Dawn of the New Booboisie – Reagan Found His Groove in Detroit in 1980 & Took the Anti-Tax Revolt Nationwide

Note from the editor: ‘Booboisie’ is a term coined by that legendarily discourteous American journalist, H.L. Mencken, which he used to refer to those prone to willful ignorance and stupid mistakes.- RR

Forty years ago, as the sun rose, illuminating the gleaming skyrises of the Detroit, Michigan riverfront on the third week of July, 1980, a great many Republicans were feeling confident about the remaining four months of the race for the White House. 

A few days earlier, former California governor, Bedtime for Bonzo star and General Electric spokesperson, Ronald Reagan, had accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States, aiming for the White House he’d failed to win against incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan would be accompanied on the ballot by GOP  vice presidential nominee (and future president #41) George H.W. Bush. 

Leading in the polls as the Republican convention began, Reagan would enjoy a significant jump in popularity as a result of the televised coverage of the convention. Most of that coverage focused upon the tactical and strategic moves of the political operatives in Detroit, with a little bit of drama as the Reagan team for a short time considered the possibility of enlisting former President Ford as the party’s Vice-Presidential candidate on a Republican unity ticket. 

There was considerable uncertainty amongst the politicos wheeling and dealing as to how the candidacy of independent John Anderson would affect Reagan or President Carter. 

July 17,1980. Ronald Reagan speaking at Republican National Convention GOP at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Image courtesy of the Reagan Library.

Many eyes were on the Cable News Network (CNN) in Detroit, as the six-week old, fledgling 24 hour news network covered its very first political party convention and presidential campaign.

As the nation endured rising unemployment and double-digit inflation domestically, on the international scene the country had watched helplessly in November of 1979 as the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran was overrun by revolutionary students. By the time of the Detroit convention, those students had held 52 Americans hostage in the embassy for eight months. 

International tensions were further inflamed by the Soviet Union’s December 24, 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, in support of its client government there.

Republicans, and later the American people generally, were to prove extremely receptive to the tax-cutting message which the former California governor had delivered in accepting his nomination on July 17, 1980. Reagan told the American people they were being taxed into oblivion, and proposed as the centerpiece of a collection of tax cuts an unprecedented 30% reduction in the United States’ progressive income tax rate. 

“The American people are carrying the heaviest peacetime tax burden in our nation’s history–and it will grow even heavier, under present law, next January. We are taxing ourselves into economic exhaustion and stagnation, crushing our ability and incentive to save, invest and produce,” Reagan told the Republicans assembled in Detroit.

An Anti-Tax Revolt

On the heels of the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 in California, Reagan had for some time sought to portray himself as the courageous representative of an American public that had been righteously aroused to battle unjust taxation. 

Howard Jarvis herding California sheep with Prop 13. Illustration by Steven Brodner from Harper’s magazine, November 1978.

Writing for Harper’s November 1978 edition, Arthur Blaustein wrote that with all of Prop 13’s “contradictions and at best dubious advantages, the amendment’s passage nearly defies reason. One understands the success of Proposition 13 only by noting the influence of mass media, and the cultivated susceptibility of their audiences to buzzwords like “the new revolution,” “momentum,” “avalanche,” and “steamroller.””

By simple repetition, these words established their own credibility and the amendment’s virtue. Thus the three networks, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post anticipated the passage of Proposition 13 as a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howard Jarvis was afforded  the celebrity status more appropriately reserved for Charlemagne or Douglas MacArthur. Dazzled by hyperbole and captured by their own greed, California voters rallied like yokels at a country fair to win something for nothing. Unwilling to evaluate the contents of the amendment, they were singularly unprepared to confront the realities of its passage – which were swiftly made manifest.

International Perspectives

Back in Detroit, some international media perspectives of the GOP’s convention differed considerably from their U.S. counterparts. As the convention began, the view from across the Detroit River in Canada, for example, was quite different.

Screenshot from CBC report on the GOP convention, showing garbage accumulating on the street in Detroit due to a labor strike.

A report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Joe Schlesinger highlighted the growing economic disparities which were increasingly visible in the vicinity of the GOP’s convention, yet were remarkably unmentioned and ignored in the U.S. media. 

Detroit looks great from across the Canadian border. But behind their riverside facade, up close, it’s not so hot. Smelly garbage is piled up, because the garbagemen were on strike until this morning. So were other municipal employees, but strikes are only a small part of what’s wrong with Detroit.  

