Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan
Today, the polarizing contender is Donald Trump, and it’s safe to guess that many of the voters who like him also liked Reagan. He has built his campaign, in fact, on his appeal to “Reagan Democrats” — socially conservative working-class voters, particularly white men. “Let’s make America great again” was Reagan’s 1980 slogan. Hmm.But then the analogy breaks down:
The parallel may sound absurd to those who remember the Gipper as a smiling, avuncular statesman whose speeches could touch the heart. When he was running against President Jimmy Carter, though, critics perceived Reagan as a reckless ignoramus with a simple-minded view of the world and a knack for exploiting racial resentments.
But the resemblance is deceptive. The differences between the Reagan of 1980 and the Trump of 2016 are bigger and deeper than the similarities.Indeed, the white working class has every good reason to vote against liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrats, after all, are the people who would discriminate against them in employment, and discriminate against their children in college admissions. Liberal Democrats sneer that their conservative social values, and don’t even bother to conceal their contempt.
Reagan was a consistent conservative with a clear vision of what he thought the federal government should do, drawing on a body of political and economic thought and first-rate advisers. Trump is not consistently conservative or consistently anything else. He appears to listen to few advisers of any caliber.
The 40th president also had experience in office, having served for eight years as governor of California, where he showed he could balance ideology with practical and political necessity. Trump has no comparable experience, and he has shown no such ability.
The two also diverge on some major issues. Trump regards undocumented workers as a dangerous plague, while Reagan signed the 1986 amnesty that let millions of foreigners gain legal status and citizenship. The protectionist Trump deplores NAFTA — which was the brainchild of Reagan.
Less tangible differences are equally revealing. Trump traffics in dark fears about Mexicans and Muslims, brags nonstop about himself and bombards rivals with insults. Reagan was a courtly man who often made jokes at his own expense. He didn’t take disagreement personally, and Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen notes, “Reagan wrote the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.’ Trump has broken the entire tablet.”
Reagan was able to inspire and unite Americans as few presidents have because of his generous spirit, his likable personality and his devotion to the idea of America as a “shining city on a hill.” Trump invokes big goals, but often in ways that diminish our highest ideals.
Reagan served a cause bigger than himself. Trump gives the impression that in his mind, there is nothing bigger than himself.
Republicans mulling whether to fall in line behind Trump ought to ask: Would I be advancing the ideals that Ronald Reagan advocated? Or would I be undercutting the legacy of someone I admired?
But there are better and worse ways to express a legitimate grievance. Right now, the better way is to vote for Ted Cruz, which is actually a vote for an open convention. We don’t see any Ronald Reagan among Republican candidates right now, but we see lot of people better than Donald Trump.