Now that we’ve had nearly a year of the dingy, vulgar carnival that is the Trump presidency, conservatives and Republicans (who are not always the same people) have settled into various camps. Some, like me, remain committed Never Trumpers; whether inside or outside of the GOP, we feel that our worst predictions have been vindicated.
Others have thrown what few principles they once had onto the Trump bonfire, abandoning any pretense of conservatism in the name of tribal victory. They dance around the flames while chanting “But Gorsuch” and whooping about the anger they have elicited from their hated enemies in the media, the academy, and the people who shower before going to work.
But a third group has opted for denial. Having eschewed the dread of the Never Trumpers, but too respectable and thoughtful to join the Steve Bannonite ritual political theater of kilt-lifting and buttock-slapping in the face of the royal archery, they instead have chosen to see Trump as firmly in the tradition of modern conservative heroes like Ronald Reagan. No, really.
This brings me to a recent article by Henry Olsen. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an intelligent writer. But his argument that Reagan and Trump are comparable is not only risible but insulting to the 40th president. Unfortunately, the image of Trump as a mainstream conservative who just happens to be crude is, increasingly, a mantra murmured by a fair number of nominal Republicans, in the vain hope that somehow Trump is not everything he appears to be.
Almost Every President Appeals to ‘Forgotten’ Voters
Olsen’s argument pretty much boils down to noting that Trump and Reagan both appealed to blue-collar voters with some populist themes, and therefore are similar in many respects. This is like saying that both Bill Clinton and George Wallace were populist southern governors, so they are alike. Well, yes, if one squints hard enough. For that matter, Massachusetts and California look somewhat alike, too—if viewed from, say, the moon.
Here’s Olsen in his own words:
Trump’s active leadership style and his combination of populism with market economics is far closer to Reagan’s words and deeds than anything House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offer.
From the moment Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, he ran as a tribune of the forgotten American. Telling blue-collar workers that America’s political and financial elites had abandoned them, he campaigned on populist economics (reverse the North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership, protect entitlements) and populist cultural issues (immigration, guns, political correctness).
He combined this with support for certain orthodox GOP ideas, including large tax cuts, deregulation and appointing judicial conservatives to the Supreme Court. This mix enabled him to beat many favored rivals for the GOP nomination and win the general election. Reagan followed a similar script in his presidential campaigns.
Well, okay. Frankly, every president runs as the champion of the “forgotten Americans.” Some just do it more credibly than others. (Reagan and Bill Clinton could pull it off. Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, not so much.)
But that wasn’t Reagan’s entire script. Olsen depicts Trump as Reagan’s heir on everything from trade to immigration by cherry-picking moments out of Trump’s speeches while ignoring everything Trump has actually done as president, and laying all blame on the dastardly establishment in Congress. Some of us remember Reagan very differently, and Olsen manages to blur Reagan’s record while whitewashing Trump’s.
Reagan Refused to Stoke Americans’ Resentment
First, Reagan campaigned on opportunity, not resentment, on every issue from regulation to immigration. Reaganism was about getting government out of the way and letting Americans succeed without the heavy hand of a nanny-state bureaucracy holding them back. Trumpism, by comparison, is about using the levers of government power as revenge. Reagan’s policies were meant to provide a ladder for those Americans who would climb it; Trump’s policies are meant to put a lid on the crab bucket full of resentful failures who want to make sure that if they can’t succeed, no one will.
Critics from the Left will note that both Trump and Reagan carved out exceptions for the super-rich, and they have a point. Reaganism, however, was meant to lift all boats, even if it meant the rich got richer. Trumpism is designed to replace the swamp of the Potomac with the heady aroma of the Hudson at the expense of the lower and middle classes.
Olsen also carefully airbrushes the recent history of the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare. He notes, rightly, that Reagan would have hated the Affordable Care Act, and that he would have been careful about gutting existing entitlements. But then Olsen, to exculpate President Trump, blames Congress for being reckless enemies of the poor, as though Trump himself has never said a word on this issue. Of course, the president has said many words on it, including a vow to tank the entire system as punishment for Republicans who made him look bad when they wouldn’t repeal a system Trump himself doesn’t understand.
Finally, Olsen tries to make the case that Trump and Reagan are alike because blue-collar whites supported them, including Democrats. Again, this is revisionism of the past and rewriting the present. Reagan handily beat a besieged Jimmy Carter in 1980 not least because of Carter’s immense failures in both domestic and foreign policy. In that tough campaign, he resolutely refused to play down to the worst stereotypes of his opponents. He then won a smashing re-election in 1984 by remaining true to his own principles, staying the course, and never abandoning the Republicans who hung in with him in the rough seas of his first years in office.
Trump, by contrast, has gone out of his way to attack his own party, destroy his best chances at any kind of legislative achievements, and to be even worse than his critics feared. He has repaid Republicans’ groveling and undeserved loyalty with childish insults, bizarre taunts, and incoherent policy positions that change from tweet to tweet.
Reagan Was Positive, Trump Is Negative
Olsen dismisses differences in style between Reagan and Trump as unimportant, but to do so is to miss the point about how presidents manage to lead in difficult times. Where the Gipper showed optimism, stoicism, and good humor, Trump whines, complains, and threatens, exhibiting a smallness of spirit that would be reprehensible in a small-town mayor, much less in a president.
Where Reagan told Americans he believed in them, and would guard them during dangerous times, Trump divides Americans into enemy camps. Abroad, he alienates U.S. allies and antagonizes multiple enemies in every direction—except, of course, for Russia—then outsources the explanations and reassurances to “his” generals and a cadre of sour, defensive spokesmen.
Reagan took a vote of faith from the electorate after years of military defeat and economic stagnation and built on it, creating a movement and legacy. Trump took a minority win in the Electoral College and has, in less than a year, pared his support down to the bare minimum of the base that will never leave him no matter what he does.
Olsen is right to say that despite Trump’s “coarse bluster, his fans see him as the only leader who really cares about people like them.” Left aside in this is that Trump’s “fans” are dwindling, and will always say this, even if they are sitting in a pile of radioactive ashes, so long as hated elites like Jake Tapper or Bill Maher are sitting there and suffering with them.
Perhaps Olsen means to depict Trump as Reagan as a way of pressing Congress to pass something like a Reagan budget, and to force President Trump to rise to the occasion. But governing is more than twiddling with tax rates. Presidential leadership requires ideas, inspiration, and vision. Trump has none of these: instead, he finds hot buttons, pushes them, gorges on the attention, then moves on, marooning friends and foes alike among the debris. Nothing is done. Nothing is gained. Nothing is affirmed.
Reagan, by contrast, chose his ground carefully and fought it out, win or lose. He sheltered and supported the men and women who backed him, even when they had doubts about the path he wanted to travel. He persuaded, instead of bullying. Olsen can rail against Congress, but the reality is that Trump is a transactional man who cares nothing for anyone, as the long list of fired aides cast out of the White House can attest. This is not how political compromises are accomplished. It is not how decisive political victories are won.
There is one other difference worth noting here. No matter what one thought of his politics, Reagan was a gentleman. In politics, as in life, that matters.