That’s America

Stephen Greenblatt

  • ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin
    California, 366 pp, £19.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 520 05937 9

The 15th-century classic of paranoid witch-hunting, Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, provides a convenient gloss on the word ‘glamour’. Witches, the Dominican inquisitors tell us, can rob a man of his penis or at least make him think that he has been robbed. The victim wakes up in the morning, looks down and sees nothing there – or rather he sees, where his penis should be, what is called a ‘glamour’.

Under Nancy’s adoring gaze, Ronald Reagan’s valedictory address at the Republican National Convention was a glamorous performance. But at one point, trying to reproach the Democrats with John Adams’s phrase ‘Facts are stubborn things,’ he slipped and declared instead: ‘Facts are stupid things.’ At the moment he wished to invoke an intransigent, incontrovertible reality which would supposedly confound his enemies and bear out the glorious achievement of his tenure in office, his tongue rebelled and brushed reality away. He showed, of course, no sign of embarrassment: one of Reagan’s considerable gifts as a politician has been his ability to lift much of the country out of the realm of shame. He has taught Americans that there is nothing to be ashamed of – not only no disgraceful actions but no hidden self to be disgraced. What unconscious force then substituted ‘stupid’ for ‘stubborn’? No force at all, only a glitch in the transmission, the meaningless celluloid stutter of Gary Trudeau’s merciless caricature, Ron Headrest.

The President moved smoothly from presumptive facts to stories, a realm where he has always been more at home. ‘It is our gift,’ he said, ‘to have visions, and I want to share that of a young boy who wrote to me shortly after I took office.’ Over the years he has launched into hundreds of these anecdotes: the country, it seems, is filled with juvenile letter-writers, refugees from the Evil Empire, freedom-loving victims of the wicked Sandinistas, armless teenage entrepreneurs who have started small businesses in their spare time while training for the Olympics. This particular visionary wrote to Ronald Reagan that he loved America ‘because we have about two hundred flavours of ice cream’. ‘That’s America,’ the President observed. ‘Everyone with his or her vision of the American promise.’ The charm of the anecdote was its complete vacuousness: no tale of harrowing escape, no Horatio Alger rise from misery to wealth, no denunciation of the evils of godless Communism – at most a very oblique reference to the virtues of supply-side economics.

The only emperor, the story seemed to say, is the emperor of ice-cream. But then the television cameras scanned the crowd and found faces taut with emotion, eyes brimming with tears. The point was not that Reagan had for once eschewed his taste for melodramatic anecdotes, but rather that by now he can achieve the same histrionic effects with nothing. Lurking behind the performance is Reagan’s weird agenda: a massive invisible laser shield against nuclear attack coupled with a refusal to abjure a nuclear first-strike, a call for capital punishment coupled with a crusade against abortion, a spectacularly expensive arms build-up coupled with a noisy denunciation of government spending. But in his farewell words the President did not need to explain or defend his programme. The final triumph of the cult of personality is that it can expose its emptiness without losing its magic.

Michael Rogin’s brilliant collection of essays, ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, attempts to account for and destroy this magic by restoring the two dimensions it has effaced: history and psychic interiority. The title essay opens by describing an obscure Forties B-movie, Murder in the Air. Weaving together an attack on subversion, the merging of Communism and Fascism, and the celebration of a secret agent as guardian of the national security, the plot centres on a foreign threat to a miraculous defensive weapon, a sophisticated device which, according to an American admiral, will ‘make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented’. The secret agent in this otherwise forgettable movie was played by Ronald Reagan. He is still living inside the film, and he’s managed to lure a nation of 240 million people in with him.

A friend was invited last year to a small dinner party in Washington which the Reagans attended. To her surprise, she said, the President was not senile: in fact, he was quite good company in a garrulous way. He told one amusing story after another. But there was one thing odd about the stories: they all dated from the Forties. Reagan’s character, Rogin suggests, was formed in the Forties by the convergence of two substitutions, one political, the other psychological. The political substitution entailed the replacement at the end of World War Two of Nazism by Communism; the psychological substitution entailed the shift ‘from an embodied self to its simulacrum on film’. No one attending the Republican Convention or watching it on television could have been surprised when, at the climax of his speech, the President told George Bush to ‘go out and win one for the Gipper.’ In Knute Rockne, All American, Reagan played the legendary Notre Dame halfback, George Gipp, who died young of viral pneumonia but lived on as an inspiration to his football team and to the country. ‘Someday when the team is in trouble,’ the dying Gipp had told coach Rockne, ‘tell them to win one for the Gipper.’ Throughout his political career, Reagan has milked this immortal line, always creating the uncanny impression, intensified in his farewell address, that he has witnessed his own death and apotheosis. At such moments – and there are many, for the President can draw on a wide range of B-movies – Ronald Reagan, the man, is transformed into Ronald Reagan, the movie. And this movie, in turn, is deftly identified with the nation’s destiny.

