Reagan and Trump: Parallel Presidencies?
As we sit here in the cheap seats, watching the beginning of what could be an amazing eight year run of “Trump the President”, it might be worth considering that we have been here before.
President Donald J Trump is admittedly a more outsize character than many of his predecessors. Ford, Carter, the two Bushes, even Clinton and Obama, are in danger of seeming to have been boringly two-dimensional in comparison to the technicolour vulgarian who brashly invaded their roles. But as Trump’s narrative already seems to be teetering into incoherence and chaos, spare some time to remember one of his most admired fore-runners. President Ronald Reagan.
It is difficult to remember Reagan with any objectivity these days. Nearly everyone seems to have bought into the cheery old actor’s own mythology. He was the avuncular guide from darkness to light, the spinner of homely wisdom who nonetheless had a visionary’s appreciation of the Cold War and who once again made American proud to live on that “shining city on a hill”. His presidency saw, as his most famous election advert had it, “morning again in America”.
Myth-making can be a powerful political tool, and Reagan graduated from the most successful myth-making factory of all time, Hollywood, to practise his art on the even bigger stage of the White House. But history has to be more than myth, and our study of politics has to be graced by hard, cold, unromantic facts if it is to promote any useful understanding. Fantasy is one of the most popular genres in story-telling, but it is no way to forge a proper political narrative.
That, by the way, is one of the first things that the 45th and 40th presidents seem to share. Politics was simply an extension of their real love, the acting of a role. Reagan the actor, who loved quoting his own lines (“Win one for the Gipper”) and Trump the reality television star, spent their formative adulthood in a fantasy tale where they were the star and millions adored them. Of course the presidency was simply a chance to win more admirers and continue their media-centric role.
The fantasy began as soon as they took office. Trump conjured up the dark demons of a ruined America, all empty factories and desert wastelands. Reagan invoked the homily of a young American World War 1 soldier buried at Arlington; although the young man in question was not buried at Arlington at all, but a thousand miles away in Wisconsin. The historian William Leuchtenburg notes of Reagan that “he found it hard to fathom why truth should be privileged over make-believe”. No-one’s quite written those exact words about Trump, but it is the underlying theme of his first two months in office.
Coming from a media arena where they were the centre of everyone else’s work, and with astonishingly little interest in the mechanics of governing, Reagan and Trump found it similarly difficult to organise a coherent White House. Reagan’s White House had an uneasy power troika in James Baker (chief of staff), Edwin Meese (presidential counsellor) and Michael Deaver (deputy chief of staff). Dodging and weaving between each other, and having to also field the astrological bomb shells of Reagan’s very powerful wife, Nancy, the three eventually managed to protect their president from his own flaws and run something akin to a functioning executive.
Trump’s White House, too, combines an uneasy power alliance — Priebus, Bannon and Miller — with the intrusions of family members in Jared and Ivanka Kushner.
Then there are the political stances. Reagan had been a fervent Roosevelt Democrat before his tax returns annoyed him so much that he veered into the right hand lane. Trump, the registered Democrat and would-be New York liberal was persuaded to the right initially by his visceral hatred of America’s first black president, pursued through the birther movement. Both then entered office as the odd, would-be saviours of the Republican right, committed to reversing perceived foreign policy decline, slashing taxes and restoring social conservatism.
Reagan nursed a particular hatred of welfare and he would invent stories to illustrate its failings. One of these was about a young man who entered a store, bought an orange with his food stamps and then took the change, spending it on vodka. The young man was in invention and the Department of Agriculture even felt compelled to issue a statement denying the veracity of the yarn. It didn’t matter though. Reagan went ahead and proposed the biggest roll-back of welfare ever seen; he was wiping out “forty years’ worth of promises, subventions, entitlements, and safety nets issued to…every…stratum of society”.
Trump too has his bete noirs, none more so than immigration. With his reliance on invented stories such as the now notoriously non-existent “Bowling Green massacre”, Trump has so far signed two executive orders designed to take a hammer to immigration into the US. On welfare, read “Obamacare”, as Trump seeks to roll it back and presents — like Reagan — a budget to slash welfare spending but ratchet it up on military hardware.
The warping and re-shaping of reality to suit their own narratives is another link shared by the two media presidents. Trump’s tales of three million illegal voters, his re-imagining of his inauguration crowds and his still firmly stated belief that his predecessor wire-tapped him have virtually shaped the story of his first days as president. His incoherent rambling in press conferences and seeming inability to grasp even the basics of policy have already been much reported. But lest we forget, here too he follows in the footsteps of the master. In his invaluable profile of the 40th president, William Leuchtenburg quotes journalist Jack Berry as saying “He finds it next to impossible to say anything that is not in some crucial way untrue”. John Sloan, in “The Reagan Effect” notes that in Reagan’s mind, “unpleasant realities could be blamed on a hostile media”.
