Is Reagan a role model for Trump?

Published by the i paper (14th November, 2016)

For three decades Ronald Reagan’s shadow has loomed large over the Republicans, much as his friend Margaret Thatcher’s influence proved so heavy for their Tory soulmates in Britain. His name is constantly invoked in political debates and stuck on public buildings. Candidates in the risible presidential primary campaign inevitably claimed to be the rightful heir to their party’s patron saint. One supposedly met him as a child, another to have idolised him as a teenager, a third used him to deflect charges of previous liberalism, a fourth to be the first proper conservative running since him.

Needless to say, Donald Trump went that bit further. ‘I helped him,’ he said. ‘I knew him. He liked me and I liked him.’ There is little evidence of this beyond a picture of the pair together, despite Reagan being such a detailed diary writer even the edited version of his dreary output mentions 80 haircuts and 21 trips to the dentist. But then braggart Trump, like former B-movie star Reagan, has never shied away from telling tall stories and mythologising his life story. This disregard for the truth helped carry him to the White House on a tide of rural and rust-belt despair.

Now a stunned United States is left praying he might become an unexpected success, similar to the man seen as one of their greatest twentieth century presidents. There are many similarities between the two men, beyond their ages on seeking office. Both knew the reach of fame; some even claim Reagan’s era launched our celebrity culture. They hosted popular television shows, showed off status-symbol homes, used glib soundbites. Reagan was the first divorced president, Trump will be the second. Most importantly, both ran as outsiders dismissed as superficial by experts and shunned by the establishment.

‘The American people are not going to elect a 70-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president,’ said one over-confident aide to president Jimmy Carter during the divisive 1980 campaign. He preached ‘voodoo economics’ sneered Republican rival George Bush (although this did not stop him taking the vice presidency). Martin Luther King’s widow feared a resurgence of white supremacists. How familiar all this sounds.

Reagan also entered the White House after an election in which voters held the most negative attitudes on both candidates in polling history – until this year, when that record was shattered. Trump pulled of shock success by posing as an insurgent, exploiting economic distress and dissatisfaction with Washington. I write this in Texas where I have met even liberal Hispanic women who voted for him, such is the desire for change. Distrust for government is a key legacy of Reagan, who made his name with a speech before the 1964 presidential election attacking state failure and carried on in similar vein throughout his career. His creed, which became a pillar of faith on the right, was that social services were wasteful and intervention diminished personal freedom.

Reagan was also regarded as a lightweight. Senior party figures at first rebuffed him, seeing him as ‘a certified yahoo’ in the words of one biographer. He was viewed as naive on foreign affairs, a man who muddled up Pakistan with Afghanistan just as Trump was unaware Russia had invaded Ukraine. Budget director David Stockman described a ‘demeaning’ defence briefing dumbed down for the president that depicted an unarmed dwarf showing Carter’s spending, a ‘four-eyed wimp who looked like Woody Allen’ for his desired level and a fully-armed, fearsome soldier for the inflated sums they sought.

Yet even Barack Obama aspired to govern like a president that he said ‘changed the trajectory of America.’ For Reagan was a relaxed pragmatist once in power who drifted to the centre and gave political space to experienced aides. Many were moderates, which angered the hard right that helped him into office. Few now doubt this cheery and often cheesy patriot left behind a country that was safer and more prosperous.

Reagan liberated his country economically, just like Thatcher. Business was let off the leash, social projects shut down, personal taxes cut. Yet with the growth came greed and inequality, corrosive forces that contributed to a sense of dislocation among dispossessed Americans and fueled the triumph of Trump. And it was no coincidence so many senior figures in his administration became snared in scandal, such was the regime’s adoration of wealth and contempt for the state. Nor to see such stagnation in Washington after he left amid ceaseless attacks on federal bureaucracy.

We must wait to see how Trump fares as president. Yet there is one big difference between him and his predecessor. For Reagan may have been emotionally repressed but he was driven by naive optimism in both his nation and his fellow human beings. He abhorred racism – the only time he punched someone was over an anti-semitic remark – and urged respect. That misty Hollywood-style view of humanity led him to personally offer peace talks to successive Soviet leaders and believe Communism was doomed, despite protests from advisers. And he was sympathetic to migrants seeking the American Dream.

Trump is true successor to Reagan in his rise to power and desire for national greatness. But Reagan’s idea of US exceptionalism was based on optimism that led to openness, while Trump is fired by fearful pessimism that leads to protectionism. He has defined himself as a bullying misanthrope who seems to dislike many other people, from women and those with disabilities through to Mexicans and Muslims. Not just in his campaign, but in his career and private life. More than anything, this makes me fear for the future.

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