Reagan Redux. But Worse.
Today many Democrats might find themselves wishing it was 1980 all over again, a sentiment that would be as shocking to many liberals who lived through the period as Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory. The reason is that in many respects this week’s election has the potential to have even bigger consequences than Reagan’s historic victory for conservatism.
In the hours that followed the shocking results, some Democrats have been desperately searching for a silver lining in the results. They point to the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, with sizable margins in large and diverse states like California and New York whereas the margin of victory for Trump much narrower in places like Wisconsin. This points to the fact that Democrats are capitalizing on the demographic forces that are transforming America, like immigration and the growth of communities of suburban, upper income educated communities. Even in states like Texas, Democrats point out, their party has improved. If there just wasn’t that darn Electoral College. Party officials are also talking about the divisions that exist in the GOP as a result of the controversy over Trump, and the fact that he is such an inexperienced political figure.
Yet in many ways this might turn out to be more consequential than the 1980 election when GOP Governor Ronald Reagan had A bigger victory, winning a stunning 489 electoral college votes to Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s 49.This time, there is no hostage crisis, no unpopular president, no economic crisis of the sort that we had in the 1970s. And this time the election has produced unified control of government with a major vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The similarities are striking and the differences--ones that suggest the more radical nature of what just happened--speak to the possibility of a real revolution. Reagan’s advisers quickly coined the term Reagan Revolution to suggest the idea of a mandate for change. But this election in many ways will signal a bigger realignment in the creation of blue-collar Republican Party around policies like protectionism, isolationism, and nativism that will be harder to undo that Reagan's historic 1981 tax cut. Trump’s win, following one of the most divisive campaigns in our history, also delivers a striking blow to the social values that have done so much to change parts of America since the 1960s.
When Ronald Reagan won, he ran hard to the right. After the failure of the Carter years, symbolized by the year-long Iranian hostage crisis and the double digit inflation, Reagan called for a muscular foreign policy and a severe trimming of the federal government. He sold himself as a fierce anti-Communist anti-government conservative who would restore the country to its proper moral values. That included using coded racial language in the South and attacking so-called welfare queens in the cities. With his support of school prayer and an antiabortion amendment, Reagan also appealed to evangelical Christians, a newly formed political group within the GOP. For the first time, pollsters noted the emergence of a gender gap, a significant spread between the male and female support for the new president.
Reagan brought together fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, Southerners, and the white working classes. These were the so-called Reagan Democrats who abandoned the Democrats. In 1973, productivity stalled, wages stagnated, and the manufacturing sector took a big hit. These were part of long-term trends in an increasingly global economy, which have caused instability among this group of voters as both parties have struggled to come up with a set of policies to address their needs. Jimmy Carter offered little to the traditional New Deal Democrats, talking more about a spiritual crisis than proposing a set of remedies to real economic challenges. When Reagan’s supply-side economics failed to deliver to the same group, these voters returned to the Democratic fold.
But now they are back to the Republicans. Ron Brownstein, who has been one of the most astute observers in this campaign has demonstrated how Donald Trump put together a coalition of non-college educated, non-urban voters whose support for him as been immense. The success was evident as Trump moved through Midwestern states with the power of a tornado.
This is a trend that we have seen across borders in the Brexit decision, in France, and other places where we have seen the rise of protectionism and nativism. Richard Hofstadter famously remarked, in explaining the rise of populism that this was the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization. These groups "were less important and they knew it." Trump is appealing to those Americans who feel they have suffered from the forces of globalization and an increasingly powerful organized corporate and government elite.
