How Clinton’s Reagan-AIDS Gaffe Helps Explain Why Populism Is Rising

Hillary Clinton is still taking heat today for comments she made in the context of Nancy Reagan’s funeral. Clinton claimed that Nancy Reagan was responsible for “low key” activism on the AIDS crisis, and that both Reagans helped start “a national conversation” on AIDS. Nothing could be further from the truth: the Reagans were directly responsible for a national code of silence around the disease and the reinforcement of the prevailing view that it only affected gay people. In this regard as in so many others the Reagan Administration halted potential progress and condemned thousands to misery and death through prejudice and indifference.

Clinton has since offered a strange half-apology, seeming to indicate (though not explicitly saying) that she may have confused Nancy Reagan’s work on Alzheimer’s and stem cell research with AIDS activism. That seems somewhat unlikely. It’s more probable that she was thinking of Nancy Reagan as a late, quiet driver for action on the issue within the context of the Reagan Administration generally. Her son Ron Reagan Jr. describes her as such as well. But the former first lady was not by any stretch an advocate in the sense most of us would imagine.

One take on this mess would be to give Clinton some credit: she was at Ms. Reagan’s funeral, felt compelled to say nice things about her, and had probably recently conversed with the Reagan children. Within that context, Ms. Reagan was probably viewed as a more progressive force and was given the benefit of the doubt.

But that’s also ultimately the problem. The Reagans were responsible for a host of terrible things for the country; the negative repercussions of Reaganism are being directly felt today in our inadequate infrastructure spending, our cowboy-style interventionist foreign policy, and the Republican Party’s move away from a responsible actor for governance to a directly anti-government insurrectionist force. If Nancy Reagan truly felt angered and upset by her husband’s callousness on the issue, she should have spoken out directly. But she did not. Those actions had consequences. People who lost loved ones to the AIDS epidemic are angry, and they have every right to be.

When we look at the populist movements taking hold of both of the left and the right in America, a common thread is anger at elites who seem to be more interested in maintaining a comfortable duopoly than in actually solving problems. There’s a sense that America is governed by a set of wealthy and entrenched incompetents who are so socially and economically enmeshed with one another that they’re incapable of holding one another to account or feeling the pain of normal Americans.

As Chris Hayes explains in his tremendous book Twilight of the Elites, American contempt for institutions and their leaders derives from the poisonous effect of the social connection and comfort of those classes: wealthy political elites go to all the same cocktail parties and their kids all go to the same fancy schools. They buy into each others’ myths, they lose touch with reality and they lose the ability to hold each other to account.

The Reagans did awful things to the country–especially to the LGBT community and those ravaged by AIDS. Someone who spends their life in politics as Clinton does should know this better than anyone. But it’s telling, even in the context of Nancy Reagan’s funeral, that Clinton’s reaction was to eulogize not only her but both Reagans, and on this of all issues.

Contra the opinions of hand-wringing bipartisan advocates and Michael Bloomberg aficionados, the worst impulses of American elites tend to emerge when Republicans and Democrats are chummy with one another. That’s often when the worst policies are born, and when the most damaging myth-building takes place.

In this case, our instincts should be to tell harsh truths about the Reagan legacy, not to wrap it in the gauze of revisionism.