If the casual observer thinks that Trump’s presidency is headed for the rocks, then reflect for a moment on the actuality of Reagan’s presidency. His swingeing budget cuts condemned millions to poverty and wretchedness, cutting off millions more from any realistic chance of health care. His tax cuts benefitted primarily the very wealthy. He sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act and became the first president to veto a civil rights act; in both his elections he received the smallest share of African American votes ever given to a presidential candidate. He appointed an anti-environmentalist to the Environmental Protection Agency who proceeded to halve the EPA’s budget, urged drastic weakening of the Clean Air Act and refused to enforce most of the congressional regulations on the environment. Her name, incidentally, was Anne Gorsuch, and her son became President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.
In foreign affairs, Reagan actively connived with a hostile power (Iran), selling them arms in a trade that his administration banned as aiding terror when undertaken by other countries. He went to great lengths to deceive Congress on this, and when he could evade responsibility no longer he threw those of his aides who had done his bidding under the proverbial bus, sacking them without a backward glance. His consistent defence was that he couldn’t remember authorising such sales. He also supported some of the most brutal and dictatorial leaders in the world, including the murderous presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala. Early in his presidency he sent several marine divisions to Lebanon against the advice of his military chief. Over 260 marines were eventually killed, mainly in suicide attacks, before Reagan recalled them, having gained nothing.
Yet Reagan was a lucky president. His first term was saved by a recovering economy — thanks to the fiscal discipline of Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee — and a successful, if ultimately trivial, military intervention in Grenada. His reputation from his second term relies largely on the end of the Cold War, thanks more to the efforts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev than Reagan’s own befuddled and largely mendacious interventions.
For all the mishaps, for all his political ignorance and his utter disdain for the poor, working class victims of his domestic policies, Reagan is somehow remembered as a great president. The secret was his affable front. Ronald Reagan the actor rose to the greatest role he ever played with brilliance. His natural optimism, his ability to deploy self-deprecating humour and his professionalism in reading the sometimes transcendent speech lines given him by his writers all conspired to create his legend. His success spoke to one of the great truths of politics, that perception beats all. People will happily vote against even their own self-interest if they buy in to the personality of the man (or woman, though not to date) selling it. Americans wanted to feel good about their country and themselves and Reagan was just the man who did it. Packaged as carefully as any product, malleable to an unbelievable extent in the hands of his carers, Reagan brought off a brilliant illusory coup.
The nagging question therefore remains — can Trump do the same? If Reagan’s ill-disposed presidency could win one of the greatest landslides in presidential history, as he did in 1984, surely Trump can do the same? After all, as we have seen, Trump shares with Reagan an extraordinary ability to communicate to the people denied to his rivals. While Trump, like Reagan, exists on a diet of extraordinary make-believe, he continues to draw on the ferocious loyalty of his voters. Trump’s repeal of Obamacare, and his budget cuts, may well hit his core supporters hardest, but who would be brave enough to predict that they will vote for anyone other than him in 2020?
Yes there are crucial differences. Reagan exuded consistent optimism and hope while Trump snarls out hatred and despair. Reagan allowed himself to be calmly managed by his aides, while Trump is possibly the most undisciplined man to enter the White House. But even these differences can be explained away by the times each role-playing president has found himself in. Reagan’s audience wanted to believe in a better America. Trump’s audience wants to find scapegoats for their failures. Both men performed with the utmost astuteness to their audiences. Each has been disdained by the political establishment and then roaringly endorsed by the voters.
If there was any doubt that, contrary to the wisdom of all of the well-connected, politically interested naysayers, Trump will pull off another success in four years, then consider the research of Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in Macomb county, Michigan. Summarised and analysed by Josh Kraushaar in the National Journal, it offers no comfort to Trump’s Democrat opponents.
Greenberg spoke to Trump supporters who identified as former independents or Democrats. He found, according to Kraushaar, that they were ferociously loyal to Trump, that they believed he would improve their lives and that he stood against a culture which had failed them. They accept his version of news and facts because they believe him to be more authentic than the traditional politicians they are used to. They are even capable of altering the narrative of their own lives to fit this belief. Kraushaar notes a story about a Tennessee woman who believed Trump had assisted her with her health insurance payments. In fact, the help she referred to came from Obamacare, which Trump is committed to rolling back.
Reagan is admired by Trump and his presidency most parallels Trump’s own. If a man with Reagan’s flaws and political failures can score a landslide second victory and then be revered as a great president, there is every chance that Trump can do the same. Until his opponents start thinking in terms of emotion, culture and gut, they will never be able to intrude on the impenetrable armour of Trump belief that surrounds his supporters. All they can do is hope that there aren’t too many of them.