How Trump Is Like Reagan … And How He Is Not

Bill Scher

With eleven days until Donald Trump is inaugurated as President, at least half of the country is in disoriented shock. It remains hard to believe this is really happening.

And while in many respects what is happening is unprecedented, in other respects, we’ve been here before.

As Zachary Karabell noted in the Washington Post soon after the election, “People freaked out over Nixon and Reagan, too … In 1968 and 1980, the same liberal, educated and urban swaths of the country voiced similar fear and despair about the outcome — a sense that the nation as they knew it could not survive.”

Reagan strikes me as a particularly close parallel to Trump. Both had a nontraditional celebrity background that caused Democrats to underestimate him but help forged a bond with voters. Both recoiled at policy details and in-depth briefings. Both said things on the campaign trail that many wrongly assumed would be politically damaging. Both employed right-wing populism to make liberals pay for challenging their intellectual capacities.

Beyond campaign style are the policy similarities. Both wanted to undo key components of their Democratic predecessor’s legacy. While Trump speaks of repeal Obamacare and scrapping regulations, Reagan pledged to abolish Jimmy Carter’s cabinet creations: the Departments of Energy and Education. (Trump has also talked about eradicating departments, and appointed Rick Perry to Energy after his pledge to eliminate it.) Reagan also promised to overhaul spending, and blamed the 1982 recession on profligate Carter-era Democrats.

While Reagan was an ardent free-trader — in his 1979 presidential campaign announcement he spoke at length about his vision for a “North American accord” with Canada and Mexico “in which the people’s commerce of its three strong countries flow more freely across their present borders than they do today” — he slapped import quotas on Japanese cars in his first year, clearly recognizing the popularity of protecting an American industry from foreign competition. Trump, of course, has China in his sights.

And both show fondness for increased military spending. While Reagan wanted an arms race to rattle the Communist Soviet Union, Trump has no ideological beef with today’s oligarchical dictatorial Kremlin. He is more interested in jousting with China and North Korea.

Do these parallels mean that Democrats are doomed to flail while a Reaganesque Trump runs circles around them? No, they diverge in one significant respect.

Reagan was a fundamentally optimistic politician who was able to unify much of the country around his upbeat nature. He was not above wedge politics, once using the phrase “welfare queen” and embracing “states’ rights” when stumping in the Deep South. But he was not nearly as divisive a politician as Trump.

Reagan led his 1980 nomination acceptance speech with a pledge to work with “with the 50 governors to encourage them to eliminate, where it exists, discrimination against women.” (This was an attempt to soften the reaction to a party platform that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.)

Four years later, he made clear that “in the party of Lincoln, there is no room for intolerance and not even a small corner for anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind. Many people are welcome in our house, but not the bigots.” Reagan embraced immigration (backing “amnesty” by name) and successfully courted the Latino vote.

Reagan also had the capacity for self-deprecation, most famously when he addressed questions about his age in 1984 by saying of former Vice-President Walter Mondale, then 56, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Trump, in contrast, reveals in darkness and division. He scowls far more than he smiles. (NBC’s Chuck Todd recently said, “I challenge somebody to find [footage of] him laughing.”) His campaign book was titled “Crippled America.” There’s no slight that won’t make him lash out. His anger is often directed at women, immigrants and civil rights activists.

Of course, Trump rode the darkness to victory, but it was a paper-thin victory. Reagan won two landslides, the first by 10 points and the second by 18. Trump lost the popular vote, squeezing out an Electoral College majority through several state squeakers. Reagan won through unity, Trump through division.

Reagan made many Americans feel good about America, even if they quibbled about certain policies. Trump makes many Americans, at least half, feel bad about America. It’s a tricky strategy to pull off once, let alone twice.

That doesn’t mean he can’t. Like Reagan, Trump should not have been underestimated. What worked before can work again. Right-wing populists in the Trump mold have thrived in Italy and Hungary.

But optimism has a far better track record. Not just Reagan, but Obama, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt.

The danger with Trump is letting him drag you down in the gutter with him. The challenge for the next four years is fight Trumpism without losing an optimistic vision for the future. If Trump’s petulant shtick wears thin, progressives will need to offer a sunny alternative. It’s time to be in the business of making people feel good about what’s possible.

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