Laura Ingraham gets it.
The ex-Reagan aide and clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas turned radio talker and, coming Monday a Fox News host, has long been one of the most perceptive conservatives out there.
Which is why her new book — Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump — comes at exactly the right moment.
Along with a handful of others (ahem!) Laura Ingraham understood the rebellion that was brewing in the GOP ranks and understood exactly why this meant a Trump candidacy would have an almost irresistible appeal.
In her case she opens her book with her tale of coming to the aid of Dave Brat, the little-known Randolph-Macon economics professor who launched an upstart primary challenge of the powerful GOP Establishment House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor for Cantor’s Richmond, Virginia-area seat. As it happens, a late uncle of mine was a longtime faculty member of the Randolph-Macon faculty — and distinctly a liberal. It was amazing to learn that there was such a thing as a conservative on the school’s faculty. But Brat’s considerable feat in upending Cantor against all odds — with an assist from Laura herself — sent not just a shockwave through the GOP Establishment. Even more to the point it made clear that the conservative populist rebellion that had once powered the Reagan Revolution was in fact not only still alive but thriving. Brat’s victory was indeed exactly as Laura portrays it — “an early warning sign.”
Ingraham takes us back to the 1976 Republican Convention and the now legendary Reagan-Ford battle for the GOP nomination. As it happens, I was there as a young aide to the Pennsylvania Republican State Senate Leader who doubled as the state chairman of the Pennsylvania GOP. As the battle reached a climax Reagan had selected Pennsylvania’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate, a move that threw the state delegation into turmoil. In the end the maneuver didn’t work, the Pennsylvania delegation mostly stuck with Ford and Reagan lost. Sitting in the convention hall that night the atmosphere was electric as Ford broke precedent and summoned Reagan down from his box seat to speak to the convention.
What followed was one of the most memorable speeches at any political convention. Without question there were many who heard Reagan’s eloquent speech that night and realized that in fact the GOP had just nominated the wrong guy. So it makes perfect sense that sitting at home and watching this unfold Laura writes of this section of Reagan’s speech that struck home with her:
Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.
Will they look back with appreciation and say, “Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now 100 years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction”?
And if we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.
As she points out, the campaign for 1980 began that night:
The core of Reaganism was this: returning power to the people by disempowering behemoth bureaucratic institutions yields the greatest freedom for all. He believed in the individual over the state. Drop in at any point along the Reagan time line-even during his days as a Democrat-and you will hear him declaring his belief that power should reside with the citizens, not government….
Reagan liked to say, “Don’t trust me, trust yourselves.” That was his consistent view throughout his political life, and it helped pave the path for the populist movement of the present. It’s easy to see why historians have called him “a true American populist.”
Bingo. Which explains exactly why, as Laura pointedly notes: “The political ‘wise men’ on both sides of the aisle had spent years dismissing Reagan as a simpleton.” My favorite from the period was Democrat “wise man” Clark Clifford — a pillar of the Washington Establishment as a longtime adviser to Democratic presidents, LBJ’s Secretary of Defense and later a lobbyist — calling Reagan, as Laura points out, “an amiable dunce.” (Clifford would later get himself tangled in a typical Washington influence-peddling scandal, leaving him the choice of seeming, in his mournful words, either “stupid or venal.” Meanwhile, today the “amiable dunce” is revered as a great president.)
What is totally on point about Billionaire at the Barricades is the scope — with the author placing the Trump “Make America Great Again” movement in historical context. It is the logical outgrowth of what Laura calls “a populist prairie fire” that was ignited with the rise of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The prairie fire kept burning through the 1976 Reagan-Ford battle. Reagan, of course, rose to political fame in the Goldwater campaign with his famous October, 1964 televised speech “A Time for Choosing.” While Goldwater lost in a landslide, the fire was lit — and two years later Reagan would be elected governor of California.
By 1976, with the resigned-Richard Nixon replaced by the very Establishment President Gerald Ford, Reagan had had enough. And as Laura points out, this sentence in Reagan’s 1975 announcement of his presidential candidacy spoke — and still speaks — volumes:
“Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a ‘buddy system’ that functions for its own benefit-increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes.”
Something that is not focused on by others a great deal is the role of the Bush succession to Reagan. Billionaire pays attention, and with reason. There was in fact what Ingraham calls “the Bush team’s aggressive purge of the Reaganites” after the 1988 election. President Bush was and is one of the most decent people on the planet, yet the Establishment politics to which he was so devoted was ultimately his undoing. “The Bush people weren’t just changing personnel, they were changing the philosophy, principles, and policies that had swept them into office.” Indeed. And a price was paid for turning the GOP’s back on the Reagan conservative populism — that price being the rebellion of the GOP base, the rise of Ross Perot, and the election of Bill (and Hillary!) Clinton.
