I’ve been working on a radio series about previous presidential elections (to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 every day at 1.45pm in the week beginning January 16) with the aim of providing some historical context for our present political moment (Mr D. Trump, to remind you, if you’d forgotten, will be inaugurated on January 20). While no one quite like Trump has ever risen so far in US politics, his campaign–and more broadly his public persona–contains resonant, if distorted echoes of many previous campaigns and candidates. Some of this is deliberate; in particular, Trump, like every Republican in the last three decades has drawn on the well of success associated with Ronald Reagan.
It’s not their showbiz background that makes Trump a distant echo of Reagan – yes, many people couldn’t see past the Gipper’s Hollywood past, but he’d been a serious political figure for nearly twenty years by the time he ran in 1980. And while Trump is by a huge margin the most disliked candidate ever to win the White House, Reagan’s great success was that people felt warmth towards him – he reflected back to Americans how they wanted to see themselves: an optimistic, self-reliant, good people.
Yet despite their differences, Trump has tried to channel Reagan’s appeal and has done so with more success than any other Republican since. Both won support from white working class voters who had once been Democrats—especially in the South and the Midwest. Reagan, however, won in a landslide—possible not just because he had a far broader appeal than Trump but also because there was less ideological partisan polarization.
Trump has echoed Reagan’s straight-talk, his virulent nationalism, and his willingness to break foreign-policy taboos. Both pose as opponents of the elite, promising to sweep aside failing leadership with a new vigorous style of personalized leadership in the White House. Both also promise big tax cuts, and despite the anti-elitist rhetoric, Wall Street is enthusiastic about both.
And there’s another sense in which Trump may be Reagan’s heir: there was a darker Reagan than the sunny Gipper image. Notoriously, Reagan’s first event after winning the nomination was to speak at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi on August 2, 1980. Just a few miles away, in 1964, three civil rights workers had been murdered for trying to register black voters and the case was still a live issue – the community was still protecting some of those who probably aided the murderers. Reagan talked of the importance of states rights – not so much a dog whistle to white southern racism as a screeching siren:
I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level, and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.
(You can listen to the AUDIO here)
To give the full picture, it was also true that Reagan seriously tried to court African American and Hispanic voters, though with very little success. But then Trump would say the same. Reagan signed a bill providing a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants — but then who knows what Trump will actually do in office? He apparently supported migrant rights before he decided not to, just as he supported abortion before he didn’t.
Reagan scholars, who not unlike Lincoln scholars reliably become deeply fond of their subject, will rightly point out that Reagan was a vastly more principled politician and an infinitely more gracious human being. Yet immersing myself in the 1980 election campaign over the last week or so has been an oddly familiar experience…