals, unions, and “welfare queens” grabbing handouts. As Dolgon explains: “The conflation of corporate bottom lines with individual freedom and opportunity is now paradigmatic for almost all serious debate on social issues in the United States. The result is a seriously flawed way of thinking about and acting on public policy once designed to protect and improve the general welfare but now designed to intensify the wealth and power of an elite few.”

The long-term fallout of this turn has many of us thinking far less critically than we should be—exactly as intended—and Dolgon takes pains to lay out how and why we’ve learned to tolerate the intolerable.

Let’s start with semantics and look at the example of public education. For more than three decades, public schools have been lambasted as wasteful and ineffective, run by overpaid teachers with no accountability. To remedy this supposed crisis, conservatives offer only one solution: privatization. Not surprisingly, for-profit education maintenance organizations (EMOs) stand ready to provide schools services or actually take over their operations—at a cost, of course. Step one, however, requires convincing state lawmakers that public schools are badly managed and have failed. From there, it’s a short step to demanding funding cutbacks. Once this hurdle is cleared, however, it takes only a short time before impoverished schools are backed into a corner, unable to function adequately. Private sector saviors—among them EMOs such as Edison, White Hat, and Mosaic—swoop in to “fix” the very system they’re destroying.

The finagling goes even deeper. At the same time as privatization schemes have taken root, financial support from major foundations has enabled the educational testing industry to blossom. “The answer to my question about why standardized tests form the cornerstone of educational reform is answered in much the same way as why we privatize schools—because there are fortunes to be made on the backs of children, parents, and teachers,” Dolgon concludes. “Our ‘kill it to save it’ framework accepts and legitimizes the notion that private corporations can not only teach our children better, but also evaluate the quality of teaching and learning better when all it really does is exploit them for profit.”

Add in hundreds of Koch Brothers-funded think tanks on college campuses, all of them geared to instilling the value of libertarian capitalism in students’ minds, and you can begin to connect the dots of a dastardly plan to change the role of government from serving the masses to serving industry alone. Meanwhile, President Trump is hell-bent on placing billionaires at the helm of leadership and casting them as brilliant innovators due to their wealth and not their educational experience. As he kowtows to the 1 percent, unions are smeared as job destroyers, environmentalists are dubbed godless communists, and the richest of the rich are lauded as God’s chosen few.

Changing this will be challenging, to say the least, especially since the narratives undergirding privatization and undermining our rights are not innovations. But the demonstrations that followed the election and inauguration presage a broad, prolonged, and spirited resistance. Finally.

Dolgon’s analysis will be useful in efforts to oppose privatization and reassert the idea that government’s main function is serving the people, not propping up business. What’s more, Kill It to Save It, like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, offers a clear and accessible look at how policy is crafted, marketed, and ultimately sold or rejected.

But no book is perfect. This one could have more forcefully addressed the intersection and impact of racism and sexism and zeroed in on the manipulation of social issues like abortion and marriage equality to recruit conservative activists. Still, the book supplements The Shock Doctrine and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, and it will interest those who want to understand how and why Trump appealed to so many U.S. voters.

Load More

Freedom of the press is under attack right now. Support fact-based quality, independent journalism today. Sign up for our email list.

Thank you for reading Rewire!