It’s presidential campaign season again, which means the name Reagan is going to be bandied about, embraced—and taken in vain.
From Rick Santorum (who was a back-bench congressman during the Reagan years) practically claiming credit for the Reagan Revolution, to Mike Huckabee repeating “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify’” at the drop of every hat, to 437,986,989 misuses of “Reagan’s 11th Commandment” (it wasn’t Reagan’s but he brought it up when it benefitted him), the legacy of the man biographer H.W. Brands calls “one of the two most consequential presidents of the 20th century” pervades the Republican nomination process.
But Reagan’s name has never been sullied the way it is now.
The Supreme Court has recognized there is such a thing as “fighting words,” but has necessarily left the definition vague.
I’d like to propose that “Well, Ronald Reagan used to be a Democrat, too” be up on the slappable offense list with “Your momma____ ”—if that retort is being used to defend Donald Trump.
I’m sure this is something that would have irritated the hell out of me, even before I read Brands’ extremely readable and engaging new biography, Reagan: The Life. I’ve never understood the appeal of Donald Trump’s preening peacock act—but up until now, it was easy to ignore. And now that Trump is ubiquitous, emergency measures must be taken.
However, since I can’t reach out and slap everyone, here are just a few reminders of things you probably already know, but have buried in your brain under the sludge of the Trump-publicity avalanche—and the muddiness of enablers like Greta and Sean Hannity.
Reagan’s encounters with the Left made him a conservative. Trump’s encounters with the Left made him get out his checkbook.
As Brands reminds us, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat in his early years as an actor. He was also a freedom-loving, all-American, patriotic liberal (yes, those once existed).
Reagan’s first real encounter with the hard Left was during his term as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. His revulsion at not only the ideology, but the bully tactics of the communists who tried to take over Hollywood, led him to examine all of his political premises.
Over the next decades, Reagan read up and formed the intellectual basis for his conservatism. He became a popular radio commentator similar to Paul Harvey, writing his own scripts and becoming a missionary for conservative thought—at a time when smiley-faced liberalism was still the ascendant philosophy in American politics.
Trump, in contrast, spent the last decade funding the anti-American, defeatist hard Left. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have a lot in common with the thugs who turned Reagan to the Right, but Trump was happy to hand them money.
Trump’s newfound “conservatism” is also awfully easy. He harps on a few issues he knows can rile up the Right, and plays to people tired of political correctness (even when what he says is factually incorrect).
Comparing this “conversion” to that of Reagan is Political Transformations for Dummies.
Reagan talked about the greatness of America; Trump talks about the greatness of Trump—and how great America could be, if only he were in charge.
Even in the midst of the Carter malaise, Reagan talked about America in the glowing terms of the Founders’ ambitions—and he quoted them. Trump quotes… Trump.
But there is an even bigger difference. Reagan considered government a roadblock to the inherent greatness of America, Trump thinks government will be how we get to greatness—as long as he’s running it.
While Reagan said the world’s biggest lie was “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” Trump promises that when he is running things the government will be here to help.
He will “take care of the women,” because he “cherishes them.” We are going to exploit foreign governments with trade deals because he will hire mean negotiators.
Reagan channeled de Tocqueville and what in the American character makes America great. Trump channels Huey Long. America just needs a good boss.
Reagan handled Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather and the reporters who defined TV news with grace and aplomb; Donald Trump has been whining about Megyn Kelly for a month.
Trump supporters point to Trump’s willingness to “say it like it is” and be “politically incorrect” as his main virtue. Many of them head-scratchingingly compare this to Reagan.
Go ahead. Google all you want. I’m pretty sure Reagan ran against Ford without mocking him as stupid, low-energy, or in somebody’s pocket. He did point out some policy differences and differences in approach.
But whatever insults were directed his way, he handled with a smile and a non-personal retort. Like this classic:
Contrast that with how Donald Trump has handled the question from Megyn Kelly—which, in a campaign basically based on the candidate bragging about his personal qualities, is a fair one.
Reagan was not only a gentleman, he was a MAN. In the aftermath of the Megyn Kelly question, I would characterize Donald Trump as, well, a “wherever…”
In fact, re-reading Brands’ account of the assassination attempt, I would say Reagan was less bothered by John Hinckley Jr. than Trump was by Megyn.
Reagan understood free enterprise; Trump thinks as president he should be in charge of business.
Here’s one thing you never hear in a Trump speech about the economy—”Unleashing the genius and creativity of the American people.” Here are the words you hear a lot—”in charge,” “management,” “I’m smart,” “tough negotiations,” etc.
All of them have one thing in common: Trump thinks the American economy is something to be managed, not something to be unleashed. That’s what uber-manager Herbert Hoover thought, too—not to mention that whole disastrous tariff idea…
How’d that work out?
Missing from the Trump discussion of the economy is anything about regulation, probably the number one problem keeping back the American economy. He is for “replacing Obamacare,” though, with “something terrific.” Well, okay then. You’re gonna love it.
Donald Trump thinks he could stop Ford from building a plant in Mexico with an authoritative phone call if he were president. He also thinks he could tell Nabisco not to build a factory overseas. In the Reagan era, only the UAW thought that was the president’s job.
Reagan talked of making America an attractive place to do business, while Trump talks old-style union protectionism. I’ve yet to hear him utter the letters E-P-A.
Worst of all, while talking of all the expensive things he is going to do, Trump doesn’t seem to know the difference between the deficit and the trade deficit, as he revealed in a question about raising the debt ceiling recently. Reagan may not have been a businessman, but he had a far better understanding of the economy and how free enterprise works.
I’m not sure which is scarier: if Trump actually believes the whole economy is a zero sum game and works like his business does– or if he doesn’t.
Which brings us to Trump’s trump card, and his only real appeal.
Reagan believed the key to America’s greatness lay within; Trump believes America is victim to foreigners.
Well, to be more precise, Trump preaches America is victim to foreigners—I can’t swear to the fact that the man with the born genius for telling an audience what they want to hear really believes it.
We have met the enemy, and it ain’t us.
Speaking of foreign enemies, let’s switch quickly from theoretical presidents who use Reagan to an actual one who has repeatedly expressed his envy of Reagan’s legacy of transforming American politics.
Reading Brands’ gripping account of Reagan going toe to toe with Gorbachev with minimal assistance from his staff of very, very capable people, and comparing it to the disaster of John Kerry negotiating (AKA surrendering) to the Iranians is enough to make you weep for your country.
So, I guess there has been an even more egregious comparison to Ronald Reagan than Trump.
Support Trump if you want to. That’s fine. Comparing him to Reagan is not. Ever hear of Ross Perot?
By H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 816 pages (though you will read it like it’s 300) $35.00 (and worth every penny)
Image via Reagan Library Archives