One was an actor whose ability to convince voters of his sincerity earned him the epithet, “The Great Communicator.” The other is a reality television “star” who was recently called “numpty,” “a wiggy slice,” and a “witless fucking cocksplat.” And yet, if you Google “Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump” what pops up are a series of articles in which writers either declare that the two Republicans would have had nothing in common other than the (R) after their names or they declare that Donald Trump is Reagan’s intellectual heir who has leveraged his “outsider” status to stun Republican insiders.
The issue, of course, is that neither narrative — of the two men as outsiders — is correct. While both men had “outsider” status when they ran for the presidency, in reality, Reagan was a career politician. He had begun his political career as president of his trade union, the Screen Actors Guild, back when he was still a Democrat. He testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in which he alleged that many in Hollywood were Communists. Later, Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1967 and served two four-year terms.
Prior to his election as governor, Reagan had given one of the nominating speeches for Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate who was considered to be an ultra-conservative. Reading that speech today reveals that in many ways, Republicans are still talking about the same issues: the supposed “insolvency” of Social Security, a need to be proactive in defense of American borders, forcing those collecting welfare to go out to work, lower taxes, and the insistence that there were secret forces seeking to destroy the American way of life. And Reagan was not above cruelty toward the “have-nots” in American society. He said: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.”
But, when Goldwater was shellacked by LBJ in the 1964 election, and the Republicans suffered ignominious defeats throughout the country, Reagan performed one of his many “pivots,” according to Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Initially, Ronald Reagan had declared anyone who had voted against Goldwater to be “traitors,” but by the time he ran for governor in 1966, he had moderated his tone and his approach and created a sense that the Republican party was a “big tent” that would thrive best with a desire for “big unity.”
It is unlikely that Reagan would have approved of Trump’s approach to party disunity, which is to appeal to the populist conservative base of the party at the expense of trying to attract the more establishment figures long associated with Republican politics. Part of that has to do with the fact that it is hard to pin down where Trump is ideologically. He has alienated both the really conservative and the really moderate wings of the party (there is no such thing as a liberal Republican these days), and yet those who do support Trump are ferociously loyal, to the point that supporters are not able to name a plausible situation where they would stop supporting Trump.
Reagan commanded a similar level of devotion, a devotion that carries forward to today. In the revisionist re-telling of the Reagan years, the president invoked the image of America as a “shining city on the hill” where all would have the opportunity to live the American dream as long as they were willing to work for it. Those who compare Trump to Reagan seem to do so on the basis that they stood for the same things, that both men wanted to “make America great again,” and that they each strove to protect America from infiltration by enemies who wanted to destroy the American way of life.
For Reagan, those external enemies were Communists, whose threats were so great that his administration was willing to make a secret agreement with radical Ayatollah Khomeini, breaking the Iran embargo, in order to support the “liberation” efforts of the Contras against the legitimate government of Nicaragua. Trump, of course, sees external enemies everywhere, and talks of building walls, or only allowing those into the country who come from countries that do not oppose American policies.
Kabaservice says that a point of connection between the two men is their understanding that many want an “emotive politics.” When Reagan spoke, it was as a kindly grandfather who told stories that were designed to pluck emotional strings within us and which encouraged people to not be embarrassed by their love of country. Trump stirs the gut by invoking his anger at a nation where most people are shut out of the riches of the country by a conspiracy of elites who would rather give benefits to the undeserving rather than investing in “real” Americans. America will be great again, Trump tells the crowd, when a man can take pride in having made something with his own two hands. The fact that both men were playing roles — does anyone really believe that the billionaire Trump is a friend of the working man? — is proof that Trump has figured out how to tap into that emotional lizard brain that has driven politics at certain times in our history.
Where Obama appeals to the intellect, often being portrayed as the “cool,” thinking, even elitist president who has given up all pretense of being one of the populist masses, Trump continually portrays himself as the common guy who just happens to have a lot of money, all of which, he insists, he earned himself. Trump appeals to those who are looking for a hot, red-blooded candidate who is willing to call his opponents by insulting names, or who gets visibly angry when challenged by members of the press.
But there is more that divides Reagan from Trump, says Kabaservice. While many regard Reagan as the “master of television,” and Trump as the “master of social media,” where Trump loses in any comparison to Reagan is in the ability to soothe the bruised egos of those who have been defeated in a campaign. “I think Ronald Reagan had much more emotional intelligence than Donald Trump,” he says. “At the end of the day, Reagan wanted the good opinion of the “grownups,” he wanted the vote of the establishment.”
“Trump is much more petulant,” Kabaservice continues. “In that respect, he reminds me much more of someone like Newt Gingrich rather than Ronald Reagan.”
For example, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan had emerged from a bruising campaign as the victor, he reached out to the campaigns of candidates who he had defeated to hire members of their staffs. He had even reached out to “feminist Republicans,” who feared Reagan, and assured them that during his term, he would do what he could to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, which he did when he appointed Sandra Day O’Connor.
“Ronald Reagan had no desire to blow up the whole system. He persuaded a lot of Republicans to stay and support him,” Kabaservice says.
It is hard to imagine Trump hiring anyone from “Little Marco’s” campaign, or extending a hand of friendship to “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump’s campaign of slash and burn has alienated huge swaths of the party, while at the same time, cementing the loyalty of a base that will follow Trump into the convention in Cleveland and who will start an inferno if they don’t get what they want. So far, no one has seen a lot of action on the part of Trump to reach out to those who opposed him. There have not been any grand reconciliations among the previous Republican frontrunners.
While Reagan is often identified with being an ideologue, he was enough of a pragmatist that he was willing to negotiate with those who opposed him. And even as governor, Reagan was often seen by the more conservative members of his party as being “mushy,” says Kabaservice. He ascribes the party’s willingness to put up with Reagan’s negotiations and pivots on the issues, even when Reagan raised taxes, or signed a liberal abortion law in California, because Reagan was perceived to be “one of us.” He was seen as a “fighter,” someone who inspired a type of tribal loyalty that few Democratic politicians have been able to corral.
In that respect, that perception as being “one of us,” is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Trump campaign, I think. How is it that a man who brags about his wealth has been embraced by those who barely have a pot to piss in? It is perhaps worth asking if the tribal loyalty that Trump appeals to is similar to the same tribal loyalties that guided many Reagan voters. Reagan was an excellent dog whistler. While he never came out and talked specifically about black people, when he invoked images of “welfare queens” who cheated the system, the image spoke loudly and clearly to white people who felt a misdirected rage at those they blamed for their inability to get ahead. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of those who receive welfare are white, Reagan was great at painting welfare benefits as going to an entire population of tricksters who were gaming the system. In that way, his loyal followers recognized that he was one of them.
Trump doesn’t need a dog whistle. He broadcasts through a bullhorn who has taken the jobs of hardworking white men and women. Illegal immigrants, most of whom, according to Trump, are brown-skinned people who sneak across the porous border with Mexico and prevent white people from living the American dream.
While the Democrats have been able to maintain a sense of themselves as a loose coalition, the Republicans, who have courted the ideological, conservative vote since the Reagan years, have found themselves encased in cement. There is no room to pivot at the top of the ticket. The populist base of the Republican party has forged itself on an emotional identification with the white person as threatened species, as losing their own country while outsiders steal it from them. For them, Donald Trump is their “Great Communicator,” not because anyone can make sense of the word salad that he speaks, but because the emotional message speaks straight to the fight-or-flight instinct that tells certain white people that they will soon be the oppressed.