Trump is the Anti-Reagan
For months now I have avoided writing this. I dreaded the process and hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. But alas, events and the pleas of others have compelled me. Three emails in the span of about 30 minutes last Tuesday sealed the deal. “Recently, in discussions with Trump supporters, I have had many say to me that one of the reasons they support Trump is because he is the modern-day equivalent to Ronald Reagan,” writes Connor, a former student of mine in his final year of law school. “Trump supporters keep perpetuating this comparison. Considering your expertise on everything Reagan, I wanted to mention this to you, in hopes you would write an article on it.”
Connor’s email was far from the only such entreaty. I have been receiving these requests for months. Further back still, one writer about a year ago wrote a piece asserting 15 similarities between Reagan and Trump. That thing has been sent to me more often than I could count. It practically went viral. Enough is enough. Yes, it’s time.
I can hear Trump supporters protesting me writing this now, insisting that it’s time to unite against Hillary and support their Donald. But Trump’s status as the presumptive nominee is a separate issue from the comparisons to Reagan, which seem to be picking up steam. The constant claims of Trump being “another Reagan” must be addressed and must be stopped, if merely in service of truth, but also in service of what Ronald Reagan really represented and what we need to remember. The indisputable reality is that there is no meaningful, legitimate set of similarities between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.
Before proceeding further, I’ll begin with a general statement on my Reagan bona fides -- that is, for Trump supporters new to the conservative movement who have no idea who I am.
I have published six major books on Reagan, several of them bestsellers, ranging from (the first) God and Ronald Reagan (HarperCollins, 2004) to Reagan’s Legacy in a World Transformed (Harvard University Press, 2015). Some of those in between include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006) and 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative (2014). Two of these books are the basis for the Reagan/film bio-pic, Reagan: The Movie. That film, like my books, are positive affirmations of Reagan. I am and have long been a Reagan conservative. I am hardly an “establishment RINO.” In fact, I literally wrote the book on Reagan conservatism. And my next book, scheduled for release next spring, is a 1,000-page-plus Cold War work on Reagan.
I have done thousands of articles, speeches, and radio and TV and print interviews on Ronald Reagan. I have personally interviewed hundreds of people who lived with or knew or worked with the man and I’ve spent endless days in the Reagan Library, at the Reagan Ranch, at Reagan’s Eureka College, in his hometown, at the river where he lifeguarded, in nursing homes talking to elderly women who were baptized with Reagan in the summer of 1922, etc., etc., etc. I have read countless letters written by Reagan, and still far more pages of words scribbled by others. It’s quite possible that I’ve read more by or about Ronald Reagan than any living person on the planet. I assure you I’m in the top 10.
This is very much a short list (two paragraphs) of my (embarrassing) amount of life activities dedicated to illuminating the person, life, and mind of Ronald Reagan.
My point in presenting this isn’t to toot my own horn. (Quite the contrary -- all of this Reagan focus makes me seem rather strange, I think.) The point is that this is what I study. I have some credibility on the matter of Ronald Reagan. If someone wants to try to compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan, my opinion ought to have at least some degree of informed merit.
So, with that said, let me state unequivocally and undeniably that not only is Donald Trump not the “next Reagan,” but he is the anti-Reagan. Really, I find not only that the two men have preciously little in common, from their policies to their person, but I think there may be no two men more glaringly different. Donald Trump is a polar opposite of Ronald Reagan.
Generally, in terms of policy/ideological preferences, there is not much that Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan have in common, from domestic to foreign policy, which is quite odd given two Republican nominees for the presidency not too many years apart. Sure, policywise, I suppose there are some things, like favoring a strong military and -- maybe, at one point -- perhaps possibly cutting income-tax rates. But even then, as I write, Trump’s favoring of lower taxes is something on which he is already reneging. Indeed, between my first draft of this article last week and my final version this week, he has flip-flopped on taxes. In a matter of minutes on Sunday, from NBC to ABC, he soared all over on taxes, and on the minimum wage.
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, is legendary for his refusal to reverse himself on income-tax cuts throughout his entire presidency. Trump is reversing himself even before the Republican convention. Reagan’s refusal was because Reagan was principled. Trump’s reversal is because Trump is not principled. Reagan was a complete conservative. Trump is momentarily pretending to be a conservative, and is getting away with it because of followers who back him no matter he says or does -- just as he boasted they would. (Click here for Trump’s woefully embarrassing attempt to define conservatism, a problem Reagan never had. Trump’s definition is that of someone attempting to hijack conservatism merely in order to get elected.)
