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Ronald Reagan's hologram is a spot-on metaphor for Trump-era conservatism

There is no finer tribute to the 1980s president than a clumsy approximation of humanity that never stops threatening to break into a sales pitch.
Image: Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is recreated via Hologram technology during a media preview on Oct. 10, 2018, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is recreated via Hologram technology on Oct. 10, 2018, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.Frederic J. brown / AFP - Getty Images

The full effect of any shrine is lost on the non-believer; even the most appreciative modern atheist staring at a gothic cathedral will miss the point. The art and architecture are magnificent, but an atheist can never truly stand in the antechamber to God, surrounded by power both spiritual and temporal, stonework erupting toward heaven, the arc of their lives and afterlives ringed with the only stories they'll ever need know.

The space between the faithful and the skeptical stretches out like a chasm in the modern age; there is no reason to visit one another's monuments when they are hardly monumental. One knows exactly for whom a Phish Yurt Museum would be, and you would never travel to (presumably) Burlington, Vermont to see it if you didn't already love jam bands.

By this same token, the new Ronald Reagan hologram is probably not for people who don't wear blue blazers and lanyards for a living.

Still, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Institute has built a hologram because nobody else would, and if you're already going to Simi Valley, California for something — and why wouldn't you be? — you could stop in and see it. At first blush, it is as real and lifelike as Max Headroom, and there is probably no finer tribute to the president of the 1980s than the fact that someone spent nearly $1.5 million for a clumsy sci-fi approximation of humanity that never stops threatening to break into a sales pitch for cola.

For the faithful, the hologram's shortcomings are manifold. Ask it, "What would Reagan do?" and it won't interrupt the playback to answer. If you tell it where you plan to travel after Simi Valley, it will not reply, "There you go again." Any attempt at a hug will see your arms flail uselessly through something like vapor.

Even the vignettes chosen seem essentially fungible. The Reagan hologram offers three separate scenes from our 40th president's past: A scene from the Oval Office; another from his home at Rancho del Cielo; and one from a whistle-stop campaign gimmick-jaunt through Ohio in 1984. None of them approaches something like a defining moment of a presidency, a thing we'd remember even if we never paid much attention to politics at the time. It's a monument to deleted scenes, a trading card photo of "Reagan Poses For Trading Card Photo."

The lack of a sense of the moment should be obvious to skeptics as well. Why these banal scenes when so many others were passed over? Why not:

  • Reagan's 1980 campaign invocation of states' rights just a few miles away from the 1964 abduction and murder of three civil rights workers who were trying to register African-Americans to vote?
  • Reagan spending a full year of his two terms as president vacationing at that Rancho del Cielo, where his cattleman bona fides (22 head!) were enough to drop his tax bill from roughly $40,000 per year to $862?
  • Reagan telling a great stemwinder about the injustice of a food-stamp program that let "some young fellow ahead of you to buy a T-bone steak [while] you were waiting in line to buy hamburger," or a fictional hyrdra-esque welfare queen ripping off the system?
  • Or, speaking of Hydra, Reagan defending his laying of a wreath at a German cemetery that held 49 members of the Waffen-SS with, "These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18... They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps"? There were, as the new saying goes, some very fine people on both sides.
  • Reagan's afternoon naps being interrupted by advisors stage-managing his ignorance and inattention down to soundbites and blocking cues to prevent him from ad-libbing fantasies, manipulating him via graphics, movies and cartoons and otherwise despairing of a mind that was "barren terrain" where "no one was there"?
  • And on the subject of "no one was there," as much as it might be difficult to make a hologram of someone allegedly remaining totally unawares of a plot to violate an arms embargo of Iran to secretly fund a Central American war in defiance of three legislative amendments passed to specifically prevent doing so, why not at the very least a stuttering mashup of endlessly saying "I don't recall"? Complete the pop-cultural effect and call it Min Headroom.

It is odd that something so glib and vaporous could still manage to be so overdetermined, but it's almost a relief to bear witness to an undead monument to conservatism grounded so firmly in the Uncanny Valley. Here's a guy just like you — former movie star, G.E. pitchman, union leader, million-dollar ranch owner, governor — not losing any sleep, just like you, over the toughest job in the world, where all the problems were someone else's and forgotten. How incredibly real-life-like.

It is also a monument that will stand the test of time. One of conservatives' funnier tics of the Obama years featured demonizing liberals as slavishly devoted to the "Obamessiah" while parading at tea parties with placards reading "WWRD" or, sometimes explicitly spelled out, "What Would Reagan Do?"

That tic endures today, in the sense that Republicans never tell you who they are more clearly than when they tell you what Democrats are supposedly doing to you right now. Democrats are divisive elites; Democrats are robbing Medicare; Democrats will take away protections for preexisting health conditions; violent Democratic mobs want to foment civil war.

Given that, the Reagan hologram appears nearly perfect: A cultish presentation of a stage-managed mundanity as insubstantial as dust and light, valueless to actual history and 100 percent a projection.