July 02, 2015

“It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners.” Ronald Reagan, 1979 announcement for president, on relations with Canada and Mexico.

“They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Donald Trump, 2015 announcement for president, on Mexican immigrants.

I could stop there, or go on endlessly about Trump’s weird speech. But let’s reflect on one fundamental reason why Trump will score poorly on the Reaganometer: he’s Trump.

When Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the Republican Party nomination for president in 1979, he had already been a credible candidate for the office in 1968, and in 1976 he had almost toppled President Gerald Ford from atop the GOP ticket. Reagan had served two terms as governor of California, our most populous state. He had delivered a highly regarded nominating speech for Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention. Working as a spokesman for GE he had delivered thousands of speeches on issues around the country, and those speeches had honed his political outlook. He had the appeal of the professional movie actor he had once been.

Reagan stood for something in his party and in the nation. He had a credible reputation. He spoke with authority.

Trump lacks such standing. He is known for his wealth and his real estate empire. He doesn’t have any special place in the Republican Party and no real relationship with its interest or political leaders. He has no established philosophy, though he has trumpeted birtherism and loathing of undocumented immigrants. Opposition to undocumented immigrants, at least, has a wide following within the GOP. Like the actor Reagan, Trump has inserted himself into the popular culture, through the television program The Apprentice. But where Reagan projected warmth and optimism, Trump’s television role called upon him to announce to contestants “You’re fired!” Perhaps this is one reason he used part of his speech trying to debunk the impression that he is “not a nice person."

Trump adopted the pose of the anti-politician; many candidates embrace the same persona. However to Trump “politicians” - President Obama, other Republicans in the race – are not just wanting in the qualities of a good leader. They are “stupid,” “losers,” “all talk, no action,” “controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, by the special interests, fully.” Obamacare is “the big lie.”

I’ve given some thought lately to the quality of the speaker’s reputation in persuasion, a concept that goes back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In tinkering with the idea of the Reaganometer I just assumed that the Hillary Clinton video would set the floor for 2016. But Clinton, no matter how empty her announcement, has been a serious national figure for decades. Trump’s speech – a bizarre self-love bath by a famous but fringe figure – sets a new low.

Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan

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