Ronald Reagan Was Once Donald Trump -- NYMag

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Ronald Reagan Was Once Donald Trump -- NYMag

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The Trump candidacy looks a lot more like Reagan’s than anyone might care to notice.
In an election cycle that has brought unending surprises, let it be said that one time-honored tradition has been upheld: the Republican presidential contenders' quadrennial tug-of-war to seize the mantle of Ronald Reagan. John Kasich, gesturing toward the Air Force One on display at the Reagan-library debate, said, "I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman." Rand Paul claimed to have met Reagan as a child; Ben Carson said he switched parties because of Reagan; Chris Christie said he cast his first vote for Reagan; Ted Cruz cheered Reagan for having defeated Soviet Communism and vowed, for nonsensical good measure, to "do the same thing." And then there was Donald Trump, never one to be outdone by the nobodies in any competition. "I helped him," he said of Reagan on NBC last fall. "I knew him. He liked me and I liked him."
The Reagan archives show no indication that the two men had anything more than a receiving-line acquaintanceship; Trump doesn’t appear in the president’s voluminous diaries. But of all the empty boasts that have marked Trump’s successful pursuit of the Republican nomination, his affinity to Reagan may have the most validity and the most pertinence to 2016. To understand how Trump has advanced to where he is now, and why he has been underestimated at almost every step, and why he has a shot at vanquishing Hillary Clinton in November, few road maps are more illuminating than Reagan’s unlikely path to the White House. One is almost tempted to say that Trump has been studying the Reagan playbook — but to do so would be to suggest that he actually might have read a book, another Trumpian claim for which there is scant evidence.
Before the fierce defenders of the Reagan faith collapse into seizures at the bracketing of their hero with the crudest and most vacuous presidential candidate in human memory, let me stipulate that I am not talking about Reagan the president in drawing this parallel, or about Reagan the man. I am talking about Reagan the candidate, the canny politician who, after a dozen years of failed efforts attended by nonstop ridicule, ended up leading the 1980 GOP ticket at the same age Trump is now (69) and who, like his present-day counterpart, was best known to much of the electorate up until then as a B-list show-business personality.
It’s true that Reagan, unlike Trump, did hold public office before seeking the presidency (though he’d been out of government for six years when he won). But Trump would no doubt argue that his executive experience atop the august Trump Organization more than compensates for Reagan’s two terms in Sacramento. (Trump would also argue, courtesy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, that serving as governor of California is merely a bush-league audition for the far greater responsibilities of hosting Celebrity Apprentice.) It’s also true that Reagan forged a (fairly) consistent ideology to address late-20th-century issues that are no longer extant: the Cold War, a federal government that feasted on a top income-tax bracket of 70 percent, and runaway inflation. Trump has no core conviction beyond gratifying his own bottomless ego.
Remarkably, though, the Reagan model has proved quite adaptable both to Trump and to our different times. Trump’s tenure as an NBC reality-show host is comparable to Reagan’s stint hosting the highly rated but disposable General Electric Theater for CBS in the Ed Sullivan era. Trump’s embarrassing turn as a supporting player in a 1990 Bo Derek movie (Ghosts Can’t Do It) is no more egregious than Reagan’s starring opposite a chimp in Hollywood’s Bedtime for Bonzo of 1951. While Trump has owned tacky, bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City, Reagan was a mere casino serf — the emcee of a flop nightclub revue featuring barbershop harmonizing and soft-shoe dancing at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1954. While Trump would be the first president to have been married three times, here, too, he is simply updating his antecedent, who broke a cultural barrier by becoming the first White House occupant to have divorced and remarried. Neither Reagan nor Trump paid any price with the Evangelical right for deviations from the family-values norm; they respectively snared the endorsements of Jerry Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr.
Reflecting the contrasting pop cultures of their times, Reagan’s and Trump’s performance styles are antithetical. Reagan’s cool persona of genial optimism was forged by his stints as a radio baseball broadcaster and a movie-studio utility player, and finally by his emergence on television when it was ruled by the soothing suburban patriarchs of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver. Trump’s hot shtick, his scowling bombast and put-downs, is tailor-made for a culture that favors conflict over consensus, musical invective over easy listening, and exhibitionism over decorum in prime time. The two men’s representative celebrity endorsers — Jimmy Stewart and Pat Boone for Reagan, Hulk Hogan and Bobby Knight for Trump — belong to two different American civilizations.
