Why Trump Isn’t Reagan’s Heir

Authoritarian, at the center of media attention and a populist — no matter how much Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are alike on some points, their filiation is nonetheless not so easy to confirm. A side by side view of the two men.

Since Reagan left the White House, with the help of the benevolent American media, every potential Republican candidate has had to go through the Grand Old Party’s “Reagan detector”: George Bush Sr., Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and so on. It’s as if whoever most faithfully reincarnated “the Gipper” (one of Reagan’s nicknames taken from a film) would have an increased chance of reaching and succeeding in the White House. In the Republican psyche, Reagan represents nothing less than a golden era. For instance, the American “victory” in the Cold War and the resolution of the Tehran hostage crisis are generally attributed to him by the conservative movement and party.

Logically, Trump has not avoided being compared with the former president and some dare to see a new Reagan in him, such as in his ability to appeal to a white middle and working class, itself driven by a sense of decline. In 1980 and 1984, Reagan pandered to this group, thanks to a hostile discourse toward minorities (and the welfare system that they “abuse”) and elite liberals he accused of abandoning “hard-working people,” according to the rhetoric of the time. Thirty-six years later, Trump is using the same populist triggers: threats to minorities (but on immigration rather than welfare) and abandonment by political elites (liberal and conservative).

Capturing Voters’ Need for Authority

Both men incarnate a figure of authority. In our September columns, we wrote that the most reliable factor swaying the American voter toward Trump was his authority. As for Reagan, explains Françoise Coste in her excellent biography of “the Gipper,” in 1980 his campaign team created an image of him as a strong and authoritative leader, unlike Jimmy Carter, who was seen as a weak president after failing to curb inflation and deal with the hostage situation at the American Embassy in Tehran. His “Malaise Speech” would mark the culmination of this crisis of confidence and authority of an America which later turned toward the muscled Reagan, who promised to stop humiliations on the international scene and restore national pride.

Finally, [Trump and Reagan’s] manner of handling the media could permit an approximation between the two men. Times are different, and so are their approaches, but not their domination of the media landscape – Reagan through television (which Trump also masters); Trump through social media. The former actor was so skillful on television that he was nicknamed “the Great Communicator.” As for Trump, his way of continually creating buzz in the era of instantaneity allowed him to constantly remain the center of attention during the Republican primary, even in the original pool of 17 candidates. Several U.S. media outlets have estimated the media coverage that Trump benefited from (for free) to be worth $2 billion.

Reagan, the Success of Conservative Revival

These arguments are not enough, however, to make Trump Reagan’s heir. From an ideological point of view, the contexts differ enormously. While Reagan symbolizes the advent of the revival of conservatism beginning after 1945 and bubbling in the 1970s (supply-side economics, expansion of democracy and firmness in respect to the USSR in international relations, a social discourse impregnated with religion and centered on moral values), Trump does not fit into such an effervescent ideological context, the Republican party having only very rarely deviated from the conservative Reagan orthodoxy in three decades. In view of Trump’s program that has not stopped changing in accordance with the polls and the news, it is difficult to align Trump with an ideology. Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s former speech writer, even estimates Trump to be an anti-ideology candidate, definable above all by the concept of “America first.”

Reagan Carries America with Him, Trump Doesn’t

Comparing Trump and Reagan is also comparing the way they were elected. While Trump gave the impression that he crushed each of his competitors one by one in the Republican primaries, it was nothing compared with the scores achieved by Reagan in 1980. From the beginning of the electoral marathon, Reagan won victories with percentages almost always above 50 percent (with peaks at more than 70 percent in Georgia and Kansas) while Trump never passed 40 percent (except in the Marianas, with 471 voters) until mid-April, two weeks before becoming the final candidate in the race for the nomination. Based on statistics, the enthusiasm incited by Reagan was much more significant.

An assertion that the general election affirmed: Reagan won almost 10 percent more of the popular votes than Carter and received 489 electoral votes while Trump is behind on both fronts. He lost the popular vote to Clinton (2.8 million popular votes) and received “only” 306 electoral votes. America did not get on board with Trump as it did with Reagan.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

This is partially due to the major difference between the two men that can be summed up in one word: optimism. With Reagan, it’s virtually a congenital trait, acquired from an early age thanks to the evangelical upbringing he received from his mother. While the Republican icon had periods of decline in his political career, it was to better demonstrate his optimism — a mix of an unshakeable faith in the future and a romantic vision of a Messianic America. For Reagan, “American history was full of examples that showed destiny and courage of the American people, like the two world wars where the United States fought for democracy and against tyranny.”*

Donald Trump is nothing of the sort; he has appropriated the pessimism of a large part of the American population. The frightening vision of America given by the Republican Party at its national convention in July 2016 is there to attest to this. Olivier Piton, author of the book, “The New American Revolution,” considers in this regard that Trump “clearly falls within a ‘post-Reaganism'” that resembles European populisms that “alert their respective public opinions to the risk of their own civilization’s collapse.” That’s the difference between “Let’s make America great again” in 1980 and the “Make America great again” in 2016: an optimistic and forward-looking America and an America closed in on itself and paralyzed by its fears.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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