Trump Was No Reagan?

4 ¾ min

National Review has found yet another reason to hate Trump, whom it has attacked relentlessly for over four years. It seems that among his multiple shortcomings, according to Frank Lavin, a supporter of Republican Voters Against Trump in 2020, Donald Trump was not the Gipper. In fact, he caused the Republican Party to deviate grievously from Reagan’s policies; and so it now behooves us to save the GOP by returning to the proven “conservative” teachings of the president whose approval ratings approached 70 percent shortly after leaving office.

Lavin offers a study in contrast between the Gipper and Trump. In most ways (except in his tax-slashing and deregulation policies), Trump dragged the GOP away from the firm foundations that Reagan bequeathed to his followers. For example, Reagan had “values,” while presumably the Donald has none that we can praise. While Reagan stressed cooperation with the opposite party, Trump was always at war with the Dems. Or as Lavin tells it: “Reagan occasionally found support from Speaker Tip O’Neill. Trump ended up with nothing from Speaker Pelosi.” The contrast continues with Lavin noting: “Reagan set the stage for NAFTA with his call for a ‘North American Accord.’ Trump sided with Bernie Sanders in withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Allow me to point out that Trump did not scuttle the idea of trade deals with Canada and Mexico. He renegotiated them in a way advantageous to the American working class. He also renegotiated those parts of the TPP that he found helpful to the American work force, although pace Lavin and National Review, I don’t recall Bernie Sanders leaping to Trump’s defense.

In another National Review piece, this time by Alexander William Salter, I admit to being bewildered by this passage: “It’s true that some of the Trump administration’s policies, notably on immigration and international trade, were deviations from conservative orthodoxy, but these were hardly successes.” Was the “conservative orthodoxy” to which we should be returning the absence of border walls? And how was Trump unsuccessful if he stopped the flow of illegals into the U.S., even in the face of massive opposition from the Democrats and from members of his own party?

Was Reagan’s amnesty in 1986 something that Trump should have imitated? I can’t imagine why. The only beneficiaries were the corporate interests that gained cheap labor, and the public sector that issued welfare checks to unemployed Americans. That amnesty did nothing to relieve the continuing problem of illegal immigration, and Reagan later spoke of it as “the biggest regret” of his life.

Returning to Lavin’s piece, it’s important to realize that he ignores a changing historical context. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party of Tip O’Neill bore little resemblance to the party that Trump had to confront as his relentless enemy. Back then Democrats were still a party of blue-collar workers (a class that Trump tried to bring into his populist movement). Tip O’Neill was an Irish Catholic ward-heeler from Boston, who represented a working-class base; Nancy Pelosi by contrast speaks for culturally radical San Franciscans in a transformed Democratic Party, which today features LGBTQ demands, anti-white hysteria, Green New Deals, and which fights the gender identity war. Why would anyone think that Trump would not have gotten along with Tip as well as Ronnie did; or that Reagan would have enjoyed a better relationship with the present Democratic Party than Trump has? We are speaking about different forces of opposition to the GOP in two different eras.

Although Reagan faced critics in the leftist media, as someone who briefly served in his administration, let me assure Mr. Lavin that this sniping was nothing like the nonstop, venomous attacks to which Trump was subjected from the moment he declared his candidacy for the presidency. I have no idea how anyone but an absolute saint would not have exploded in the face of such slander; and it was directed not only against the president but also against his wife and young son. Never in my long life have I seen such a feeding frenzy.

Attacks on Trump as another Hitler and calls for assaults on him became commonplace over the last four years; and I strongly suspect that if Reagan has been forced to deal with such adversaries his approval rating and his temper would both have taken a hit. Reagan left office with a 63 percent approval rating, which by 1989 went up to 68 percent. We might ask what that approval rating would have been if the media threw dirt at him incessantly and if his congressional opponents incited riots against him throughout his presidency. Please note these attacks occurred not just because the Donald was intemperate in his language. The Left wanted power, and it was necessary to destroy Trump’s presidency to achieve it.

Finally, I would note that, unlike Reagan, Trump tried to be a transformative president who took his own party kicking and screaming into the populist form that he gave it. Although an honest, dedicated leader, Reagan transformed nothing. He also ended up turning foreign policy and much else over to the neoconservatives, who hang around like the political equivalent of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.

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The neocons are cut from the same cloth as the left. Getting rich from military industrial complex and world trade. All have zero concern for our Republic. But, we all know this. It’s been this way all of my life...75 years. What’s flipped is Trump established hope for the working class, while the socialists have courted corporate America and, so doing, established a new “boot licker” group . The cowards in the Republican Party will also lick boots and kiss ass as they have always done. Now, the new found corporate largesse is staggering. The patriots left in the Republican Party must move.. a new party may be in the cards.


Well, I think that's a relatively recent development. I grew up in the late 60's and was an anti-war activist during Vietnam. At that time ALL of the anti-war activists were Democrats (with no exceptions). Of course at that time the Dems were also still the party of Labor. That changed in the 90's under Clinton, which also coincided with the Dem Party hard shift to the right, resulting in millions of us having no party to represent us and it's been that way ever since.
I understand why people don't like Trump's style. He punched up, down, sideways. He punched towards his opponents, his friends and even himself. Some loved that he was a fighter and many, even supporters, hated how he seemed unable to not do it. Even supporters wished he wouldn't tweet so much. The fact is though that in the current environment, it takes someone who is willing to fight no matter what to hold to your principles when the left has taken over all the major institutions of the culture. Up until Trump, every Republican since Reagan has backed down in the face of criticism from the major media organizations, organizations owned by the left. Trump had the instinct that he could not just ignore them but make fun of them without paying a price. Whatever happens in the future whoever the 2024 candidate is, he's completely shifted the Overton window on Republican politics.


A lot to agree with here but I can't agree with the conclusion that Reagan wasn't a transformative president. His accomplishments bore fruit well into the succeeding decades. Bill Clinton was a big beneficiary of Reagan's policies that had been implemented 4-12 years before he took office.


Agreed. Reagan was transformative in important ways. He destroyed the spend through printing money (inflationary) mindset that resulted in 10-15% inflation every year. That was mostly kept in place until Obama and was mostly copied world-wide. He also changed the default perception that the free world was inevitably going to end up under socialism and that it was simply negotiating its surrender.
I am struggling with this assessment. First, Reagan hardly had it easy with the press. He had to mud wrestle with partisan like Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson. The ratio of fav/unfav stories was not good at all. Second, Reagan deserves the Country’s undying gratitude for defeating communism. At the time, it was thought that the Western govt’s could at best delay it’s inevitable takeover. He convinced us all that the Cold War could be WON and did it. Trump never had Reagan’s gravitas. And Reagan never had Trump’s bombast. Trump would have been well served learning a thing or two from Reagan. But I don’t think his ego would permit it.