Many Irish Americans look back on Ronald Reagan's presidency now with an admiration close to idolatry.
In memory Reagan stands more solidly than he ever did in life, that avuncular former film actor with an Irish twinkle in his eye. Grown men loved him. In the years that followed we placed him in the national iconography somewhere between John Wayne and Santa Claus.
To conservatives Reagan has come to mean what President Obama is beginning to mean to the left – the finest president of their lifetimes, the only one whose personal stature matched his political leadership.
To some conservatives just to say Reagan’s name is a near benediction. It will be that way with Obama soon too.
You can see how this happens. The passing of time has a clarifying effect, it smooths away many of the rough edges of our experiences, it can start to gently trick us, until what happened and how we remember it start to sail away in opposite directions.
As you watch the past sail over the horizon you must choose which ship your eye will follow: what really happened or how you will recall it in your heart?
They are rarely the same thing. In fact they almost never are.
Since its foundation the United States of America has been reluctant to reconcile the story of what really happened here with the way our hearts choose to remember it.
There’s a damn good reason for that. America has long understood that to accept both sides of its historical record would lead to a moral reckoning that many people in this country have resisted since the first pilgrim fired the first musket at the first native American.
Instead, we have agreed to believe in a half-told tale. It starts off in our homes and then its spreads to our schools, and from there directly to our government – this half-told tale of America that we insist on telling ourselves to avoid pain.
We are told, for example, how the first pilgrims invited Native Americans to a harvest dinner for the first Thanksgiving in 1621. But who hears about how their rapacious descendants slaughtered those natives in their millions?
Slavery was the engine that caused the South to rise. The institutional ownership of human beings, the horror began before the first Thanksgiving and its long legacy has never been thought sufficient to merit the payment of serious reparations, and because it has not it has never really healed.
But the truth matters. Stories matter. What gets told and what gets overlooked matter profoundly. They matter because what’s suppressed is often on its way to being forgotten, with unintendedly grave results for the generations that follow.
The electoral college notwithstanding, there is one reason above all others why Donald Trump is our president now. Simply put, he promised to keep the America of our dreams from colliding with the real America. He sold us the same old lie that Reagan did, the one that helps us to sleep in our beds.
A black man has been president, gay marriage is a reality, Black Lives Matter brings the streets to a standstill, the two Americas, like two ships, were finally threatening to collide.
To prevent that collision from happening along comes that avatar of 1980s nostalgia Donald Trump, asking us to get into his silver DeLorean time machine and go Back to The Future before we had a chance to make sense of the present.
We got in because we wanted to escape, not because we wanted to go forward.
We knew Trump was a smooth but dubious salesman but we trusted him to hold the line against chaos. We knew the rough work that he’d do to other people’s dreams would protect our own. That’s why we gave him the gig.
The passing of time allows you to see what you have missed. In Reagan's America in the 1980s most white, middle class people considered it a time of progress and advancement. Black people in that era saw their opportunities shrink and their paths run out. But it was gay people, more than any other community, that saw more of the business end of that hypocritical era.
For them it wasn’t a decade, it was a war.
Ronald Reagan refused to even utter the word AIDS publicly for seven years until 41,027 people had died and 71,176 persons had been diagnosed. What other community would have had to die in those staggering numbers before a sitting American president even condescended to acknowledge their suffering?
Reagan ran away from the kind of leadership that could have saved them. They did not belong to his story of America. And because he looked the other way it took more years that it should have for the lifesaving treatments to be funded and approved.
In voting for Trump white conservatives think they have just turned the clock back on minority progress, back to a time when they would find themselves unquestioned – and unquestioningly – in control of the nation's future. Trump was a Faustian bargain they made to stave off the future. They didn’t believe in him, they just wanted him to stick his finger in the dyke.
But white conservatives in this country used to be much smarter. They used to play their political hands with much more subtlety and foresight. Nowadays their fatal error is that they have come to believe their own propaganda. Ask Steve Bannon, ask Steve Miller, ask Sean Spicer, ask Kellyanne Conway. Three weeks into the new administration their names are already synonymous with unbelievable propaganda.
But Trump is slowly revealing himself to be perhaps the greatest fantasist of all. We now have a president who believes in disprovable fantasies like his fake win of the popular vote, the fake terrorist attacks he cites, the fake voter fraud claims he rails against, the fake claims he makes about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11 and so on.
Alarmingly, just like the people who voted for him, the America in Trump’s heart no longer matches the America of fact. He’s as stumped by our present as the people who elected him.
That’s is why he and his administration have launched an all-out war on the truth.
Those who voted for him thought Donald could tell the difference between our history and how we speak of it. But it turns out he can’t distinguish between the great lie, the half-told tale, and anything else.
So, Trump won’t stave off the great moral reckonings that are still ahead of us that frighten so many conservatives here. Instead, he’s become a giant lighthouse that is guiding them all home.