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Trump Was No Reagan
Conservatism has had better leaders in the past and could have such leaders once again, if it would just get off this damn train.
The original version of this article was published as a guest article on the Saving Elephants blog.
Over the years, many of President Trump’s supporters have claimed numerous similarities between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.
They point at the irrational fear that gripped the media and others as President Reagan took office in order to excuse the ever-present fear during Donald Trump’s presidency and the fear that he’ll run again.
They point at Reagan’s past as a member of the Democratic Party to excuse Donald Trump’s former left-leaning beliefs and activity in Democratic circles.
They trumpeted the fact that Making America Great Again was one of Reagan’s slogans and believed that Trump returned conservatism to form, shook things up, and re-established Reagan Era conservatism by refusing to back down and refusing to be politically correct.
They disregarded concerns about Trump’s ability to hold office given his lack of experience and ignored derisions of Trump as a reality tv politician by saying, “They said the same about Reagan, the actor!”
While there are definitely some circumstantial similarities, these are predominantly surface parallels. A deeper inspection would reveal that Ronald Reagan had very stark fundamental differences with Donald Trump, amounting to distinct underpinnings of ideological disagreement and dramatically alternate visions for the country’s direction.
Ronald Reagan and Modern Conservatism’s Coalition
Ronald Reagan was President at a juncture of history that many political scientists and historians consider the height of modern conservatism. He not only presided over a moment in our nation’s history where the most significant swath of American voters affirmed their acceptance of a conservative national direction but also at a point where conservatism, in general, was the most united around a single cohesive vision.
Modern conservatism has flavorings of both neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism because it involved a developed coalition between three generalized factions represented by Barry Goldwater (libertarians), Pat Buchanan (paleoconservatives/social conservatives), and Henry Kissinger (foreign policy hawks).
Ronald Reagan was a successful candidate and effective president primarily because he tapped into, maintained, and championed the unique ideology of this coalition while preserving flexibility in policy as realities dictated. This unique ideology, often called fusionism, was concerned with limited government, moral imperatives, constitutional orthodoxy, fiscal responsibility, and international strength with singular and practical purpose.
The Coalition is Dead
It is important to understand that the coalition of modern conservatism is dissolved, and its ideology is fragmented. Modern conservatism has generally devolved into separate bickering camps of libertarians (Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie), neoconservatives (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake), and a new amalgamation of paleo and social conservatives that we can call populist nationalism, chiefly represented by Donald Trump and most conservative talk radio hosts.
Populist nationalism has risen to the forefront of Republican Party direction because the libertarian and neoconservative branches of conservatism vehemently oppose each other and have proven feckless in mounting a unified front in moderating the rise of populist nationalism.
The coalition fell apart for many reasons, some connected and some not. I will only attempt to list several main reasons for the purposes of example.
Neoconservatives dominated party leadership post-Clinton and led America into the Iraq War while engaging in Keynesian economics and centrist social platforms at home, alienating libertarians and social conservatives.
Paleo and social conservatism came to dominate the conservative media complex (Fox News and Talk Radio). This complex has come to revolve mostly around personalities who have grown rich engaging in provocation and anti-intellectual punditry. That these personalities and their media companies have become the so-called “gatekeepers” of conservativism has alienated libertarians and neoconservatives who must either pander to the personalities and their viewers or be left impotent and irrelevant.
Meanwhile, libertarians have become more and more marginalized over the last thirty years and have embraced their existence as outliers and increasingly live up to their characterizations as crackpots and anarchists.
Many libertarians owe more deference to Ayn Rand (someone who cared very little for Reagan) and a branch of libertarianism more attached to European anarchism and minarchism than anything in American political traditions. For example, we can look at the behavior of overly-zealous Ron Paul supporters in the 2008 and 2012 elections (particularly the attempted hostile takeovers of Republican Party caucuses). Their hardcore adherence to extreme libertarian doctrine keeps them from engaging in coalition building or embracing the traditions of fusionism.
With the coalition dead, the conservative movement and the Republican Party were ripe for a usurper who could tap into animating and motivating anger to create a new populist nationalism.
So, what is populist nationalism, why is it different than modern conservatism, and why do the underpinnings of this new movement make Donald Trump so different from Ronald Reagan?
Chiefly, the motivation is not to conserve any type of moral or geopolitical norms but to restore an “American Ideal” that allegedly existed sometime in the past and now faces an existential threat of being defeated completely.
This may not seem like a significant difference, but it is a foundational shift that creates an entirely new narrative and introduces new motivations, rationale, and behaviors.
Modern conservatism was concerned with maintaining a status quo, an established order, and a balance of power under an established constitutional orthodoxy. It sought to make its argument to as many Americans as possible and craft a “big tent” (Reagan liked to assert that someone who agrees with you on four out of five issues is 80 percent a friend, not 20 percent an enemy).
