Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal that Trump fans (like me) should quit comparing the Donald to the Ronald because the two Republican standard bearers were really quite different: Reagan was suave whereas Trump is often brusque; the former was the two-term governor of a major state, whereas the latter never held elective office (no, he was too busy creating a multi-billion company and lots and lots of jobs.)
As a four-time supporter of Ronald Reagan (1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984) and veteran of his two administrations (Departments of Defense and State), I must respectfully disagree with my friend and esteemed colleague, Peggy.
The moral and intellectual case for Ronald Reagan’s worldview (doubted by many when he announced his candidacy in November 1979) was made one month later by a momentous, unforeseen overseas event – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Overnight, President Carter’s efforts to brand Reagan a dangerous neophyte, ill-informed, detached, and too radical in his anti-Soviet rhetoric to be entrusted with the nation’s safety, went up in smoke.
Brexit provided Trump with just such a Reaganesque moment. It revealed him to be on the right side of history, a catalyst of a movement for global change, undermining, at a stroke, Hillary’s constant grouse that Trump has zero foreign policy experience (indeed it was she who came across as clueless and irrelevant).
So too his views on Moslem immigration, which the Orlando atrocity seemed to validate. Also, his controversial (but entirely correct) questioning of the relevance and utility of NATO, only to have no less an eminence than the German foreign minister denounce that organization’s incessant “warmongering” and “sabre rattling.”
In view of Reagan’s continued popularity, Trump’s status as presumptive GOP nominee, and the opposition he continues to face from sour-grapes GOP grandees who claim to worship Reagan (while being perfectly content to see Hillary win), one cannot point out often enough that Reagan and Trump have lots in common, Peggy to the contrary notwithstanding.
Both had remarkable heads of hair. Both were long-time Democrats before switching parties. Both were media personalities. Reagan was an entertainer who became a corporate spokesman (for General Electric); Trump is a businessman who became an entertainer (appearing for years on a program for NBC, which, when it first aired, was a subsidiary of General Electric.)
Reagan, like Trump, divorced and re-married (Reagan once, Trump twice). He was the first divorcee to occupy the White House. He made much of religion and its role in public life but rarely went to church (his tomb at Simi Valley is devoid of any Christian symbols). Nevertheless, he won lots of Evangelical votes, just as Trump did in the primary. As Governor of California, he signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation, although later embraced the cause of life. He campaigned actively for John F. Kennedy in 1960 only to ardently support Barry Goldwater in 1964. Trump’s views on social issues and politics have also evolved in similar kinds of ways.
Neither had Washington experience; both were considered interlopers by the power elite. Although both were gifted communicators and more than adept at using the media, the media had no use for either of them (apart from the revenue their popularity generated.)
Both led insurgencies against a GOP establishment, which loathed them. Reagan was branded lazy, too old, not terribly bright, a warmonger and a danger to the Republic. Trump is also the object of much scurrilous commentary, much of it generated by well-paid establishment spin doctors.
Both had a penchant for loose rhetoric that would get them in trouble (Reagan compared the New Deal to Fascism, said trees cause pollution, and was accused of racism for denouncing “Cadillac-driving welfare queens”). It is hard not to see the roots of Trump’s theatrical debate style in Reagan’s legendary “I’m-paying-for-this-microphone” riff that left his future vice president tongue-tied in Nashua.
Both were “big picture” guys who did not pretend to be policy mandarins. Neither was a “philosopher-king” in the manner of Jefferson; both were what Plato called men of “right reason” — men who knew their own minds and had good instincts.
Trump’s mantra about open borders – “either we have a country, or we don’t” – echoes Reagan’s “a nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” Both called for the abolition of the Department of Education (with any luck, Trump will actually do it); both supported free trade, but neither was dogmatic about it: Reagan did not hesitate to protect American workers under threat; he imposed trade barriers to protect Harley Davidson, which remains a going concern to this day.
The pro-war wing of the GOP (it’s more than a wing; it’s the thing itself) loves to suggest Reagan would have endorsed its militarized foreign policy.
But he went to war only once – in Grenada in 1983 – in what was really a police action to rescue U.S. medical students from the clutches of Cuban construction workers. He rarely “sent in the Marines” (although when he did so in Lebanon, he promptly withdrew them following a terrorist attack that killed hundreds of our finest soldiers in their sleep). Trump’s non-interventionism finds a precedent in Reagan’s reluctance to resort to violence.
Reagan’s ending of the Cold War was a protean achievement — in the view of many, his finest — which is why it is shocking to see so many of those who claim to be his heirs fanning the flames of conflict with Moscow. His subtle and sophisticated diplomacy – backed not by the use of military force, but the implied threat to use it – constituted something of a master class in the conduct of foreign policy.
Strolling arm-in-arm through Red Square with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he declared an end to the Cold War – much to the consternation of the “neo-conservatives.” He negotiated the joint removal of U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe, sought the complete elimination of strategic nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit, and, recognizing that the unilateral deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system would destabilize the “balance of terror,” offered to share ABM technology with the Soviets (yes, the Soviets).
Trump’s evident willingness to speak to Vladimir Putin (who is no Soviet) is consistent with Reagan’s approach. I am certain Reagan would have endorsed it. Russia is now under the best administration (which is not to say it is beyond reproach) it has known in more than a century, freedom of religion, travel, assembly and opinion are legally protected, vast strides have been made in the reduction of poverty, and the country is re-Christianizing at a rapid clip. Its foreign policy, though wildly and deliberately mischaracterized by U.S. media is not expansionist: it aims at stability on Russia’s borders so to develop internally.
In view of Russia’s happy emergence from under the rubble of the collapsed Marxist-Leninist regime (exactly what Reagan would have wanted, and indeed worked to achieve), and its vital strategic importance – as a front-line state in the struggle against radical Islam, as the world’s other great nuclear power, as a country possessed of vast natural resources, and bordering as it does on the most strategically crucial parts of the world – now is the time to engage constructively with Russia. Trump gets that; he is the only presidential candidates of either party in this cycle who does.
The establishment is in a dither lest the rebellion Trump is leading presage the end of everything it holds most dear — open borders (paving the way for the disappearance of the old United States and its replacement by the world’s “first universal nation,” in the phrase of the late publicist Ben Wattenberg), our endless series of optional, illegal wars that bear scant relation to any discernible U.S. interests, the subversion and overthrow of foreign governments, including secular ones in Moslem countries that protect Christian minorities, and wretched trade deals that enrich the oligarchy while leaving the rest of the nation in the lurch.
Meanwhile, our sovereign debt is $20 trillion and we have $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
In focusing like a laser on establishment policies millions of Americans find intolerable, Trump has become the people’s tribune. I suspect that if my old boss Ronald Reagan were with us now, he would not look askance on the prospect of a Trump victory in November.