Trump Is Not the Gipper, and the Era of Reagan Is Not Over

By Craig Shirley | March 13, 2017 | 10:39am EDT
President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

“Ronald Reagan, in my view, was the greatest of post-World War II American presidents,” said Australian Prime Minister John Howard in 2004.

Though over a decade has passed since that statement, Reagan’s presidency still shines above many if not all others as successful, optimistic, and long-lasting. Some historians like John Patrick Diggins audaciously put Reagan even higher, among Washington, Lincoln and FDR, as the four greatest presidents in history, because all four freed or saved many, many people.

Yet some are now wondering if that is no longer the case. While still honored by many within the party, some thought leaders are once again asserting that Reaganism has run its course. Has Reaganism finally been pushed aside for another ideology in the GOP? This debate seems to flare up every CPAC now, especially this year when Donald Trump consultant Kellyanne Fitzpatrick said CPAC should be renamed “TPAC.” Not likely. CPAC was essentially created for Reagan, and Reagan essentially created CPAC.

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review and contributing editor for Politico, thinks so. In a piece published in Politico on March 1 entitled “The End of Reaganism,” Lowry states that the current leaders of the Republican Party, including Congressmen, are shedding classic conservativism to support President Donald Trump. They are supporting him in protectionism, mandatory family leave, major infrastructure bills, and the like. “The defining commitment of Reaganism to cutting the size of government is clearly fading,” he writes. This is only a partial understanding of Reaganism, which was to cut the size of government in order to expand the power of the individual.

This isn’t a fault of a lack of Reagan’s influence, however; this is simply a remnant – a shrinking remnant, as libertarian views continue to expand – of Bushism and big-government conservatism, relatively popular during the four years of Bush I and the eight years of Bush II.

Lowry continues, stating that nationalism – not economic freedom, not anti-communism, not limited government – is the unifying belief of the American right, noting Steve Bannon’s recent speech at CPAC. Lowry says, “because Reaganism had become so stale,” nationalism has upended all other beliefs.

On the contrary, it is not nationalism that Reagan touted, but patriotism. Though the ideas are often conflated to the point of being indistinguishable, especially in post-9/11 America, their implications could not be more different. Patriotism is an ideology of hope for the country, being proud of the nation in which one lives, the dignity of the private individual. Nationalism, on the other hand, is blindly accepting a country as superior without question, a form of xenophobia. We’ve seen it in the 20th century in Tokyo, Moscow, and Berlin, all more or less restrictive police states. The American Revolution was about the Enlightenment-inspired freedom of the individual and the throwing off of the notion of divine rule. Patriotism was about the loyalty to the Constitution, but only as long as the government put the individual first, as the sacred document proscribed.

Though it is in entirely different ways, it’s clear Trump takes some inspiration from Reagan. Reagan said in his famed “Time for Choosing” speech in 1964, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness” and that “If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done."  Two decades later, he proclaimed that the United States “will carry on in the '80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed. In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America's is.” It was classic Reagan. One can hear very faint echoes of similar sentiments in Trump’s speeches and policies, with admittedly less elegance, but the application and the appeal are fundamentally different.

Here’s a question to ponder for the so-called opinion leaders: how can Reaganism be ending when newspapers have run headlines that President Trump was the next Reagan? The Washington Post, in early December, said Trump’s tax reform proposal was “[taking] a page from Ronald Reagan.” Meanwhile, the Washington Times ran a headline to an op-ed in late February titled “The Trump-Reagan Parallels,” written by Tammy Bruce. At the same time, the news aggregator of the Daily 202 of the Washington Post, badly informed, proclaimed that “the Reagan era ends” with Trump. Which one is it? There seems to be a disconnect.

Contrary to what the people at the Post or New York Times, or even some conservative outlets, say, Reagan’s legacy and Reaganism are not dead, nor are they dying, nor are they asleep. They are alive and well in the GOP. President Trump, even if the leader of the nation, is only partially the face of the Republican Party and certainly not of Reagan conservatism. 

It is unlikely that Trump will have a lasting impact on conservative ideology. As Lowry admits, “This Trumpism is still a work in progress” and it may fade to obscurity as much as Bushism and “compassionate conservatism” and “kinder and gentler” under George H. W. and George W. It is simply too early to tell what Trump has in store.  To declare Trump the lead figure of a new brand of conservatism is premature and does no justice to the momentum of Reaganism. In many ways, Trumpism resembles neo conservatism without the foreign policy adventurism.

Even if Trump wanted to change the face of the GOP, it is doubtful he will. With much reporting from the press, it was revealed that Trump’s approval rating during his inauguration was at 42 percent, the lowest of any modern president. Reagan’s was at 50 percent. Now, some may say that Reagan in 1981 marked one of the lowest. However, it was then reported that it only took President Trump eight days to reach 51 percent disapproval rating. Reagan, on the other hand, reached that milestone a little less than two years in. For Reagan, it was during the recession of 1983, where it seemed his policies weren’t working, that he reached that point. In comparison, it took George W. Bush over 1,000 days to be disliked by the majority – no doubt because of the disaster of the Iraq War. When Bush 43 left office, his approval rating was in the high 20’s. When Reagan left office, his approval rating was in the high 60’s to the low 70’s.

For Trump, it’s his mere existence as president that many people don’t like and not his policies. It’s not exactly a stellar endorsement of him then, and certainly doesn’t look good for any sort of legacy. Not now, anyway.

There is also the matter of Reagan’s legacy overseas. Sure, Reagan ranks as one of the highest presidents in United States history, climbing in popularity through the years, but his popularity in Europe is just as loudly trumpeted. In 2011, statues of Reagan were erected in the Polish, English, and Hungarian capitals. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, unveiling the lifelike statue of the Gipper in Freedom Square, Budapest, said solemnly, “Today, we are erecting here a statue to the man, to the leader, who changed, who renewed, this world and created in it a new world for us in Central Europe – a man who believed in freedom, who believed in the moral strength of freed people and that walls that stand in the way of freedom can be brought down.” In Poland, Lech Walesa, a giant in his own right, said during the statue’s unveiling, “Let us bow before Ronald Reagan for the fact that our generation was able to bring an end to the great divisions and conflicts of the world.” Margaret Thatcher in England also praised Reagan in the highest terms, saying that the statue at the U.S. Embassy in London would “be a reminder to future generations of the debt we owe him.”

What do Trump, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, or the Bushes have overseas? Hotels and bombs. Jack Kemp once called Reagan “the last great lion of the 20th century,” evocative of Churchill, FDR, MacArthur, and others. One is hard pressed to think of Trump being described in such terms, in any century.

Every modern president, both left and right, looks to Ronald Reagan for inspiration. It’s only natural, as a recent C-SPAN poll ranked him number nine of all presidents, only being surpassed by the legends of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Liberals and conservatives understand his influence on America and on American politics; whether or not they necessarily agree with the finer points of his presidency, they see his reach and his appeal. The era of Reagan began really in 1976, with his losing, but vitally important, challenge of Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination. But it did not reach partial bloom until his landslide election in 1980 and even greater reelection in 1984. It reached full fruition with the Carter Recession obliterated, with the Soviet Union on its knees, suing for peace, and with the morale of the American people restored. Reagan left office in 1989 beloved by many and died in 2004 respected by nearly all. When Donald Trump brings about such accomplishments, then we can compare him with Reagan.

In the meantime, this is still very much Reagan Country.

Craig Shirley is the author of four bestselling books Ronald Reagan's campaigns, including "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980," out March 21, 2017. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, "December 1941," and is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.


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