But Reagan’s and Trump’s opposing styles belie their similarities of substance. Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate, faced the same jeering press, attracted some of the same battlefront allies (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schlafly), offended the same elites (including two generations of Bushes), outmaneuvered similar political adversaries, and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment. They’ve even endured the same wisecracks about their unnatural coiffures. “Governor Reagan does not dye his hair,” said Gerald Ford at a Gridiron Dinner in 1974. “He is just turning prematurely orange.” Though Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan (“Let’s Make America Great Again”) is one word longer than Trump’s, that word reflects a contrast in their personalities — the avuncular versus the autocratic — but not in message. Reagan’s apocalyptic theme, “The Empire is in decline,” is interchangeable with Trump’s, even if the Gipper delivered it with a smile.
Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican political consultant and Reagan acolyte, has written authoritative books on the presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 that serve as correctives to the sentimental revisionist history that would have us believe that Reagan was cheered on as a conquering hero by GOP elites during his long climb to national power. To hear the right’s triumphalism of recent years, you’d think that only smug Democrats were appalled by Reagan while Republicans quickly recognized that their party, decimated by Richard Nixon and Watergate, had found its savior.
Grassroots Republicans, whom Reagan had been courting for years with speeches, radio addresses, and opinion pieces beneath the mainstream media’s radar, were indeed in his camp. But aside from a lone operative (John Sears), Shirley wrote, “the other major GOP players — especially Easterners and moderates — thought Reagan was a certified yahoo.” By his death in 2004, “they would profess their love and devotion to Reagan and claim they were there from the beginning in 1974, which was a load of horse manure.” Even after his election in 1980, Shirley adds, “Reagan was never much loved” by his own party’s leaders. After GOP setbacks in the 1982 midterms, “a Republican National Committee functionary taped a piece of paper to her door announcing the sign-up for the 1984 Bush for President campaign.”
Shirley’s memories are corroborated by reportage contemporaneous with Reagan’s last two presidential runs. (There was also an abortive run in 1968.) A poll in 1976 found that 90 percent of Republican state chairmen judged Reagan guilty of “simplistic approaches,” with “no depth in federal government administration” and “no experience in foreign affairs.” It was little different in January 1980, when a U.S. News and World Report survey of 475 national and state Republican chairmen found they preferred George H.W. Bush to Reagan. One state chairman presumably spoke for many when he told the magazine that Reagan’s intellect was “thinner than spit on a slate rock.” As Rick Perlstein writes in The Invisible Bridge, the third and latest volume of his epic chronicle of the rise of the conservative movement, both Nixon and Ford dismissed Reagan as a lightweight. Barry Goldwater endorsed Ford over Reagan in 1976 despite the fact that Reagan’s legendary speech on behalf of Goldwater’s presidential campaign in October 1964, “A Time for Choosing,” was the biggest boost that his kamikaze candidacy received. Only a single Republican senator, Paul Laxalt of Nevada, signed on to Reagan’s presidential quest from the start, a solitary role that has been played in the Trump campaign by Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
What put off Reagan’s fellow Republicans will sound very familiar. He proposed an economic program — 30 percent tax cuts, increased military spending, a balanced budget — whose math was voodoo and then some. He prided himself on not being “a part of the Washington Establishment” and mocked Capitol Hill’s “buddy system” and its collusion with “the forces that have brought us our problems—the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business, and big labor.” He kept a light campaign schedule, regarded debates as optional, wouldn’t sit still to read briefing books, and often either improvised his speeches or worked off index cards that contained anecdotes and statistics gleaned from Reader’s Digest and the right-wing journal Human Events — sources hardly more elevated or reliable than the television talk shows and tabloids that feed Trump’s erroneous and incendiary pronouncements.
