As the presidential campaign winds down, Mike Pence and others are comparing Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan in an attempt to normalize him to establishment conservatives.
At a speech at the Reagan Library earlier this fall, Pence tried valiantly to draw comparisons between the two men. He noted how “the smart set in Washington, D.C., mocked and dismissed” Reagan, the way they did Trump, as “little more than a celebrity and an entertainer who entered politics late in life.” Pence described the “fundamental similarity of the two men” as being rooted in their common “honesty and toughness.” But the objective fact is that Donald Trump, both in style and substance, is the very antithesis of Ronald Reagan.
Let’s start by contrasting Reagan’s and Trump’s backgrounds and preparedness for the presidency.
Reagan was a self-made man. He grew up poor during the Great Depression, put himself through college, and became a radio announcer and a well-known actor. He went on to become the president of a major union, the Screen Actors Guild, and a successful two-term governor of the most populous state in the nation. He spent years studying, reading, writing, speaking, and honing a coherent, consistent vision of foreign and domestic policy before he successfully ran for president in 1980.
Trump, on the other hand, was handed a modest real-estate fortune by his father and built it into a large real-estate fortune. (We don’t really know how large because he refuses to release his tax returns.) More recently, Trump’s business ventures have revolved around casinos, reality TV, and hawking steaks, vitamin pyramid schemes, and sham university “degrees.” Although he has talked about running for office for decades, he still doesn’t have even a Schoolhouse Rock—level understanding of Constitutional principles or governance. Trump’s policy prescriptions, such as they are, change from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour.
Let’s now look at the way the two men launched their presidential campaigns.
In Reagan’s November 1979 campaign announcement, he speaks in a mild-mannered tone about a nation he calls “generous—yes, and naïve—sometimes wrong, never mean.” A large chunk of the speech is devoted to the issue of Puerto Rican statehood and support for “a developing closeness among Canada, Mexico, and the United States.” Reagan states: “It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners.” During Trump’s campaign launch, he famously labeled Mexicans as “rapists,” bragged about his net worth, and declared that “the American dream is dead.”
The Gregory Brothers, the geniuses behind Songify the News, recently released a YouTube video that digitally places Trump into a 1980 primary debate between Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The juxtaposition speaks volumes. While both Reagan and Bush speak sensibly and compassionately about immigration, Trump rants about his wall and launches personal insults.
Watching videos of the 1980 campaign, you’ll find that Reagan doesn’t call Bush any names or cite crazy conspiracy theories from the National Enquirer. He doesn’t allude to the size of his penis, not even once. What you’ll see is civil, rational dialogue, including a well-informed discussion of fiscal and monetary policy. The October 1980 debate between Reagan and Carter was similarly high-minded, especially compared with what we’ve witnessed over the past six weeks.
Frank Rich wrote a column earlier this year in which he noted that both Reagan and Trump harkened back to better times and promised to “Make America Great Again” (what presidential candidates don’t employ some version of that theme?), but Reagan ran at a time of runaway inflation, high unemployment, an energy crisis, and a hostage crisis. When he asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago, the rhetorical question was so effective because the answer was inarguably no. In 2016, economic growth is slow and uneven, but America is hardly the dystopian nightmare that Trump describes.
Rich also cited “racial animus” as a common thread between Reagan and Trump. While it’s true that Reagan’s record on civil rights was less than stellar (see here and here), he never exhibited animus toward any individual person or group of people. Indeed, Reagan looks like Nelson Mandela compared with Trump, the leader of the birther movement, who has made racial animus a central tenet of his campaign.
The more one considers a comparison of Reagan and Trump, the more farcical it seems.
Reagan was a staunch proponent of free markets and free people. Trump believes that the president should be able to call corporate CEOs and tell them where to manufacture their products and how much to charge. He regularly praises Vladimir Putin and other despots. He thinks that NATO and our other global alliances should be treated like a giant protection racket.
Reagan sought to rid the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons. Trump hints at using them and thinks that it would be dandy if Japan, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia got some, too.
Reagan was a true fiscal conservative: he believed that lower taxes would spur economic growth but also raised taxes numerous times, both as governor and as president, when it was fiscally prudent to do so. Trump has been all over the map with regard to fiscal policy, but his latest deficit-exploding plans sever whatever relationship still existed between fiscal responsibility and fiscal “conservatism.”
But the greatest dissimilarity between Reagan and Trump is their basic character and vision. While Trump traffics in the dark emotions of fear and hate and sows division at every turn, Reagan was an optimist who took every opportunity to unite and inspire the country. Reagan ended his January 1989 Farewell Address by sharing his “shining city on a hill” vision of America. “She still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm,” Reagan said. “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
When Republicans enter the voting booth, they should consider the world of difference between the Gipper and the Grifter.