With his appeal to these voters, Trump has put forth a a new set of policies. Reagan’s tax cut was historic. And it created a long-term deficit. But by 1982, Republicans in Congress were paying for it at the polls. Unlike today, in 1980 Democrats retained control of the House and their numbers increased with the midterm elections. That means that for at least two years TRUMP will have unified control of government to help him push through his agenda. And the Republican Party has moved far to the right since the 1980s so their willingness to be open to any Democratic compromises has vastly diminished. Not only are Republicans more conservative, but the party is willing to engage in much more aggressive, confrontational and obstructionist tactics to get their way. There are already rumblings on Capitol Hill that the Republicans are prepared to use the reconciliation process, which is not subject to a Senate filibuster (the only tool Democrats have left to stop Trump) for as many proposals as possible. Even Reagan could not have stomached the Freedom Caucus. Emboldened by their victories, the House and Senate Caucus will push Trump in a more conservative direction, they won’t create much room for Democrats to participate in legislative debates and in exchange for working with them they will deliver to him a series of legislative victories. The anti-Trump insurgency in the Republican Party is dead. Jeb, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush called to congratulate him and offer their support; Mitt Romney and John McCain are now praising him as well.
Speaker Paul Ryan, who had so much tension with the president-elect during the campaign, sounded like a new man on Wednesday. “He just earned a mandate and we now have a unified Republican government,” Ryan said. “He turned politics on its head and now Donald trump will lead a unified Republican government and we will work hand in hand.”
Tax increases would follow despite Reagan’s promises to slash this part of government. No doubt Trump will go for tax cuts, and more. In many respects, Trump is promising to make more radical changes that will be harder to reverse. He intends to undermine free trade agreements or to impose rather severe restrictions that could have big consequences on the state of the economy. Trump's embrace of NAFTA is a serious reversal for the GOP. He is aiming to implement very punitive immigration policies that will have profound effects on the lives of families who have been living in our borders for decades. He will deregulate energy markets and more in ways that will cause irreversible damage on the economy. Most frightening to many members of the Obama administration, he and the GOP are prepared to dismantle ACA, and now they have the power to do so. Although he now told the Wall Street Journal that he likes part of the ACA, he has made more than enough statements about why the program needs to go to indicate he is more than open to dismantling this policy. His early appointments like Ken Blackwell and Myron Ebell suggest he is ready to move to the hard right.
The manner of the campaign too, as well as the divides of the electorate, suggest a splintering of social solidarity, greater than in 1980. In many ways, Trump’s use of divisions was a long time coming. Since George Wallace’s appeal to economic anxiety in 1968 we have not seen a campaign conducted in such a divisive way. He has pitted social groups against each other and targeted large parts of the nation as unfit and unequal to the rest. Richard Nixon used some of this rhetoric as well, such as his calls for law and order, as did Reagan with his decision to castigate “welfare queens.” But there has been no equivalent to the kind of xenophobia, nativism, sexism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that we saw in this campaign, and Trump suffered no penalty because of his words.
Trump’s victory, which came after a sustained attack on what he called political correctness, raises the prospect of a challenge to tolerance. Since the 1960s, the country has witnessed a fight over social values. Women’s rights, gay marriage, multiculturalism, immigration all represent social values that Trump has rejected. This more than an intellectual debate it is a struggle over the basic social values afforded by this nation. With united government, and with the power of the bully pulpit, Trump can challenge all of these ideas through the law and through his own rhetoric. He has made clear that he will make a very conservative Supreme Court appointment, and now he has the support he need to obtain a confirmation.
It is important to remember that narrow election victories, and even losing the popular vote, doesn’t mean that a president and his party in Congress are not able to make big gains. Nobody was in a more precarious position than George W. Bush, who not only lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College after a contested election and a controversial Supreme Court decision that ended the recounts in Florida. Yet he governed as if he had a mandate and working with Republicans on the Hill he pushed through an aggressive agenda of economic deregulation and tax cuts, as well as No Child Left Behind. After 9/11 he transformed the infrastructure of the federal government through a sweeping counterterrorism program, that remains entrenched after eight years of Obama, and launched two wars. In other words, it’s a mistake to think that muddied election results necessarily restrain a president, particularly if they have favorable conditions on Capitol Hill.
Following his victory, Trump’s brief remarks were inclusive. But that's not the politician who he is or how he has run his race. That short statement does not erase the overriding message of his campaign. The era of Trump has begun.
Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer, who are married, are political historians at Princeton University. She is the author of Panic at the Pump (Hill and Wang) and his most recent book is The Fierce Urgency of Now (Penguin Press).