Blood for Sale? Ronald Reagan’s Pagan Cult

Lee Siegel on what the ferocious idolatry of the former president says about today’s right-wing insurgents.

AP Photo

It’s official. With the online bidding for a vial of Ronald Reagan’s dried blood reaching $30,000 before the auction was called off, the Republican Party is now the party of paganism.

The blood, reportedly taken from Reagan at the hospital he was rushed to after the attempt to assassinate him in 1981, was instead donated to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in California after it and the Reagan family threatened to sue the auction house. It’s hardly surprising that the macabre item will now be on public display. Reagan is the right’s Christ, and his sacralization speaks volumes about the character of today’s right-wing insurgents.

Like Christ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, Reagan signed into law a tax cut that forever changed American life. It created a stratum of moneyed elite that, finally, in relieved conservative eyes, could compete with the liberal cultural elite that had always oppressed conservative hearts. For conservatives, Reagan replaced the liberal Christ, John F. Kennedy, whose own historic tax cut they thought favored Kennedy’s culturally glamorous crowd. And where Kennedy had ended as an American martyr, in true, Christological fashion, Reagan finished his life—so it seemed—with a cheerful smile. He was a nontragic, happy-ending, American Christ: half-messiah, half Santa Claus. In the contemporary mind, he is all resurrection, and no crucifixion.

Can anyone doubt that today’s swing voters, either former Reagan Democrats or their descendants, look right past Mitt Romney’s spineless fluidity and economic heartlessness and see, on his handsome, shiny, happy face, the Gipper himself? How else to explain the astounding fact that this cynical cipher is now more or less neck and neck with Obama in the polls? A true Christian, alienated by the status quo, will search for Christ in every face he or she meets. So do many of today’s voters search for Reagan’s comforting aura in every politician they encounter. It’s no coincidence that in the very early days of Obama’s presidency, the one figure he was compared to more than any other was Reagan. Now he is the meek, soclialist Christian; the anti-Reagan.

Reagan may well have acquired Christlike status in many Americans’ eyes, but he inspires not the loving spirit of the New Testament, but the pagan ferocity out of which the Christian myth grew. The idea of the crucified and resurrected Christ has its origin in the annual pagan rituals of sacrificial destruction followed by the creation of new life: winter followed by spring. It is the liberals’ worst fear that Romney will steam into the White House fueled by sheer desire for destruction of Obama and everything he represents. After destruction, creation is bound to occur. Isn’t it?

For all the talk about evangelicals—the Christian voters Reagan made so consequential in American politics—Christianity seems to be playing less and less of a role in public life.

At the same time, a pagan spirit is on the rise—exemplified, perhaps, by Romney’s Mormonism. It is not clear to me that when evangelicals describe it as a cult, they are not doing so without a trace of wistful admiration. Meekness is less than ever an attractive quality in American life.

This new paganism is marked by a two qualities. The first is a hectic search for sacrificial victims. A celebrated book once reflected on the “paranoid style” in American politics. That still exists, but the sacrificial style in American politics is just as strong. We tire of our leaders if they do not commit some embarrassing act that elicits our punishment and then our forgiveness. Far from ending Clinton’s presidency, the Lewinsky scandal might well have given him his second term. Romney’s seeming lack of character is scandalous. Thus he is ripe for flattering our vanity by provoking our clemency.

Paganism’s second feature is a relentless sacralizing. Pagans ascribed moral attributes to natural phenomena like thunder and lightning. In the same way, today’s right-wing ideologues sacralize every feature of the other side’s politics. Obama cannot establish a new agency without being accused of having an eschatological intention of transmogrifying American life. As for conservative ideology, it is saturated with eschatology. Lower taxes and smaller government are, like pagan magical thinking, mental wands with which to control the universe.

You read a lot of patter about this presidential election being surprisingly tame. On the contrary, behind the candidates’ attempts at appearing above the fray, the atmosphere is Dionysian. This could well be the first presidential election in which each side spends nearly a billion dollars in an attempt to defeat the other. The will behind all that money—all that wild, ferocious, eviscerating money—especially on the Reagan-besotted right, is soaked in enough bloody fantasy to fill countless sacred vials.