Donald Trump is a lot more like Ronald Reagan than most Republicans think.
Many in the GOP establishment are upset that Trump compares himself to fellow Democrat-turned-Republican Reagan, and they often try to discredit him by arguing that Reagan was a happy warrior who spoke only of a "shining city on a hill" and "morning in America" but never ominously about the country he loved.
"As political presences, Trump and Reagan are light years apart," Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, wrote recently. "Reagan was an optimist. Trump is a scowling nativist."
There's a problem with this line of thinking, which is espoused by no small number of prominent Republicans and even members of Reagan's political operation. It ignores what Trump has captured about the essence of Reaganism: It's about nostalgia — a future that feels a lot like an imagined utopian past. Listening to tapes of Reagan or a live broadcast of Trump, you can almost hear Archie and Edith Bunker singing, "Those were the days," at the opening of All in the Family: "Didn't need no welfare state; everybody pulled his weight."
Like Reagan, Trump is arguing that the US must be rescued from a rapid descent brought on by a Democratic president and promising to "make America great again." That hazy retro Polaroid photo looks good to a certain segment of the GOP, which explains Trump's rise. The difference between Reagan and Trump is this: When Reagan appealed to working-class white voters in 1980, he was enlarging the Republican Party; when Trump does it, he's threatening to shrink the GOP.
That is what's truly infuriating to the Republican candidates who are getting smoked by Trump right now. They're certain it's a catastrophic formula for the future of the party. Jeb Bush, who is trying to broaden the party's base by appealing to Latino voters, has a campaign slogan of "Right to Rise." Marco Rubio declared at his campaign launch that "yesterday's over." Neither one of them is thinking about nostalgia or how to make the Republican Party more like it was in 1980. But Trump is.
So Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination can shout all they want about how his policies don't match up with Reagan's principles, but they're missing the bigger point: Trump is like Reagan because he's charismatic in communicating the case that he's the one who will fight for voters and "make America great again." Trump is simply running a more Reagan-like campaign than any of his competitors are.
Reagan evolved toward optimism over the course of his career
One of the lasting memories of Reagan's optimism was a TV spot he ran called "Morning in America." But it's often forgotten that this slogan was part of his 1984 reelection campaign, when he needed to convince voters that the country was on the right track. For much of his earlier career in politics, which was dominated by Democrats at the presidential and congressional levels, Reagan was dependent on making the opposite case.
In 1964, he catapulted into the national Republican consciousness with a televised 30-minute ad for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign called "A Time for Choosing." As professor Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College points out, Reagan was a different politician at that time.
"Not only was the content pretty bracing, but his demeanor was serious, almost angry," Pitney wrote in an email to Vox. "His presentation softened over the years: the indignant outsider morphed into the smiling grandfather that we remember."
By 1980, as he campaigned for the presidency against Jimmy Carter, Reagan understood how nostalgia could help him draw a contrast between the dark course of his rivals and the bright back-to-the-future path he offered. He told Americans to honor Vietnam veterans like veterans of other wars and promised to "unite people of every background and faith in a great crusade to restore the America of our dreams."
Here's how Reagan talked about the state of the country at the 1980 Republican National Convention:
Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity. The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership--in the White House and in Congress--for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us.
"Unprecedented calamity." That's hardly uplifting in and of itself. But Reagan, like Trump, used it as a pivot point:
The American spirit is still there, ready to blaze into life if you and I are willing to do what has to be done; the practical, down-to-earth things that will stimulate our economy, increase productivity and put America back to work.
"Reagan was not much of an outlier," Pitney said. "Out-party candidates always stress the negative: that’s their job."
Why this fight over the Reagan mantle matters
Reagan is widely viewed as the godfather of the modern Republican Party because he restored and enlarged the post-Nixon GOP with back-to-back landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. Until the rise of a new breed of conservatives who see waste in bloated Pentagon budgets, Reagan's formula of tax cuts, limited government, and big military spending was sacrosanct among Republicans. Many in the GOP still define themselves by those three principles, and there's a fundamentalist Reagan set that is more married to them than Reagan ever was.
So it's no surprise that Trump, running for the Republican nomination, would try to lay claim to the Reagan legacy. And on a 30,000-foot level, he has some Reaganesque qualities as a campaigner. But as the Washington Post noted this week, pretty much every candidate in the race has likened himself to the Gipper in one way or another, and they'll all try to showcase their Reaganism at the GOP presidential debate in Simi Valley, California, Wednesday.
Jeb Bush, whose father was Reagan's vice president for two terms, even opened his button-down shirt at a recent event to reveal a Reagan-Bush '84 T-shirt underneath. The genuine article of a tie to Reagan was more important than the risk of reinforcing the narrative that he's the aging scion of a political dynasty.
What Trump has shown is that Reagan nostalgia — and the combination of tough talk about the current state of things and optimism about a winning future — is still pretty potent, not only for Republican primary voters but also for some independents and Democrats. Rather than saying Trump isn't like Reagan, perhaps his rivals would be better served by trying to emulate the qualities they share.