Numerous Democrats have quoted Ronald Reagan, trying to show how far the Republican Party has fallen under Trump, yet there is much in Reagan’s approach that Trump has taken and elaborated on: specifically, the tough guy presidential persona. It is easy to look at Ronald Reagan and ask what has happened to the Republican Party, but there is a clear line of descent, and it started in 1980, during Reagan’s first election, when the Republicans attempted to rewrite the desirable traits of a president to focus less on policy and more on masculine presentation.
Reagan’s campaign played up the image of him as a cowboy, a whitewashed view of the white man at the head of the American frontier. There is even a children’s book about Reagan titled The Remarkable Ronald Reagan: Cowboy and Commander in Chief. This cowboy mystique was a positive for him at the time. He was presented to the public as a swaggering man who had no time for political correctness, a tough guy that would not be roughed up by the Soviet Union, and an all-American figure, one that reminded Americans of the country’s past glories. Or, at least, reminded them of the cowboys they watched on television and in film as children, cowboys who inhabited a fictionalized version of America’s past. Reagan’s past playing cowboys in film certainly helped him sell this image.
If Ronald Reagan tried to inhabit the boorish yet endearing version of the cowboy in order to win votes, Donald Trump embraced The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, an angry racist, lashing out at everyone around him. The road from Reagan’s persona to Trump’s is not a long one, and the space in between was paved by George W. Bush. Reagan played a cowboy in film, but Bush tried to be a real-life cowboy, right down to the way he dressed. He wore the hat, he had the accent, he hunted, and he had the plain, tough guy talk of an American western figure. Terrorists want to attack American soldiers in Iraq? “Bring it on."
And, of course, they did, but Bush’s tough guy image worked magic in both of his elections, so no one pointed out the danger of his toxically masculine rhetoric. In fact, the Democrats tried to best the Republicans on this, forcing John Kerry to come out at the Democratic convention in 2004 by announcing he was “reporting for duty.” This was the opposite of who Kerry had been (previously, he was a remarkable voice against the war in Vietnam), but the alpha male approach worked for Bush so why not for Kerry, too? Probably because since 1980, the Republicans had made sure to adopt this approach and were not about to be beaten in it after 24 years of experience. Their only misstep was George H.W. Bush, who could not quite pull it off. He was a one-term president, you may recall.
Once done with Bush, there was little room to go further with the rugged cowboy image without risking becoming a satire. Luckily, Donald Trump existed, and he was more than up for the task. Trump was better than a cowboy; he was an alpha male, able to fit into any masculine character one wanted: cowboy, fighter, gangster, capitalist. And anyone against him? They’re beta males (or females), unable to compete. He’s the toughest of the tough guys out of a 1930s gangster film, not afraid to put women, minorities, and the poor in their place. Recently, in response to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plan to do away with the electoral college, Trump remarked: “This is our country, not theirs.” One can easily hear a mobster sneering this at his rival.
This trend is not worth noting merely because it explains a way that Republicans have been able to enchant some voters with a warped view of masculinity; it is also a warning. If Trump is the current iteration of the tough guy president, then what would the next iteration be? Some would have you believe it cannot be any worse than Trump. Those people would be wrong.
The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte regularly brags of killing criminal suspects to combat drug crime. He “joked” about how he should have been allowed to be the first person to rape a woman who was gang raped before her death. He even doubts his own daughter’s claims of sexual abuse. Duterte’s entire presidency rests upon the belief that the Philippines needs a tough leader, and he endorses, and possibly commits, rape and murder in order to live up to that image.
We’ve seen what past tough guy presidents can do. It’s worth noting what type of person will come next now that the door is open if being tough continues to be desirable.