Every presidential election year is unique, but 2016 evokes some eerie parallels with 1980. Back then, America was smarting from a costly foreign war that ended in tears. The economy was in a funk, with imports surging and blue-collar jobs at risk. Governments in Tehran and Moscow were behaving in ways that Americans found profoundly alarming. Americans wondered if our best days were behind us. Sound familiar?
In the midst of this turmoil, a candidate emerged who horrified some people and enthralled others with his promises to restore American power and prosperity. That was Ronald Reagan, who would become a successful and popular two-term president and the beloved icon of today’s Republican Party.
Today, the polarizing contender is Donald Trump, and it’s safe to guess that many of the voters who like him also liked Reagan. He has built his campaign, in fact, on his appeal to “Reagan Democrats” — socially conservative working-class voters, particularly white men. “Let’s make America great again” was Reagan’s 1980 slogan. Hmm.
The parallel may sound absurd to those who remember the Gipper as a smiling, avuncular statesman whose speeches could touch the heart. When he was running against President Jimmy Carter, though, critics perceived Reagan as a reckless ignoramus with a simple-minded view of the world and a knack for exploiting racial resentments.
Eddie Williams, head of a respected black think tank, said of Reagan’s landslide victory, “When you consider that in the climate we’re in — rising violence, the Ku Klux Klan — it is exceedingly frightening.” Peace activists feared he would start World War III. As biographer Steven Hayward recalls in “The Age of Reagan,” comparisons with Hitler were made. Again: Sound familiar?
Forces that underlie Trump’s appeal are not so different from those that propelled Reagan to the White House. In 1980, the economic malady was inflation; today, it’s a weak rebound from a brutal recession.
Then, the foreign dangers were the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran, which was holding more than 60 Americans hostage, and the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. Carter was seen as weak and unwilling to stand up for U.S. interests — a charge also leveled at President Barack Obama.
But the resemblance is deceptive. The differences between the Reagan of 1980 and the Trump of 2016 are bigger and deeper than the similarities.
Reagan was a consistent conservative with a clear vision of what he thought the federal government should do, drawing on a body of political and economic thought and first-rate advisers. Trump is not consistently conservative or consistently anything else. He appears to listen to few advisers of any caliber.
The 40th president also had experience in office, having served for eight years as governor of California, where he showed he could balance ideology with practical and political necessity. Trump has no comparable experience, and he has shown no such ability.
The two also diverge on some major issues. Trump regards undocumented workers as a dangerous plague, while Reagan signed the 1986 amnesty that let millions of foreigners gain legal status and citizenship. The protectionist Trump deplores NAFTA — which was the brainchild of Reagan.
Less tangible differences are equally revealing. Trump traffics in dark fears about Mexicans and Muslims, brags nonstop about himself and bombards rivals with insults. Reagan was a courtly man who often made jokes at his own expense. He didn’t take disagreement personally, and Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen notes, “Reagan wrote the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.’ Trump has broken the entire tablet.”
Reagan was able to inspire and unite Americans as few presidents have because of his generous spirit, his likable personality and his devotion to the idea of America as a “shining city on a hill.” Trump invokes big goals, but often in ways that diminish our highest ideals.
Reagan served a cause bigger than himself. Trump gives the impression that in his mind, there is nothing bigger than himself.
Republicans mulling whether to fall in line behind Trump ought to ask: Would I be advancing the ideals that Ronald Reagan advocated? Or would I be undercutting the legacy of someone I admired?