This is in complete contrast with Donald Trump and his populist-nationalist approach.
Populist nationalism believes in the “Bull In The China Shop” ideal of political leadership (“Trump was our bull in their china shop”). They feel that our nation’s government, our nation’s institutions, and our prevailing and rising “liberal” culture has engaged in a systematic attack upon “Middle America” and must therefore be torn down, burned down, and dismantled at the seams by any means and through any strategy possible.
Populist nationalism is not concerned with maintaining any ideal of norms but rather with victory-at-all-costs over the “other” who its adherents see as endangering and preventing a return to “American Greatness,” whether that be Islamic Terrorists, Liberal Media, Illegal Immigrants, College Elites, Progressive Politicians, the GOP Establishment, Environmentalists, or any other group which is viewed as threatening or having already corroded the “American Ideal.”
While modern conservatism was concerned with orthodoxy, populist nationalism feels that any form of moral or ideological constraint weakens its ability to combat the existential threat presented by the “other” (this is why “playing by the rules” is now derided as weakness when it was once a sign of moral authority).
Winning at all costs is the only consistent motivation of populist nationalism and why shifting ideals and norms are defended or attacked based on the motivation of the actions (An extra-legal executive order or arbitrary presidential action by President Obama was an outrage because it supported the “enemy” but similar behavior from President Trump got celebrated because it helped “us”).
Even with all of this, the most significant difference between Trump and Reagan is that Trump had no interest in building coalitions, engaging in big tent politics, or in selling his vision to the country as a whole. In fact, his approach was the complete opposite.
President Trump believed if you weren’t 100% with him, you were 100% against him. He chiefly pandered to his base while disregarding all others as “losers” whose opinions and concerns could be disregarded based on his electoral victory…and his followers followed him in that mantra.
That’s why Mark Sanford lost his primary election despite voting over 80% for Trump initiatives. That’s why Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan were seen as the “evil establishment” even though their efforts have directly resulted in most Trump policy victories (Supreme Court nominations and the Tax Plan are good examples).
That’s why Republicans who were hesitant or unwilling to shout praises to Trump’s name got called RINOs, traitors, and “cuckservatives” until they were hammered into submission or pushed into irrelevancy, regardless of where they actually stood on the issues.
That’s why anti-Trump protestors in the wake of the 2016 election were derided as “cry-babies” and “snowflakes” in a break against the tradition of newly elected Presidents attempting to consolidate the nation post-election (also an interesting example of cognitive dissonance considering what happened after Trump lost in 2020).
Reagan sought common cause with the various factions of conservatism and communicated to his opponents that while they disagreed in many instances, he believed they still deserved a place at the table of discussion.
Under his direction, Trump and the Republican Party actively purged the GOP of libertarians, neoconservatives, moderates, and anybody not willing to get with the program. And, they engaged in a systematic campaign that declared any viewpoint dissenting from Trump’s vision of America as quintessentially anti-American.
Reagan believed in pluralism and envisioned an America where dramatically different beliefs and ideologies could live together in coexistence under the constitutional order. Trump believed in himself as the dispenser of what American Greatness is, of what things should come first to put America First, and attempted to make himself an avatar of America to his followers. To Trump and his supporters, opposing Trump was the same as opposing America.
From Ascendancy To the Last Puff of Smoke
Ronald Reagan so totally changed the political dynamic of the United States (He won 49 states in 1984) that for the first time since Roosevelt and Truman, a full-term President was followed by a President of his own party. The opposing party felt forced to pick a Democrat from Arkansas who portrayed himself as very much a moderate in order to defeat the incumbent four years after Reagan left office (and it still took a split conservative vote for Clinton to win).
Speak to somebody about a “golden age of conservatism,” and chances are they will think Reagan. Even in the ’90s, Bill Clinton generally governed as a moderate (Hillary was always the true progressive believer). Obama, Trump, and Biden-era Democrats would condemn most of Clinton’s policy decisions.
Conservatism under Reagan and after Reagan was inclusive, ascendant, dominant, and indestructible.
Today, conservatism looks very different. No longer confident or inclusive, it is angry and hostile. No longer ascendant as a “moral majority,” polls show a growing majority of Americans see conservatism as backward and narrow-minded, back-biting, and even racist.
Instead of dominant and indestructible, conservatism’s opponents can easily pander to identity politics and promises of free education and healthcare to cobble together coalitions to threaten Republicans in state and national elections.
Whereas Reagan once turned the entire map red, the national electoral map looks more impossibly blue every election (Even Trump, whose supporters herald as the “map breaker,” seems to have broken the map in favor of the Democrats).
Ronald Reagan left his mark on Generation X (the most consistently conservative generation in most polls) by converting them to his vision and making them part of his coalition. Donald Trump has nearly completely alienated the Millennial Generation, who now vote more overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates than any previous generation (and Post-Millenials are trending even further left).
