BOOK EXCERPT: Were Trump and Reagan That Different?
This is an excerpt from Reagan: The American President, which is being released by Post Hill Press in May 2019.
Old line Republicans (and phony newscasters) frequently harken back to the “good old days” of Ronald Reagan and his shrug-it-off demeanor and superb sense of humor. There were few insults that Reagan wouldn’t sweep aside with a joke or a story. Most of the time, activists didn’t bother him: once when confronted with a large crowd of student agitators in California—all standing in dead silent protest—Reagan calmly walked through the crowd and then turned, putting his finger to his lips, and said “Shhhhh!” They all laughed.
Dutch’s dismissal of Jimmy Carter with a “Well, there you go again” or of Walter Mondale with a “I won’t hold my opponent’s youth or inexperience against him” seems to contrast sharply with Donald Trump’s tweets and clever nicknames. But it only seems to.
Reagan and Trump had a world of things in common. Each was the oldest man to ever hold the office at the time of his inauguration. Each was divorced. Each had adult children while in the White House. Each spent the large majority of his life outside of politics, and each had a full career before entering office. Both men had Screen Actor’s Guild union cards—the only presidents ever to hold such cards for regular work (not cameo appearances). Each had a somewhat wandering political past, with Reagan only becoming a Republican during Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign and Trump flirting with the Reform Party. Each was disliked by a significant part of the GOP, although Trump by far exceeds Reagan in the sheer opposition and hatred of elements of the Republican Party.
In terms of policy, both were accused of putting out “rosy” economic forecasts—only to meet or exceed their predictions. Reagan’s team—as newly uncovered evidence in my book Reagan: The American President shows—deliberately understated their internal projections thinking that they would appear “too rosy.” In reality, the economy performed exactly as they had predicted. The same is largely true with Trump: his “magic wand” on manufacturing jobs in particular and on jobs overall has been Harry Potter-esque!
But there were genuine, and often towering, differences. Reagan, having worked as California governor, had eight years to learn the ropes of political compromise. When the Gipper entered office, he had the full weight of the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups behind him with a fully outlined agenda, complete with research. No one supported Trump in that way. He entered office with his own program, and had to assemble the parts along the way. Reagan benefitted from a cadre of “good old boys” who staffed his cabinet and agencies immediately. Trump is still waiting on Mitch McConnell to deliver many of his nominees.
The area in which most people see a contrast, though, is style. Trump is brash, aggressive, impetuous, and unyielding. Reagan was subtle, funny, and as much as possible, cooperative.
Yet the key to each man is the age in which he came into office. Just as Abraham Lincoln—who was, let’s face it, not handsome and who had a high screechy voice—would never have gotten elected in the 1980s, it’s unlikely that for all his strengths Reagan would have gotten elected today. Our age is a much more immediate time, the time of the tweet and the sound bite. Trump learned in “Celebrity Apprentice” the value of celebrity and immediacy. Whereas Reagan could ensure his message would get through in an age or relatively fair news coverage and in which the “big three” television networks were beholden to carry his televised speeches, Trump can count on no such coverage. Indeed, all but Fox have decided that his rallies are “political” and therefore refuse to cover them at length.
No matter: just as Reagan went around the media by appealing directly to the people on television, so too Trump has gone around the media through Twitter and his rallies. (The genius of the rallies is still not appreciated: Trump gets largely unfiltered local coverage in each region.)
Our age demands a message cut through the noise in a way Reagan’s never did. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s slow, deliberate, rambling stories would not fit 1980s television, neither today would Reagan’s folksy approach. His enemies would viciously mock and discredit him. But for the 1980s, no one was better. And for our current times, Trump is the new Reagan—certainly not as refined or amiable, but not nearly as vulnerable either.
Indeed, for the first year Trump kept the media completely off balance for the most part by tossing “cheese into the maze,” wherein he allowed meaningless and often ridiculous stories to circulate and occupy the media’s time while he focused on ending horrible trade pacts, rebuilding the military, crushing ISIS, and pushing through a record number of Circuit Court judges. Even as he was achieving these things, the media was obsessed with “Javanka,” or Steve Bannon’s comments, or any multitude of baseless, irrelevant topics. Trump learned to play his media every bit as well as the Gipper knew how to play his (or Lincoln knew how to play his). In this, the three were immensely successful, to America’s great benefit.
Larry Schweikart is the author of Reagan: The American President (May 2019, Post Hill Press) and is the co-author with Michael Allen of the New York Times #1 bestseller A Patriot’s History of the United States, now in its fourth edition.