Saturday, December 24, 2016

Reagan's War by Peter Schweizer

Steve Bannon, now a senior advisor to President-Elect Trump, has a film on his resume that excited some folks, called In the Face of Evil. The film was apparently based on a book by Peter Schweizer—this book in fact. It took some doing, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of the film and I was surprised. It didn’t seem particularly kind to Ronald Reagan, but painted him as a failed actor with a single obsession in his entire life: the destruction of the communist political system. Now, with echoes of Reagan resounding in Trump's tweets ("Let the arms race begin!"), I wonder if the film doesn't tell us what Bannon might be advising Trump to do.

The film used set-ups for shots that one will recognize from old film classics like Metropolis (dark, brooding, shots of creepy overlords), Citizen Kane (dark, brooding shots of politicians with creepy amounts of power), and a couple others, so it seemed like a weird montage by a newbie director who wanted to remind viewers of more important films than his own.

After watching the film, I then wondered about the book: was it as ambiguous about Reagan’s obsession as I felt the film was? Schweizer’s book reads like ad copy from the 1950s, not a book on political affairs published in 2002, and the book precisely illustrates my unease with supposed ‘histories:’
"Along with their children Michael and Maureen, Ron and Jane [Wyman] lived in a beautiful home with a pool on Cordell Drive. He owned a splendid ranch near Riverside, and when he and Jane weren’t at the studio lot, they could be found playing golf at the prestigious Hillcrest Country Club with Jack Benny and George Burns. At night they often dined at the trendy Beverly Club."
Reagan was an executive committee member of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) which was accused in 1946 of being a communist front. Reagan instantly supported release of a statement denying support for communists which was opposed by the majority, leading to infighting and Reagan’s resignation. He was shortly elected to lead the Screen Actor’s Guild and became an FBI informant against his fellows in SAG. Wyman divorced him for “mental cruelty” when the two “engaged in continual arguments on his political views.”

Reagan became enamored of Arthur Koestler’s disillusionment with communism in 1948, when he read Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon and gradually conceived of
”the opportunity to combine his love of movies with his newfound mission to undermine communism. Why not use Hollywood films to undermine the Soviets?”
Ah, the wheels turn, grinding out opportunities. From 1959 through 1963 Reagan honed and developed his anti-communist message, and by the time he gave his “rendezvous with destiny” speech [also called “A Time for Choosing”] in front of a national audience in support of Barry Goldwater at the Cocoanut [sic] Grove, Los Angeles in 1964, he’d been delivering versions of the speech for two years already.

What I take away from this book and my haphazard attempts to fact-check is that it is detailed, fluently-written--even absorbing if one is interested in Reagan's intellectual prowess--but also narrowly-focused, one-sided, un-nuanced propaganda supporting Reagan’s monomaniacal zeal for democracy’s strength in light of the encroachment of communist ideas. Certainly watching the film of the book would take less time, and you would have to ask yourself at the end of it…what kind of men are these that praise Reagan’s strength in defying Russia before, and praise Trump’s cozying up to Russia now?

Is it the clarity of a single motivating idea, and appreciation of strongman attitudes and propaganda techniques that captures Schweizer's and Bannon’s imagination and support? Perhaps communism was the real bugbear, not Russia, and now that Putin is clearly a world-class oligarch in the tradition of democracies and colonial empires the world over, Putin is no longer the threat, but the partner.

There is no doubt that Reagan's arms race and inflexibility 'broke' the less-strong Russian economy. Perhaps Trump hopes to push Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea to the wall in the same way, through the threat of weaponry escalation. A bloodless kind of war, played economically. The deep cynicism needed for this tack misreads our opponents and reflects how the conservative viewpoint in America has developed under Republicans and the Koch brothers' influence.

I’d love to see the insights of others about the book or on Bannon’s film, In the Face of Evil. I hesitate to recommend either one, however, not finding the central ideas sufficiently complicated enough to explain or deliver justice in today’s complex environment. I learned to think differently, growing up, and to seek less autocratic solutions.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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