While 2020 wasn’t quite a “blue wave,” it nevertheless handed both the executive and legislative branches to the Democrats. And, they have largely been successful at undoing Trump’s actions, reaffirming Obama’s legacy, and proceeding to make the national conversation revolve around a quite progressive legislative vision.
While Reagan left office with his legacy firmly in place and his principles held dear by most Americans, President Trump left office with the disdain of well over half the country. While the governing priorities of the Democratic Party have left the door open for a resurgent Republican Party, Donald Trump’s continued influence in the GOP and among conservatives are seriously hobbling the opportunity to take back Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.
The bombastic way that President Trump and his supporters sought and gained short-term victories on policy has seriously damaged long-term goals of principle and vision.
Defeat Is Not Set in Stone
Despite the realities of populist nationalism, despite the bombastic and derisive approach with which Donald Trump addressed the nation and exercised his office, and despite the rabid support he received on one side and the rabid opposition he received on the other, Trump’s presidency does not have to be doomed as a disaster for conservatism’s future. All it would take for conservatism to turn a corner is a healthy dose of self-awareness.
If a majority of conservatives could understand many of the realities that I have attempted to lay out, it could become possible to take steps towards reversing the dissolution of the once-powerful conservative coalition. If this could happen, many untapped groups of Americans might find that their interests would be well aligned with a renewed conservative “big tent.”
Millennials, despite voting overwhelmingly for leftist politicians, also demonstrate unique and broad support for libertarian ideas. Many groups engulfed in identity politics, especially recent immigrants, feel forced to set aside their generally social conservative religious and cultural beliefs to vote for Democrats. Texas, for example, has traditionally been one of the most powerful bastions of conservatism and has probably been so because it has embraced its Hispanic population.
And, a renewed understanding of how Reagan’s foreign policy approach struck a good balance between strength and prudence could win over many Americans equally frustrated with the foreign quagmires of Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden.
But, conservatives need to understand that they can’t save themselves if they go down shouting glory to Trump to the bitter end.
By all means, point out the radical nature of Biden’s agenda and call out the left-biased media for their cognitive dissonance, intellectual inconsistency, and pure hypocrisy, but do so without smearing yourself by refusing to unhitch yourself from the dumpster fire that was Trump’s presidency.
Turn off talk radio for a moment and recall that most of you initially voted for Trump because you were voting against Hillary, because Trump was the lesser of two evils, and because the Supreme Court was not something we could lose.
If, at the tail end of a single-term presidency, you’re still heralding Donald Trump as some sort of political messiah, consider that supporting him and standing by him has changed you, and not for the better.
Conservatives were once umpires of those that claimed to represent them and not unconditional cheerleaders. Conservatives once held higher expectations of character and dignity in themselves and their leaders than they did their opposition and didn’t justify failings in morals, norms, or rhetoric by engaging in toxic moral equivocations (Whataboutism).
Conservatives once overcame false characterizations from the media and their opposition by maintaining intellectual consistency, unchanging principles, and clear, persuasive language. Instead, the Trump era has seen a squandering of copious amounts of limited political capital running interference for the vague language of an ideologically meandering and disgraced former President who can’t move on from his embarrassing defeat for the good of the country, the good of the party, or the good of conservative values.
Reagan Did Not Believe In “Trust Me” Government
“I am your voice,” said Donald Trump to the shouting praise of the Republican National Convention in 2016, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
This was the main plank of Trumpism, the assertion that Donald Trump believed was his grandest argument in his case to lead the country and the thing that motivated so many to support him and defend him no matter what.
To follow Trump was to believe the system was broken, corrupt, and could not have been fixed by anyone else but Donald Trump. To follow Trump was to believe that an attack upon him was an attack upon you because he was your voice. To follow Trump was to believe that those who could not stomach him were okay with the status quo, were the status quo, and didn’t matter anymore.
This is what Ronald Reagan called “Trust Me” government, and it is what he chiefly stepped forward into the realm of presidential politics to oppose. Thirty-six years before Donald Trump declared himself the sole political savior of the conservative cause, the man we affectionately remember as “the Gipper” stood at a very different Republican National Convention and spoke as if in direct challenge to the direction the Republican Party took under Donald J. Trump:
“‘Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties….I ask you not simply to ‘Trust me,’ but to trust your values–our values–and to hold me responsible for living up to them.”
Conservatism does have a way forward. It does have a path back to ascendancy and endurance. It doesn’t have to die as one last puff of smoke or go loudly, but impotently, into the night of American history. The train does not have to go over the cliff of reactionary suicide or descend into a gulf of things that were…things that will not be so again. We can still have a future but only if we can fully understand that when it comes to Donald Trump…he was no Reagan.