The auto city is down on its luck. Layoffs and plant closings plague its very lifeblood. It’s city center had rotted. In 1967 much of it burned in urban riots, and even now after great efforts at rebuilding – their mammoth Renaissance Center, the heart of the city center’s rebirth, the place where the Republican convention is being held – stands like a snaggletooth of luxurious vitality in a landscape of urban decay. 

Well, you might say unemployment is just as high across the river in Canada, but what is wrong here is not just a case of plain economics. The Americans have been hit hard by sledgehammer blows to their pride and to their self-confidence, their realization that they are probably no longer number one militarily. The Russians are, and that they are no longer the number one in car-making. The Japanese are. To top it off, there is that constant irritation of the Ayatollah, tweaking his nose at them. So when you’re low, what do you do? Why, throw a party, of course. 

What happens here at the Republican convention may not do much to solve Detroit’s problems, but it should be good for it’s soul. Joe Schlesinger, CBC News, Detroit. 

Journalist Henry Fairlie

Writing for the Washington Post at the time, Henry Fairlie, that raffish Brit who fell madly in love with America and spent the last decades of his life trying to understand its nature before succumbing to the hazards of alcohol abuse, caught sight of a very different view during those four days of the GOP’s Detroit convention. Fairlie thought the ignorance and reality-defying rhetoric displayed on the floor of the Renaissance Center reeked, not just of lunacy, but of fascism.

Fairlie saw ignorance and vulgarity in the personage of Reagan and those assembled in Detroit and did not beat around the bush in stating such in a July 27, 1980 piece, Mencken’s Booboisie in Control of GOP.  Though not an admirer of the “pure savagery” of legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, Fairlie nonetheless recognized his Homo Boobus at the GOP convention. His observations were, appropriately enough, given the nod to Mencken, scathing.

Those who warned the prophets of the common man that they would not like his visage when they saw it had only to point to the floor in Detroit. There it was, polished now for television, the face of Caliban, come smirking to rule, With their noses wiped, taught some manners for the screen, clean handkerchiefs in their pockets, there were the booboisie. Narrow minded, book banning, truth censoring, mean spirited; ungenerous, envious, intolerant, afraid; chicken, bullying; trivially moral, falsely patriotic; family cheapening, flag cheapening, God cheapening; the common man, shallow, small, sanctimonious.

The common man, exactly as Reagan said of himself in his prime time. We have been warned of his coming. 

In conclusion, Fairlie sought to warn readers of the dangerous possibilities Reagan represented, and articulated a much deeper fear.

The America which Europe fears is the America of the Reaganites. The America once of the Scopes trial; the America of prohibition; the America of ignorant isolationism. The America then of “better dead than red”; the America of McCarthyism; the America of the last fundamentalists of the 1950s. The America now of the new evangelicals; the America of the Moral Majority; the America of a now ignorant interventionism; the America which can see homosexuals as a conspiracy; feminists as a conspiracy; perhaps even women as a conspiracy. The America of fear. For it is fear that the ungoverned and the unfree are doomed to live. And there was this America in control at Detroit.

It is time that we reminded ourselves, and said aloud and more often, that it is from these people that nastiness comes. It is time that we pointed out to the neo-conservatives that democracy has never been subverted from the left but always from the right. No democracy has fallen to communism, without an army; many democracies have fallen to fascism, from within.

The Reaganites on the floor were exactly those who in Germany gave the Nazis their main strength and who in France collaborated with them and sustained Vichy. If the neo-conservatives cannot sniff danger, surely the rest of us can be alert.

As I write this, forty years after the Republican convention in Detroit that summer of 1980, it appears that the warnings of Fairlie and others went largely unheeded, and the New Booboisie – prone to ignorance, to incompetence, and to delusions of their genius and the magic of free market capitalism, as they are – has become the ruling class of the nation, finding its ideal representative in the personage of President Donald J. Trump. It is difficult to avoid notice of the intellectual and moral devolution of the Republican Party that picked up so much steam from the Reagan Revolution in 1980, through the Clinton era, and the Tea Party, until the dismal time in which we now live. 

Editor’s note – Ultimately President Ronald Reagan would lower the marginal income tax rate during his administration from 70% to 28%. – RR

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