In Rogin’s view, Reagan’s initial self-transformation was motivated by an intense desire to escape from his family, in particular from his shoe-salesman father, an alcoholic. In his most famous movie, King’s Row (1942), Reagan played a character who awakens after an accident to discover that his girlfriend’s father, a sadistic doctor, has amputated his legs. The line that made him a star, and that he used as the title of his autobiography, is ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ ‘How, if your father is a failed shoe salesman,’ Rogin writes, ‘do you avoid stepping into his shoes? The answer King’s Row provided was this: by cutting off your legs.’ But that answer led to a career in which he was typecast in roles that exposed his vulnerability and weakness. He wanted to play the traditional hero, but Warner Brothers repeatedly made him sicken or die or suffer humiliation at the hands of women. Paradoxically, it was only outside the film industry, in the still more fantastic world of Californian politics, that he could play the idealised fictional character he craved to be. That character was fashioned in Reagan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Embarking on an anti-Communist witch-hunt, naming the names of hidden subversives and Red sympathisers among his former friends and associates, Reagan began, as he put it, ‘to find the rest of me’. The self so felicitously discovered acted out a fantasy of martial independence – he likes the description of himself in the early Fifties as a ‘one-man battalion’ – while actually serving as the front for powerful rightist political and corporate interests. As President, he has perfected a blend of mimed vigour and passivity, an impressive show of autonomy belied by the half-audible words of the prompters in the wings. ‘Reagan has realised the dream of the American male,’ Rogin comments, ‘to be taken care of in the name of independence, to be supported while playing the man in charge.’

This duplicity would seem to depend upon the most careful strategies of concealment, but the Reagan Administration has by no means hidden the puppet’s strings. To be sure, there must still be millions of citizens who are ‘taken in’ by the performance, who think of the President as an active, well-informed, vigorously independent executive (the fact that I haven’t met one only reveals the narrowness of my own orbit), but Reagan’s success does not seem to depend upon the imposition of the fraud. On the contrary, his now legendary staying-power is compatible with and may even depend upon a widespread popular acceptance of a gap between performance and reality. The reality never comes into focus – even Rogin hesitates to say whether Reagan is the unconscious instrument of psychosocial forces beyond his control or the cunning manipulator of mass fantasies – but no one demands that the actor and his role be perfectly identical. Admirers can reap a double satisfaction: the pleasure of espousing right-wing convictions without the inconvenience of acknowledging all of their consequences. There are consequences all the same – bitter, long-term consequences for large numbers of people in the United States and abroad – but Reagan’s image-managers have been remarkably successful in marginalising them. And Reagan’s own perennial cheerfulness has turned corruption, waste and horror into uplifting stories or trivial jokes.

Rogin is interested in the trivialising powers of the President’s personality – his gift for metamorphosing even a fantasy of nuclear Armageddon into a light-hearted pleasantry – but he is still more interested in the deep historical roots of Ronald Reagan’s shallowness. For Rogin, these roots lie in the acts of violence against peoples of colour which laid the foundation of the United States. ‘History begins for us with murder and enslavement,’ wrote William Carlos Williams, ‘not with discovery.’ Rogin contends that the slave system generated in whites – and not only in the slave-owners themselves – a counter-subversive mentality, a constant anxiety about a social and sexual threat that needed to be combated whatever the cost. This anxiety was only partially relieved by a paternalism which attempted to infantalise the threatening blacks and by the mob violence that was paternalism’s murderous twin. The volatile blend of arrogance and insecurity had even more disastrous consequences in white relations with the Indians. An insatiable greed for Indian land fuelled genocidal policies which, Rogin argues, were not so much masked as facilitated by liberal laments for the ‘inevitable’ disappearance of the primitives before the onrushing tide of civilisation.

Whites projected onto blacks and Indians a demonic evil whose presence would justify any attacks upon them: ‘Since Indian violence was exterminatory whites could exterminate Indians.’ In Rogin’s view, which draws upon Melanie Klein, this process of projection and reprisal enabled whites to act out and punish their own oral-sadistic violence and thereby to define the boundaries of civility. And this psychic economy dovetailed perfectly with the economy of antebellum America, engaged in the primitive accumulation of capital. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the focus of counter-subversive demonology shifted from peoples of colour to aliens, the masses from Southern and Eastern Europe and from China and Japan who were needed as a work-force but feared as the carriers of socialism, sedition and racial pollution. The onset of the Cold War marks a third major shift, as a massively bureaucratic national-security state conjures up, not a dangerous working class, but the invisible agents of the international Communist conspiracy. It could be argued, against Rogin, that these three phases mark quite distinct institutional and psychological structures in American experience, just as a more optimistic account of the history of the United States would insist upon a counter-tradition of democratic openness and tolerance. But in a series of powerful and disturbing historical and theoretical chapters Rogin makes a trenchant case for the existence of a national repetition compulsion in which the alien is identified, demonised and mirrored: ‘Counter-subversive politics – in its Manichaean division of the world; its war on local and partial loyalties; its attachment to secret, hierarchical orders; its invasiveness and fear of boundary invasion; its fascination with violence; and its desire to subordinate political variety to dominant authority – imitates the subversion it attacks.’