Reagan opposed high taxes because federal income taxes were (among other things) the mother’s milk that sustained and grew big government. I see no evidence that Donald Trump believes in small, limited government the way Reagan did. The way Trump speaks of what he would do as chief executive is not small-government at all, and is actually quite stunning in its remarkable lack of Constitutional comprehension. He talks as if the president can just magically cancel trade agreements and enact massive changes unilaterally. The Founders carefully never devised such a system. I’m reminded of Harry Truman’s warning to his Oval Office successor, Dwight Eisenhower (I’m paraphrasing): “Poor Ike. He’ll come here and say ‘do this, do that, do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen. It won’t be anything like the military.”
Precisely. Our system was designed so the chief executive cannot stomp in and do whatever he pleases. That’s how banana republics operate. If Trump’s advocates are frustrated with the inaction of the federal government now (by the way, federal-government inaction is not a bad thing to a conservative), just wait until they see Trump’s inability to kick and scream and get what he wants from behind the Oval Office desk. The federal government is not a business, and the president is not a CEO. The Founders did not want the president to be a CEO. Conservatism and genuine conservatives grasp this. Reagan did. Trump doesn’t, or at least he speaks on the campaign trail like he doesn’t.
But easily the starkest difference between Trump and Reagan relates to temperament and personality. Ronald Reagan was always universally liked, even by nasty critics on the left. You would have never seen Ronald Reagan hampered by 60-70% unlikability ratings like those earned by Donald Trump. It was precisely Reagan’s likability that made him so electable. It is precisely Trump’s unlikability that makes him so unelectable.
When Reagan left office in 1989, Gallup rated him with the highest favorability/likability of any president since Eisenhower. Ironically, his likability, typically in the 60-70% range, is nearly identically matched by Trump’s unlikability.
Reagan was liked by people because he liked them and treated them kindly. I never encountered one episode, ever, from Dixon, Illinois to Hollywood to Sacramento to Washington all the way to his tomb in Simi Valley, California, of Ronald Reagan speaking to anyone even once with the crudeness, rudeness, bombast, vitriol, vulgarity, and insults as Donald Trump does daily. Trump does not just lash out when someone criticizes him, or when he loses -- he explodes, he ascribes sinister motives, he threatens lawsuits, he maligns. (As I write, his newest victim is Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, a kind Christian leader whose sin was that he dared to criticize Trump. Moore is suddenly a “nasty guy with no heart.") Trump does this without restraint toward fellow Republicans. Reagan had an “11th Commandment” -- thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Trump effectively seems to have one, too -- thou shalt always speak ill of fellow Republicans. Or, that is, of fellow Republicans who do not praise him.
Think about it. Consider the leading Republicans that Trump has lit up: Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, George Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Carly Fiorina, and on and on. They are “liars,” “losers,” “morons,” “chokers,” and (for the women) “ugly.” Donald Trump has spent the last six months torching the best and brightest of the future of the conservative movement and Republican Party that dared to stand in his way. He is only happy when he is winning. Anytime that Trump lost a state in the primary to Ted Cruz, all hell was guaranteed to break loose the next morning.
Reagan did not do this. In fact, Ronald Reagan was the most humble person of his power and position that I have observed in my study of the presidency. His charitable nature was extraordinary. Bill Clark, one of his closest aides and friends, used to tell me often of Reagan (I was Clark’s biographer): “There was no pride there, Paul. No pride at all.” Donald Trump, to the contrary, is one of the most prideful human beings we’ve witnessed in American politics. He is a narcissist without question.
Bill Clark would further add of Reagan: “The man had no ego, Paul. No ego at all.” Donald Trump is all-ego. His ability to brag about himself is alarming, and I fear potentially dangerous. Psychologists will study Donald Trump for years to come.
Reagan was a man of great grace. Trump is tremendously lacking in grace.
Reagan was exceptionally kind to people. He went out of his way to give people the benefit of the doubt. Trump goes out of his way to insult people. Trump is a bully who openly encourages his supporters to “knock the hell” and “knock the crap out” of dissenters at his rallies. It is plainly unimaginable to picture Ronald Reagan speaking that way.