Like Trump but unlike most of his (and Trump’s) political rivals, Reagan was accessible to the press and public. His spontaneity in give-and-takes with reporters and voters played well but also gave him plenty of space to disgorge fantasies and factual errors so prolific and often outrageous that he single-handedly made the word gaffe a permanent fixture in America’s political vernacular. He confused Pakistan with Afghanistan. He claimed that trees contributed 93 percent of the atmosphere’s nitrous oxide and that pollution in America was “substantially under control” even as his hometown of Los Angeles was suffocating in smog. He said that the “finest oil geologists in the world” had found that there were more oil reserves in Alaska than Saudi Arabia. He said the federal government spent $3 for each dollar it distributed in welfare benefits, when the actual amount was 12 cents.
He also mythologized his own personal history in proto-Trump style. As Garry Wills has pointed out, Reagan referred to himself as one of “the soldiers who came back” when speaking plaintively of his return to civilian life after World War II — even though he had come back only from Culver City, where his wartime duty was making Air Force films at the old Hal Roach Studio. Once in office, he told the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had filmed the liberated Nazi death camps, when in reality he had not seen them, let alone (as he claimed) squirreled away a reel of film as an antidote to potential Holocaust deniers. For his part, Trump has purported that his enrollment at the New York Military Academy, a prep school, amounted to Vietnam-era military service, and has borne historical witness to the urban legend of “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Even when these ruses are exposed, Trump follows the Reagan template of doubling down on mistakes rather than conceding them.
Nor was Reagan a consistent conservative. He deviated from party orthodoxy to both the left and the right. He had been by his own account a “near hopeless hemophilic liberal” for much of his adult life, having campaigned for Truman in 1948 and for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her senatorial race against Nixon in California in 1950. He didn’t switch his registration to Republican until he was 51. As California governor, he signed one of America’s strongest gun-control laws and its most liberal abortion law (both in 1967). His vocal opposition helped kill California’s 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned openly gay teachers at public schools. As a 1980 presidential candidate, he flip-flopped to endorse bailouts for both New York City and the Chrysler Corporation. Reagan may be revered now as a free-trade absolutist in contrast to Trump, but in that winning campaign he called for halting the “deluge” of Japanese car imports raining down on Detroit. “If Japan keeps on doing everything that it’s doing, what they’re doing, obviously, there’s going to be what you call protectionism,” he said.
Republican leaders blasted Reagan as a trigger-happy warmonger. Much as Trump now threatens to downsize NATO and start a trade war with China, so Reagan attacked Ford, the sitting Republican president he ran against in the 1976 primary, and Henry Kissinger for their pursuit of the bipartisan policies of détente and Chinese engagement. The sole benefit of détente, Reagan said, was to give America “the right to sell Pepsi-Cola in Siberia.” For good measure, he stoked an international dispute by vowing to upend a treaty ceding American control over the Panama Canal. “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it!” he bellowed with an America First truculence reminiscent of Trump’s calls for our allies to foot the bill for American military protection. Even his own party’s hawks, like William F. Buckley Jr. and his pal John Wayne, protested. Goldwater, of all people, inveighed against Reagan’s “gross factual errors” and warned he might “take rash action” and “needlessly lead this country into open military conflict.”
Trump’s signature cause of immigration was not a hot-button issue during Reagan’s campaigns. In the White House, he signed a bill granting “amnesty” (Reagan used the now politically incorrect word) to 1.7 million undocumented immigrants. But if Reagan was free of Trump’s bigoted nativism, he had his own racially tinged strategy for wooing disaffected white working-class Americans fearful that liberals in government were bestowing favors on freeloading, lawbreaking minorities at their expense. Taking a leaf from George Wallace’s populist campaigns, Reagan scapegoated “welfare chiselers” like the nameless “strapping young buck” he claimed used food stamps to buy steak. His favorite villain was a Chicago “welfare queen” who, in his telling, “had 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands” to loot the American taxpayer of over $150,000 of “tax-free cash income” a year. Never mind that she was actually charged with using four aliases and had netted $8,000: Reagan continued to hammer in this hyperbolic parable with a vengeance that rivals Trump’s insistence that Mexico will pay for a wall to fend off Hispanic rapists.
