Donald Trump Is Reagan’s Heir

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Reagan, Trump



Matthew Pressman is a doctoral candidate in history at Boston University. He was previously an assistant editor at Vanity Fair and a writer for VanityFair.com.

Whatever else happens during the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one thing is certain: Candidates will claim to be like America’s 40th president. The competition to show who most resembles Reagan has become a ritualized part of the GOP-nominating process. Many people have drawn comparisons between the man known as The Donald and the man never known as The Ronald—starting with Trump himself, who adapted Reagan’s 1980 slogan “Let’s make America great again.” Like Reagan, Trump is a former Democrat and a one-time TV star, whom the media initially dismissed as having little chance of reaching the White House.

But there is a more significant parallel that has gone unnoticed: Trump is running on essentially the same message as Reagan. Reagan insisted that America’s problems were not as complicated or intractable as everyone seemed to think. “For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to the complex problems which are beyond our comprehension,” Reagan said at his 1967 inauguration as governor of California. “Well, the truth is, there are simple answers—there are not easy ones.” He made a similar statement in his famous 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, and he never wavered from it. The simple answer was to be tough—tough on cutting the budget, tough on domestic protesters, and above all, tough on the world stage. Reagan’s 1980 foreign-policy slogan promised “peace through strength.” He told audiences, “We have to be so strong that no nation in the world will dare lift a hand against us.” One Reagan campaign ad used the word “strength” or “strong” five times in the space of one minute.

Trump is proposing a comparable strategy. His suggested immigration policy—deport everyone who came to the U.S. illegally, build a wall on the southern border, and make Mexico pay for the wall—has garnered the most attention, but his other ideas follow a similar template. How to deal with ISIS? “You bomb the hell out of them,” then encircle them and take away the oil they control, he told Bill O’Reilly and Anderson Cooper in two separate interviews. “Once you take that oil, they have nothing left. And it’s so simple.” As far as manufacturing jobs going overseas, Trump used a hypothetical example of Ford threatening to build a plant in Mexico and promised he would put a 35 percent tariff on any Ford vehicle brought into the U.S. “It’s that simple,” he told a crowd in New Hampshire. “Believe me.” And on economic competition with China: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China, in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”

Critics have charged that Trump’s message is too simple—that it’s foolish and unrealistic. But he refuses to entertain that possibility. When a Washington Post reporter asked him recently if he had encountered any campaign issue that turned out to be more complex than he initially thought, he wouldn’t take the bait. “This is not complicated, believe me,” Trump maintained. Similarly, in 1980, the Carter camp accused Reagan of having a “terribly simplistic view of the world” and espousing “simple-minded theories.”

Reagan was undeterred. On the stump, he continued to offer straightforward prescriptions for inflation and the oil crisis, the two major economic problems facing U.S. consumers. “Government causes inflation,” Reagan said. “We’ve got to make government make it go away,” by cutting taxes, reducing spending, and deregulating business (this would also reduce unemployment, Reagan argued). When asked about energy, he quipped, “Does it take a genius to figure out that the answer to our having all we need and no more being dependent on OPEC is to turn the energy industry loose to produce all the natural oil and the natural gas that is to be found here?” ...




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