In a discussion of (Bill) “Clinton’s Perverse Populism” Ingraham foreshadows the argument that would eventually be picked up years after Bill Clinton was gone — over China. She writes:
Everything Bill Clinton, the global business elites, and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress said in support of giving China permanent Most Favored Nation Status turned out to be wrong and untrue. The numbers that should have gone down went up, and, and the numbers that should have gone up went down.…
By almost any measure, the United States became weaker while China, our chief geopolitical adversary, grew stronger.
Indeed. And at the end of that road was — Donald Trump.
But before Trump was George W. Bush. Like his father the most likable of men, Bush 43 drew the straw that had him on duty on the morning of 9/11. Like myself and like millions of conservatives, Laura “wholeheartedly” supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. And she correctly writes:
The post-Bush years have been a time of soul-searching and reflection for conservatives.
Indeed. She points out that his policies were at odds with his populist rhetoric in the 2000 campaign. Expressed concerns about “over-committing our military” around the world from candidate Bush became this from President Bush: “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
This, Ingraham writes correctly, became “a clarion call for the nation-building policies he once rejected as unwise and inappropriate.” So true. (And I would add, decidedly non-Reaganesque.) This nation-building business would slowly fuel the Trump rebellion that came years down the road. Along with such obvious miscues as the attempt to place Bush friend Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court. For those who (like myself) had fought a number of Supreme Court confirmation battles in the war to restore a conservative judiciary, the Miers nomination was a particular sore point. The resistance from conservatives was so loud, thankfully, Miers nomination was pulled and she was replaced by Samuel Alito, the latter proving his conservative bona fides on the bench ever after.
Not last and certainly not least she touches on the Bush drive — the Establishment GOP obsession with amnesty for illegal immigration. Ingraham captures the problem exactly:
This period of time was among the most alarming and hopeful of the Bush presidency. “Alarming” because never in my life had I seen political leaders display such contempt and indifference toward the people they claimed to represent: “hopeful” because working Americans mounted a brave and tireless uprising and crushed the Establishment’s attempts to force immigration amnesty on the nation.
In fact, that “contempt and indifference” Laura mentions is if anything more evident now than then, which is saying something. It explains without question the passion that lies behind the Trumpsters of today who vividly understand the open contempt directed at them by elites — and seethe at the wild and contemptuous characterization of them as, in Hillary’s words, “deplorables.”
The book moves on through the unifying force for Republicans that was the Obama presidency. And then… the Trump era dawns.
Laura begins with a speech she gave to CPAC in 2015 in which she lit into the GOP Establishment. And in typical Laura Ingraham straightforward style she asked the thousands of conservatives present: “How many of you in the room are skeptical of another Bush term?” She writes: “Hundreds of hands shot up, as hoots and whistles filled the air.” Right there was a vivid illustration of what was coming down the GOP’s and the nation’s political highway.
Her reaction to Trump’s famous Trump Tower escalator entrance into the presidential race was this: “I, like everyone else, could only think one thing…WOW.” And with that, she is off into a dead-on description of the Trump race for the White House. The considerable pages she devotes to the election, one of if not the most tumultuous elections in American history, re-captures the entire spectacle in riveting fashion.
The question, of course, is the title of the book’s last chapter: “Where Does It Go From Here?”
The chapter begins with this memorable line from the Trump inaugural address: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” And that is exactly the challenge. Recall that line of Reagan’s that Laura quotes earlier in the book: “Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a ‘buddy system’ that functions for its own benefit — increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes.”
And so it has.
Where does the Trump Revolution go from here? It is abundantly clear that the “buddy system” of which Reagan spoke is out in force to thwart the new President Trump. Stunningly the Republicans on Capitol Hill — after a full seven years of promising repeal and replacing of Obamacare — not only didn’t have a plan ready to go the day after Trump’s inauguration, they failed utterly month after month to get the job done. Trump did not hold back in his criticisms, either — and thank God for that.
But the Obamacare repeal/replace disaster was an indication of just how resistant the Washington “buddy system” is — and as with the Reagan presidency Trump and his supporters are going to have to wake up every single day with a laser focus on the task at hand. It is, in a very real sense, a political version of D-Day. Once landed on the beach the fight is on for every inch of real estate that leads to the eventual emancipation from a unified and determined foe.
Come October 30th Laura will take on an even larger role in this unfolding new chapter in American history as her new Fox show The Ingraham Angle premieres at 10 p.m. following Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Without doubt she is the perfect person for the job.
Billionaire at the Barricades is exactly the book to have at hand as the next four or eight years unfold, a superb guide to the Trump era and exactly what preceded it — and then created it.
Without doubt Laura Ingraham gets it. She understands the Trump era perfectly — and she isn’t alone. As millions of Trump supporting Americans will attest.