The most jarring image of the past week appeared in The New York Times, alongside a surprisingly positive profile of 33-year-old conservative pundit Benjamin Shapiro.
It was a photograph of Mr. Shapiro’s supporters at the University of Utah. One of the students was wearing a "Reagan Bush ’84" T-shirt.
The next day, Matthew Continetti, the 30-something editor of the Washington Free Beacon, a website popular among young conservatives, devoted a substantial portion of his column to quotes from interviews and speeches by Reagan in 1947, 1952, and 1988.
As an historian and the author of books about Samuel Adams and John F. Kennedy, I can understand and endorse the search for a usable past. Countries and political movements need heroes, people whose successes and ideas can inspire and guide our own.
I grew up during the Reagan presidency and venerate him for winning the Cold War with a military buildup, unleashing economic growth with tax cuts and a strong dollar, and standing up to public-employee unions in the air traffic-controller strike.
But the resurgence of Reagan nostalgia is not without its own formidable risks. There’s a certain backward-looking element to it — the danger of ending up like some middle-aged guy who can’t get over his years as a high school athlete, or some contemporary liberal college student with a tie-died t-shirt and a guitar trying to re-live the antiwar protests of the late 1960s.
Reaganism, more than 30 years on, risks getting stale. Beyond that, the cult of Reagan risks airbrushing the reality that Reagan himself didn’t entirely live up to Reagan’s principles and standards.
When an Islamist bombing attack in Beirut in 1983 killed a total of 241 American Marines, soldiers, and sailors, Reagan retreated and withdrew American troops from Lebanon. The move has been praised because it prevented America from getting involved in an Iraq or Vietnam-style quagmire, but it also emboldened continuing waves of terrorist violence. Reagan also authorized the sale of the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia — a significant step in the long and unhealthy relationship between Washington, D.C. and the Saudi monarchy.
Concerned about Nazi sympathizers on the march in contemporary America? Remember that Reagan, over the strenuous objections of Holocaust survivors, laid a wreath at a cemetery in Bitburg where Nazi SS troops were buried.
It’s more than just college students and columnists nostalgic for Reagan. President Trump used Reagan’s 1980 "Make America Great Again" line as his campaign slogan. Trump himself soared to celebrity during the Reagan years. It was 1986 when he rescued the Wollman ice skating rink in New York’s Central Park. His book "The Art of the Deal" was originally published in 1987.
There’s a tension in conservatism between conserving the past and updating it so that it’s as progressive and dynamic as the free market, rule-of-law society it aims to preserve and uphold.
If anyone understood that, it was Reagan himself. Though ancient YouTube videos of him denouncing Medicare as "socialized medicine" were popular during the Obamacare debate, the Gipper wasted no time or political capital in his administration trying to dismantle the popular safety net of Social Security or Medicare that his Democratic predecessors had enacted.
Reagan campaigned and governed as much as an heir to Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy as an ideological descendant of Barry Goldwater or Herbert Hoover. With Jack Kemp, he expanded the Republican coalition to include Reagan Democrats and urban Catholics, not just "country club Republicans."
That’s not to suggest that Trump or would-be Trump-successors should imitate the specifics of Reagan’s domestic policy or campaign tactics. But Reagan’s optimism was linked to his conviction that our country’s best days are still ahead of us.
If he could see us now he’d probably smile at that photograph of the college student wearing the campaign T-shirt with the Reagan-Bush logo from 1984. But I think he’d hope too that sometime pretty soon young conservatives find another t-shirt they can be proud to wear.
What the conservative movement and the Republican party could use now, in other words, isn’t rigid Reagan retreads, but rather some more creative spirit — something like Reagan’s own remarkable ability to reinvent Reaganism for a new time.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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