During her CPAC speech last Friday, Fox News host Laura Ingraham sought to compare Donald Trump’s plight to that of Ronald Reagan. “They resisted Ronald Reagan every step of the way,” she recalled. “He’s mocked, like Reagan was,” she continued. The attacks on Trump today, she claimed, are “the way it was in the ‘80s.”
To be sure, Reagan faced serious pushback from Democrats, the media, and even some conservative intellectuals. This much is true. But it is both a logical fallacy as well as an act of sophistry to suggest that because two people are criticized by the same people, both will necessarily turn out to be right.
Ingraham’s premise is part of an emerging narrative that suggests Donald Trump is like Ronald Reagan—and possibly his better.
If this sounds crazy, consider the following:
On Fox Business Channel a few weeks ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Trump’s State of the Union address was “comparable to one of Reagan’s better speeches.” (He also reportedly told RNC members that it was better than anything the Reagan had done.)
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News’ Dana Perino that "2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I've been here.” (McConnell was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984—the year that Reagan was reelected by winning 49 states.)
Speaking at the GOP retreat in West Virginia, President Trump boasted that Senator Orrin Hatch “actually once said I'm the greatest president in the history of our country and I said, 'Does that include Lincoln and Washington?' He said yes.’” Hatch’s team quickly backed away from that, but one is left with the feeling that this is a trend.
Are we on the verge of Republicans overtly declaring that Donald Trump is better than Reagan? One does get the sense the groundwork is being laid.
To which, I say: “Mr. President, you’re no Ronald Reagan!”
One man pushing back at the emerging narrative is Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. Speaking at Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College, recently, Shirley declared there was “no comparison” between the two. When I emailed him for more details, Shirley called McConnell’s comments “silly and puerile,” adding that “Newt ought to know better.”
He’s not alone. In discussing the adversity Reagan faced during his first year in office (including having been shot), Washington Post columnist Max Boot observes, “Reagan showed more dignity, humor and grace than Trump has exhibited in his whole life.” The fundamental problem with comparing these two men is that Reagan wasn’t a buffoon or a racist or misogynist or raging narcissist or natural-born liar every time he opened his mouth.
But it’s not just style, temperament, and character that separate them—it’s also substance. Conservative Matthew Continetti writes that although both men had populist appeal, Trump “departs from Reagan on immigration, on trade… and on support for human rights and democracy worldwide.”
Those who want to draw parallels between Trump and Reagan must wrestle with the fact that they had conflicting worldviews. And nowhere is this more obvious than in terms of their rhetoric regarding immigrants.
“Trump and his supporters have been more likely to portray immigrants as people who are coming here either to commit crimes or take jobs away from Americans,” wrote the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein. Yet, recalling a speech Reagan gave on Labor Day in 1980, Klein continues: “here was Reagan, not only celebrating the concept of welcoming people from all sorts of places during his kickoff of the fall campaign, but arguing that it was immigrants who helped build the country and it was the dream that they embodied that was what made America great.”
Reagan, of course, would go on to sign a sweeping immigration reform law in 1986 that included an amnesty for immigrants who entered the United States illegally before 1982.
Both men wanted to “Make America Great,” but whereas Donald Trump talks about “American carnage,” Reagan saw a “shining city on a hill.” And during his farewell address, he spoke of that city and noted “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”
It’s pretty clear that Trump and Reagan are very different. Many conservatives are willing to overlook Trump’s rhetorical and character deficiencies, however, so long as he delivers on policy.
To the degree that Trump has been successful at implementing conservative policy, it’s fair to point out that the conservative movement has spent the last 30 years building on the 40th president’s legacy. “Trump is downstream from Reagan,” explains Grover Norquist, the conservative tax reformer who founded The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. Trump "had partners that Reagan didn't,” Norquist told me. “He had a trained army; Reagan had regulars."
One prime example of this has to do with the conservative legal community—a segment of the movement that got serious in the wake of bruising confirmation fights over judge Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. To many conservatives, the appointment and confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch (and other federal judges) serves as the apotheosis of this effort. “I think it is certainly true that Trump’s judicial nominations, take as a whole, have better records than conservative judges in the past—on average—than Reagans,” says Morton Blackwell, a conservative leader who served in the Reagan administration. Trump also benefits from structural changes, such as Harry Reid’s decision to get rid of the filibuster for executive nominees. “Trump's cabinet is better. Why?” asks Norquist, rhetorically. “He didn’t need 60 votes.”
Trump is clearly working hard to keep his conservative base happy. As a sitting president, Reagan delivered four speeches at CPAC; As of Friday, Donald Trump is now halfway to his record.
Like Reagan (who spoke at the first CPAC in 1974), Trump has chosen to “dance with the one that brung him” (Trump’s 2011 CPAC speech helped launch his political career as a conservative) by returning to the conclave again this year.
But can Trump really measure up to the Gipper? Reagan was successful in the short term and the long term; he won public policy battles, yes, but he also won the argument—and won over converts. Donald Trump put a surprising number of points on the board in 2017, and (like Reagan) won election by appealing to blue-collar “Reagan Democrats.” But he seems more likely poised to be the “anti-Reagan,” in terms of winning the argument—and winning young converts.
So where does that leave us? It’s probably too late for conservatives and Republicans to avoid being tarnished by the Trump brand. There’s not much we can do to stop that now. But what conservatives can do is work hard to keep him from co-opting the image and legacy of Ronald Reagan. It’s one of the most precious things we have to conserve.