Reagan spoke eloquently of the dignity and sanctity of each human being, saying that “every person is a ressacra” (Latin for “sacred reality”). This was intrinsic to Reagan’s conservatism (and his faith).
Reagan was the consummate gentleman, especially toward women, to whom he was shy and gentle. Women have told me with tears in their eyes about his deference toward them. Trump’s boorish sexual references toward women and his high-schoolish rips at their physical appearance would have horrified Ronald Reagan. I can honestly say that Donald Trump’s digs at the face of Carly Fiorina and Heidi Cruz alone would have caused Ronald Reagan to reject the man because of an obvious character deficiency.
In all, these traits reflect on each man’s temperament, stability, and suitability for the office of the presidency. Few men in the history of the presidency were as emotionally well-suited as Ronald Reagan, whereas few are as emotionally ill-suited as Donald Trump.
Again, there is so much more that could be said here in this comparison, but I’m already approaching 2,000 words. I’ll conclude with just a couple of comments on the most frequent Reagan comparisons being generated by Trump supporters.
The very worst of them is ridiculously inane in its simplicity. It’s the assertion that Trump, just like Reagan, trails the Democrat in the presidential race right now, and thus -- wow, whizzbang, shazam! -- will overcome the deficit in November and win. I can’t believe that I need to say this, but the mere fact that Trump, like Reagan, is trailing the Democrat does not thereby mean -- ipso facto -- that he surges like Reagan and wins in November. I know our education system is lousy, but do we really lack in critical thinking this abysmally? Such a certain surge from behind by Trump is especially less likely given the astronomical (record-breaking) unlikability numbers of Trump, which stand in complete contrast to Reagan’s likability. Reagan did not repulse huge segments of voting blocs like Trump does. This particular comparison is absolutely apples vs. oranges.
And still more, Ronald Reagan did not consistently trail Jimmy Carter like Trump has trailed Hillary and even Bernie Sanders. For an extended factual analysis of the data, click this superb piece by Louis Jacobson for PolitiFact. Jacobson’s information is thoroughly researched.
Here’s another comparison that has currency among Trump boosters: It is stated that both Reagan and Trump were dismissed by elites as policy/intellectual lightweights. They were underestimated. That is true. But the analogy ends there. The truth is that Trump clearly is a policy/intellectual lightweight, and Reagan was not. Scholars of Reagan, left and right, will today tell you that Reagan was impressively well-read and grounded in policy details. For a snapshot of the pre-presidential Reagan in the latter 1970s, and his prodigious digging into (and writing about) the nuances of policy, check out any of the books by Kiron Skinner and Martin and Annelise Anderson, by Craig Shirley, by Steve Hayward, and others. And when Ronald Reagan spoke of being a conservative, and anchored his policy preferences in conservative roots, it stemmed from years of devouring conservative books and publications and attending and speaking at conservative conferences.
Trump has done none of that intellectual heavy-lifting, nor does it seem to interest him. Recall the spectacle of watching Donald Trump in the Republican debates, especially against Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The man was a veritable policy midget. How anyone might walk away from the TV set after watching those debates and assert that Trump won and earned their support is something I will never be able to comprehend.
And alas, one more comparison often made by Trump defenders: Trump, like Reagan, has been framed by opponents as unstable and dangerous, a man who cannot be trusted with his finger near the button. Sorry, Trump fans, but Donald Trump’s explosive personality, frequent outbursts, shocking tantrums, abrasive impulsiveness and seeming lack of control (even the fawning Ann Coulter called him “mental”) have understandably invited these concerns in a way that Reagan’s behavior never merited. In Reagan’s case, this was totally unfounded. In Trump’s case, he cannot act as he does and then expect people to feel instantly reassured with him. The man cannot be trusted with his finger at the button of his Twitter account. The feeling of unease is completely his fault.
Again, much more could be said. Donald Trump’s followers can point to other things they like or see in the man -- his business experience, his confidence. Good enough. But please, in the name of Ronald Reagan, cease the nonsense about Trump having any meaningful semblance of similarity with Ronald Reagan. This is an emotional statement of wishful thinking and profound ignorance that should be stopped immediately.
Trumpists, you got your man, who a majority of Republican voters in a divided 17-person primary, voted against. You got what you wanted. But do not compare him to Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.