"Getting right with Reagan: conservatives and the fortieth president, 1980-2016"

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University of Alabama Libraries

This project examines the evolution of conservatives’ relationship with President Ronald Reagan from 1980 to 2016. The first half demonstrates that conservatives were often displeased with the Reagan administration’s fiscal, social, and foreign policy. I emphasize conservatives’ frustration with the disconnect that existed between Reagan’s rhetoric and his actual policy initiatives. Throughout, special attention is given to the various schools of conservative ideology. Although historians have noted the tension within the conservative movement, I argue that those involved in the “Reagan Revolution” often found that Reagan’s time in power was not revolutionary at all. The second half of the dissertation describes how conservatives crafted Reagan’s legacy from 1988 to the present. In chapter four I use the Reagan Library and Museum to recreate how Reagan wanted to frame his own legacy. By carefully examining the exhibits, I determine that Reagan emphasized economic recovery, rebuilding the military, reducing the threat of nuclear war, and restoring Americans’ belief in their country as the central tenets of his legacy. Contentious social issues, and the people who were at the heart of the culture wars of the 1980s, were not present in the museum’s exhibits. Throughout the 1990s conservatives framed themselves as fulfilling the Reagan Revolution and they attempted to use Reagan to achieve electoral success. By the 2000s, however, conservatives began to mythologize Reagan and his achievements. Reagan became a dogmatic conservative who single-handedly won the Cold War and reinvigorated a nation. Ironically, conservatives who had denounced Reagan during the 1980s manipulated Reagan’s record and recreated him as a principled conservative crusader whose successes were the result of his steadfast commitment to principles. The art of selectively remembering certain aspects of Reagan’s record and conveniently forgetting others were central to the creation of the Reagan myth. I conclude that Reagan’s achievements were a product of his pragmatic application of his conservative principles and his willingness to change course when necessary. Furthermore, the creation of the Reagan myth has contributed to many of the challenges that the GOP continues to wrestle with today.

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History, American history, Political science