by Tom Birkner
The answer to the question no one remembers even asking is, “I did.”
There was a large, abandoned, brick warehouse just outside of Jim Thorpe that I did several paintings inside of. One cold winter day, I had the idea of going there and doing a portrait of the former president, who was well on the road to deification. The Reagan mantra, “It’s Morning in America” was still a commonly known phrase. My point was to contrast those words with the reality of places like the Anthracite Region.
Painting this thing was great. It was freezing and my hands were frozen stiff. The wall was 12’ high. I was trying to get a likeness with house paint and a paint roller. Didn’t know who would walk in on me. Got it done in 4 hours (fast!) and the only thing anyone ever did to it was paint the whites of the eyes red. Which was an excellent finishing touch.
Though I can’t quite remember, I probably did this on one of my many trips to Penn State. Now, instead of being a student, I teach them. And one thing I’ve noticed in my years at universities is how hard it is to make the past truthfully define the present. Here’s an example: for young adults just starting college, the financial crisis of 2008 occurred when they were 7 or 8 years old. Everything they know about it has been taught in some way or another. Everything they know is just a perception of what actually happened. In fact, that’s true for most of us, even if we lost a house, or retirement savings, or a job.
Perceptions of truth, are easy to turn into perceptions as truth. And who can illustrate that better than Reagan? The transformation of perception into reality is the Gipper’s most enduring quality. He proved it’s possible to say pretty much anything, and it didn’t matter. Free-markets were magic, yet wages were falling. Taxes were cut, yet deficit spending ballooned. Trickle-down economics was embraced, but the flow of money was going up, not down. It’s Morning In America!
Since Reagan, the gap between political theater and actual life has grown as wide as the chasm between rich and poor. One suspects a relationship. Because once it’s perceived that people will believe anything, deceit becomes the dominant modus operandi. And we’ve come to expect this deceit, this split between words and reality, even as the costs grow.
And they do grow. In 2020, once again, more public funds were used to bailout the stock markets. They then rose to eye-watering highs, which they’re still near, while the real-world economy fell off a cliff, and is still down there somewhere. Is this crazy? This isn’t crazy. This is the ghost of Reagan past, sprinkling pixie dust in our faces, while Washington sprinkles another $1 trillion+ into the “free” markets. How can free be so expensive?
For 40 years now, the US has been borrowing from the future to pay for its present. This is done to maintain the political status quo – because if we actually lived within our means, the protests and riots of the summer and post-election would look quaint. And we’d also get a grim, unwanted picture of just how much of a failure neoliberal globalization and market freedom has been – at least for working-class people. But for now, the deficit spending continues, stronger than ever, without an end in sight. Today, the building and the portrait are gone, but the spirit of Ronald Reagan lives on.
Tom Birkner is a painter (artist, not house) and a faculty member at The University of Texas at El Paso. A New Jersey native and Penn State graduate, one of his main subjects is the Anthracite Region, which he began painting over 25 years ago. His ancestors are from Swoyersville and Mahanoy City.