Brendan Lynch illustration
GOP eminence grise Ron Kaufman is no doubt trying to pay homage to Ronald Reagan by following Reagan’s 11th commandment: though shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.
Kaufman, noting that both Trump and Reagan were dismissed by some as unqualified on their path to the GOP nomination,
“He was a populist more than a conservative,” Kaufman said, referring to Reagan. “He was a western populist. Trump is an eastern populist.”
Well, as Reaganite George Will might say.
Let’s be frank: every political campaign evokes an echo from an earlier campaign. But Trump’s echo is more George Wallace than Ronald Reagan. If it evokes something from our collective past, it is certainly not the sunny optimism that Reagan both used and advanced as he called on Americans to consider the role of the centralized state in our lives.
Comparisons of Trump to Reagan will grow in the coming months but not from those who care about the type of conservatism Reagan advanced. To use a Reaganism, can you imagine Paul Laxalt, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, William F. Buckley Jr., or Margaret Thatcher making such a shocking comparison?
No, you can’t because they wouldn’t desecrate the name of a consequential leader like Reagan. Here are just a few succinct reasons:
1. Experience. Yes, like Reagan, Trump has been called unqualified and unprepared for the presidency. This is not a new charge. Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama all met the same charge. Critics called Abraham Lincoln unqualified to be president. This is a very thin reed upon which to compare Trump and Reagan.
Reagan had actually governed large, diverse and complicated institutions, first as President of the Screen Actors Guild and then as the twice-elected Governor of the largest state in the union.
2. A core. His hyperventilating liberal critics always found comfort in the characterization of Reagan by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce.” They were wrong. Reagan represented an important realignment in American politics and called into question the continued growth and effectiveness of the centralized state. Yes, Reagan was much more pragmatic as Governor and President than he is popularly remembered. But it was a pragmatism born of core beliefs about the size and scope of government. If Trump has any core beliefs beyond the narcissistic, they have yet to manifest.
3. Style. Ronald Reagan was optimistic about America and its people and it showed in his campaigns and his public appearances. He didn’t shy away from hard-nosed campaigning and he often did land blockbuster political punches. But he avoided the easy, and intellectually lazy, personal insult.
Ronald Reagan didn’t run a temper tantrum of a campaign. He was charming, civilized, witty and also focused and passionate in his pursuit of his vision for America. Trump has been insulting, misogynistic, and obscene in his pursuit of a cult of personality.
4. Conservatism. Ronald Reagan evolved from liberal Democratic supporter of Harry Truman to ardent defender of Barry Goldwater. But he was open in his defense of this shift away from the liberal party of his youth. He noted, repeatedly, that the Democratic Party moved away from him. That’s a bit of poetic license also grounded in truth: the New Deal party of FDR and Truman was not the same as the Great Society party of LBJ. The role of the centralized state had changed dramatically. Reagan, first as a campaign surrogate for Goldwater, then as Governor, then as a presidential candidate and President, forced a reckoning with the growth and power of the centralized state.
The revolution that he launched was, in many ways, incomplete. We Americans did not always wish to go to the places his vision might have taken us. But his western conservatism was grounded in long standing elements of American political history and it provided a vision of freedom and liberty and the role of government that could outlast Reagan and provide contours for public policymaking.
Reagan was consequential because his policy vision and commitments to core ideas of freedom and liberty were not self-aggrandizing. They were important bulwarks to the growth of the state. Reagan was their promoter and defender.
Trump doesn’t have a vision that can contextualize the public policies that might come from a Trump presidency. It is all about Trump. This is a recipe for an authoritarian turn that will make the accumulation of executive power under Bush and Obama seem inconsequential by comparison.
Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan both ran for president. It is here that the comparison ends.