What Ronald Reagan Teaches Us About Donald Trump

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tags: election 2016, Reagan, Trump



Rick Perlstein is a historian and journalist, and the author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

In 1940, the world's greatest movie clown, Charlie Chaplin, starred in The Great Dictator, a silent film about a funny little man with a toothbrush mustache named Adenoid Hynkel. In one memorably madcap scene, Hynkel, hanging from the curtains, orders a lackey, Greta Garbo-style, "Leave me. I want to be alone." He slides down the curtain like a fireman, spies a giant globe in the middle of the room, and, imagining himself emperor of the world, does a mincing Fred Astaire-style dance with the giant globe, bopping it around like a giant beach ball. The globe pops. Hynkel collapses in tears. It's hilarious. Everyone loved the movie, including then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, after learning years earlier that the studio was trying to scrap the project, sent a representative to Chaplin to encourage him to persist.

The president's judgment was poor, however. As the writer Ron Rosenbaum has pointed out, Chaplin "did nothing but help Hitler because he made him seem like an unthreatening clown just at a time, 1940, when the world needed to take Hitler's threat seriously." Chaplin agreed, saying that had he know about the horrors Hitler was responsible for at the time, "[I] could not made have fun of their homicidal insanity."

Obviously, Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler—his insanity is not of the homicidal sort. But this essay is not about Donald Trump. It is about us, and our longing to dismiss politicians who scare us as unthreatening clowns—or to pretend the threat does not exist at all.

Back in July, the Huffington Post ran an editorial titled, "A Note About Our Coverage of Donald Trump's'Campaign.'" In it, the editors wrote:

"After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won't report on Trump's campaign as part of the Huffington Post's political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette ."


Since then, of course, the sideshow has become the main event. And mainstream political media, despite its surface devotion to squabbling conflict, deep down continues to resemble an abused spouse: Since the conflicts dividing Americans are so fundamental, so deep-seated, so scary, it's easier to explain them away than be honest about the pain. ...




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