The menace of Communist subversion is the rock on which Ronald Reagan’s career was constructed – my own earliest recollections of him are not as a film star but as the host in the Fifties of the General Electric Television Theatre, preaching against ‘the most dangerous enemy ever known to man’. By setting this career in the context of a recurrent American pattern of political demonology, Rogin’s account enables us to make sense, for example, of the obsessive fervour with which Reagan has inveighed against the Sandinistas. Their supposed wickedness, like the savagery or lust imputed to Indians and blacks, has justified the imitation of exactly those practices which are attributed to them, and the attacks upon them grow ever more strident as the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ become blurred. As if to provide a perfect emblem of this blurring, the secret arms deal between the United States and Iran, undertaken to fund an illegal terrorist war against the Government of Nicaragua, links the genial Reagan with Ayatollah Khomeini, his rival in the mastery of demagogic political theology. Bound together in the sordid exchange of money and lethal weapons, each old man is the other’s dark double, the satanic alien that secures a pious and self-righteous identity. So America has worked, Rogin argues, from the beginning. Indeed, his relentlessly bleak account of American history has the odd effect of conferring plausibility on Reagan’s declaration that the Nicaraguan Contras are ‘the moral equal of our Founding Fathers’.

Rogin’s project in these essays, as in his remarkable psycho-historical studies of Jackson and Melville, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (1975) and Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (1985), is to bring together the public domain of American politics – the traditional concern of political scientists like himself with the private domain of the psyche. In his earlier books, the crucial bridge was the family, whose erotic tension and political complexity Rogin has analysed with rare intensity. In ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, the family remains a focus of attention, but its compelling force has weakened: Rogin makes as much as he can of the alcoholic shoe salesman from Dixon, Ohio, but we are far from the gothic family romance lived out by Old Hickory or the author of Pierre. In the lives of the Great Communicator and his admiring people, the central point of intersection between history and psyche has shifted from the family to the movies. It is there that personal symbols and political discourse converge, there that the mythic dreams of the nation are mobilised, and there that the American counter-subversive mentality and political demonology are forged, disseminated, reproduced. The foundation of modern American mass culture is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a classic of racial and sexual anxiety, one of whose purposes, according to the director himself, ‘was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against coloured men’. In a remarkable chapter, Rogin places this horrible and compelling celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in its psychological and historical context, a context which includes Presidential support. Birth was the first movie screened in the White House; President Woodrow Wilson is reported to have said, in awe: ‘It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.’ From its inception, film in America absorbed history or, rather, took its place and at the same time took the place of the inner life. ‘The size of the image and its reproducibility,’ Rogin writes, ‘the close-up and the film cut, the magical transformations on screen and film’s documentary pretence – all these, Griffith sensed, dissolved the boundaries that separated audiences in darkened theatres from the screen.’ ‘We’ve found,’ Griffith exulted, ‘a universal language.’

Griffith’s aesthetic and ideological vision was inherited, if in a much reduced form, by the film-makers of the Cold War. But their representational task was complicated by the loss of the stark black-and-white contrast which provided the grammar of Griffith’s universal language. They could not even rely on the visual clues – ‘sly and crafty eyes ... lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features’ – conjured up in the Twenties by Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer in the counter-subversive persecution of immigrants. Now the enemies were as invisible as microbes and similarly ubiquitous. ‘Communists,’ declared Harry Truman’s Attorney-General, ‘are everywhere – in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private business, and each carries in himself the germs of death for society.’ In a powerful analysis of the films of the Cold War, Rogin demonstrates not only that the alien threat is principally directed against the home but that Communism’s secret ally has infiltrated that home and is none other than Mom herself. By assimilating Communism to what the popular writer of the Fifties Philip Wylie termed ‘momism’, the Cold War films, Rogin argues, politicised privacy, depoliticised politics, and celebrated the national security state as a free man’s principal defence against maternal engulfment.

The mass fantasies shaped by films like I was a Communist for the FBI or popular television shows like I led three lives seemed to have been blown away by the political winds of the Sixties and early Seventies. It is one of Ronald Reagan’s significant achievements to have emerged from the exhausted genre, reworked its language and brought it, in its revised form, to the centre of power in the Eighties. The language, for example, of the bitter campaign against abortion – a godless plot to destroy the ‘pre-born’ and ruin the moral fabric of the nation – has distinct connections with the older suspicions of Mom as villainous secret agent. As I write, George Bush has embraced the anti-abortion movement. He is also valiantly attempting to exploit the old counter-subversive magic by making one of his central campaign issues the required daily recitation in school of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

Rogin suggests that President Reagan, like Nixon before him, has skilfully exploited a still more venerable matrix of political symbolism, the association of the leader’s physical body with the health of the nation. This association, which Rogin traces back to the late Medieval doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies, has been turned to novel use through the publicity machine that has been Reagan’s hallmark: the state is merged with the President’s body but the President’s body becomes a media event, a Hollywood fantasy. Even Reagan’s intestinal polyps were given elaborate media treatment, with the publication of the detailed results of the Presidential proctoscopy and television coverage (complete with animated diagrams) of his illness and recuperation from surgery. Vice-President Bush, always eager to emulate his hero, has released for publication the results of his most recent rectal examination, duly printed in the New York Times. The American public needs to be reassured that the country will be governed for another four years by a healthy asshole.