Presidential Comparisons to Donald Trump: Ronald Reagan
It is true that this year’s election is unlike anything we have ever seen – definitely not in our lifetimes, and perhaps anything we’ve seen in the last 50 years at least. Even the 1968 race – with the chaos of its race riots, the Vietnam War, struggling economy, third-party candidate George Wallace, and the assassination of the candidate whom my Grandfather insists would have won had he lived – still followed a lot of the same patterns in terms of the two major candidates themselves, and the predictability of Nixon’s victory then was still in-line with traditional political patterns.
But this year? This year witnessed something quite extraordinary – things that can only be described as true movements, on both the right (Trump, as well as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina) and the left (with Bernie Sanders). It was fueled by a strong anti-establishment narrative that saw the American people revolt against the traditional political class, whether it be the dynasties of Bush and Clinton or the “moderate” nature of men like John Kasich and Jim Webb.
It succeeded on the right, while coming close on the left (perhaps even closer than we thought, given the fact that the DNC was openly rigging the primaries for Clinton – Sanders could have potentially won if it was fair and open like the Republican primaries were). Despite failing on the left, it was still just enough to influence the nominee, Hillary Clinton, to adopt some of Sanders’ more radical policies.
But of course, this entire election was about Donald J. Trump.
I believe that this man is truly a unique candidate and will be a unique president – there simply is no true comparison to any past figure, president or non-president, who aligns 100% with what Trump is doing or represents.
But hey, political pundits are paid to make sense out of senselessness, so why not give the comparison game a try?
In particular, there are three former presidents – all from more recent times – whom I believe come closest to matching Trump. I will detail these comparisons in yet another three-part series, starting with this one.
Part I: Ronald Wilson Reagan
The man most of Trump’s supporters claim he reflects. The man whom many a Republican presidential aspirant claims to be most like. The man who brought about the last great ideological shift of the Republican Party, and truly helped bring it about to the ruling status it was up to Barack Obama’s election. Although it is most likely that Trump supporters rush to invoke this name solely because they dream of Trump solidifying a legacy as universally popular as Reagan, there are a number of perfectly understandable reasons as to why they’d make this comparison.
First, it is indeed worth mentioning that there are a number of key differences between the two, namely in that Trump is not nearly as conservative as Reagan was. Trump supports gay marriage, is against the War on Drugs, and much more lax on abortion (although Governor Reagan similarly eased up abortion restrictions in California). Trump also advocates for a scale-back of American forces abroad in order to focus on nation-building at home, whereas Reagan wanted to reverse Jimmy Carter’s similar actions and expand American involvement for the sake of eventually ending the Cold War. And perhaps most worth noting of the differences – Reagan, despite running as an outsider, had some elected experience as a two-term governor of the most populated state in the country. Trump has not.
But nevertheless, as is with Trump and his campaign overall, it’s the simpler things that matter most. And I mean SIMPLE. Superficial similarities include: Both men employed the exact same catchphrase “Make America Great Again;” both men were former actors or otherwise prominent members of show business (both even have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame); both men set age records as the two oldest men to assume the presidency (Reagan was 69, Trump is 70); both men are the only two Presidents in American history to have had a divorce; both men’s first names are literally one letter apart; both men had/have surprisingly fabulous hair…
…OK, in all seriousness. Beyond these superficial similarities, and even more specific policy and experience similarities, the strongest similarities between these two men are the core messages and themes of their respective campaigns, and their main appeals to the voters.
As noted above, both men ran as outsiders challenging the political establishment. Reagan ran against, and nearly defeated, the incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and was initially challenged in 1980 by the establishment pick of the time…whose name happened to be Bush. Trump similarly ran as an outsider who vowed to upset the political establishment and give the power back to the American people. He took down 16 opponents – some of whom were fellow outsiders, while others were establishment favorites, from Marco Rubio, to John Kasich…to another fellow named Bush. He continued to run against the establishment by going against the most powerful name in politics today, and winning: Clinton.
Both men have as the backbone of their runs the notion that simple solutions exist to complex problems, despite what the political class and corporate media will tell us. Reagan declared such in his 1967 inauguration as governor, and Trump has built his campaign on simple-sounding solutions to our biggest problems, such as “Build the wall” and his “Muslim ban” proposal (although both seem to have already been tweaked and scaled back from their simplistic original versions in the last few months). As Matthew Pressman of The Atlantic notes, this message “that simple solutions exist, but other leaders lack the strong will to implement them – was a central aspect of Reagan’s appeal and is key to understanding the Trump phenomenon.” This idea of simplicity is further defended by another commentator who has discussed this issue extensively: Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, who argues that humans are, inherently and subconsciously, irrational and simple beings who are drawn more to simple ideas like Trump’s, even if we don’t know it.
Both men also ran campaigns that were more optimistic than their Democratic counterparts. While Jimmy Carter claimed that America was in a “state of malaise,” and Obama and Hillary Clinton claimed that America should just accept the “new normal” of foreign entanglements and a struggling economy, both Reagan and Trump ran by vowing to bring back optimism and a feeling of pride in America. Both men claim that America’s best days are not behind, but ahead – once the right leaders are in place.
Both men, labeled as “extreme,” “war-mongering,” and “dangerous” by their opponents, based their chances of winning on appealing to more than just traditional Republican voters. Both men essentially built off another President’s famous concept of “The Silent Majority,” by reaching out to independents and disillusioned Democrats. Hence, we ultimately got “Reagan Democrats” who defected from Carter in 1980 and helped deliver the White House to Reagan, as well as a significant number of independents – on top of the already-strong voting bloc of the Republican Party. Trump similarly seeks to expand the Republican Party to traditionally non-Republican blocs, such as African-Americans and the LGBTQ community, as well as, of course, going after the demographic that Jim Webb described as the backbone of the Democratic Party: White, blue-collar, working-class voters. And as we know, Trump was able to win with this bloc, hence why Webb and other “Trump Democrats” like Michael Flynn are already making their support for the GOP nominee known to everyone.
Both men also focused on foreign affairs, and the predominant rival ideology of America, as a cornerstone of how they alone could secure the future for later generations by defeating said ideology. For Reagan, it was Communism at the red heart of the Soviet Union. For Trump, it is Radical Islam at the black heart of ISIS. Rightfully so, the task of taking down an entire ideology seems daunting – but Reagan, for the first time since the Cold War had started, was firmly committed to the notion that Communism could, in fact, be defeated – “rolled back” – rather than simply contained, or tolerated. Trump similarly sees the threat of Radical Islam – to America and the West – and insists that it must be destroyed only through ruthless attacks directly on ISIS, even as others claim that any effort to rollback Radical Islam is as useless as trying to eliminate the religion of Islam itself. Nevertheless, against what all others may say, Trump seems confident that he alone can take on this ideology, and similarly send it to the ash heap of history.
In conclusion, there are definitely many noticeable similarities between Trump and Reagan. Quite a few, honestly; and many Trump supporters will be happy to hear that, again, because they hope that their guy will mirror Reagan’s historic approval ratings, and perhaps even his electoral success come 2020. Could it happen? Only time will tell.
You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26