The Republican elites of Reagan’s day were as blindsided by him as their counterparts have been by Trump. Though Reagan came close to toppling the incumbent president at the contested Kansas City convention in 1976, the Ford forces didn’t realize they could lose until the devil was at the door. A “President Ford Committee” campaign statement had maintained that Reagan could “not defeat any candidate the Democrats put up” because his “constituency is much too narrow, even within the Republican party” and because he lacked “the critical national and international experience that President Ford has gained through 25 years of public service.” In Ford’s memoirs, written after he lost the election to Jimmy Carter, he wrote that he hadn’t taken the Reagan threat seriously because he “didn’t take Reagan seriously.” Reagan, he said, had a “penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems” and a stubborn insistence that he was “always right in every argument.” Even so, a Ford-campaign memo had correctly identified one ominous sign during primary season: a rising turnout of Reagan voters who were “not loyal Republicans or Democrats” and were “alienated from both parties because neither takes a sympathetic view toward their issues.” To these voters, the disdain Reagan drew from the GOP elites was a badge of honor. During the primary campaign, Timescolumnist William Safire reported with astonishment that Kissinger’s speeches championing Ford and attacking Reagan were helping Reagan, not Ford — a precursor of how attacks by Trump’s Establishment adversaries have backfired 40 years later. 
Much of the press was slow to catch up, too. A typical liberal-Establishment take on Reagan could be found in Harper’s, which called him Ronald Duck, “the Candidate from Disneyland.” That he had come to be deemed “a serious candidate for president,” the magazine intoned, was “a shame and embarrassment for the country.” But some reporters who tracked Reagan on the campaign trail sensed that many voters didn’t care if he came from Hollywood, if his policies didn’t add up, if his facts were bogus, or if he was condescended to by Republican leaders or pundits. As Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker observed in 1976, his appeal “has to do not with competence at governing but with the emotion he evokes.” As she put it, “Reagan lets people get out their anger and frustration, their feeling of being misunderstood and mishandled by those who have run our government, their impatience with taxes and with the poor and the weak, their impulse to deal with the world’s troublemakers by employing the stratagem of a punch in the nose.”
The power of that appeal was underestimated by his Democratic foes in 1980 even though Carter, too, had run as a populist and attracted some Wallace voters when beating Ford in 1976. By the time he was up for reelection, Carter was an unpopular incumbent presiding over the Iranian hostage crisis, gas shortages, and a reeling economy, yet surely the Democrats would prevail over Ronald Duck anyway. A strategic memo by Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, laid out the campaign against Reagan’s obvious vulnerabilities with bullet points: “Is Reagan Safe? … Shoots From the Hip … Over His Head … What Are His Solutions?” But it was the strategy of Caddell’s counterpart in the Reagan camp, the pollster Richard Wirthlin, that carried the day with the electorate. Voters wanted to “follow some authority figure,” he theorized — a “leader who can take charge with authority; return a sense of discipline to our government; and, manifest the willpower needed to get this country back on track.” Or at least a leader from outside Washington, like Reagan and now Trump, who projects that image (“You’re fired!”) whether he has the ability to deliver on it or not.
What we call the Reagan Revolution was the second wave of a right-wing populist revolution within the GOP that had first crested with the Goldwater campaign of 1964. After Lyndon Johnson whipped Goldwater in a historic landslide that year, it was assumed that the revolution had been vanquished. The conventional wisdom was framed by James Reston of the Times the morning after Election Day: “Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election yesterday but the conservative cause as well.” But the conservative cause hardly lost a step after Goldwater’s Waterloo; it would soon start to regather its strength out West under Reagan. It’s the moderate wing of the party, the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and Henry Cabot Lodge and William Scranton, that never recovered and whose last, long-smoldering embers were finally extinguished with a Jeb Bush campaign whose high-water mark in the Republican primaries was 11 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney and his ilk are far more conservative than that previous generation of ancien régime Republicans. But the Romney crowd is not going to have a restoration after the 2016 election any more than his father’s crowd did post-1964 — regardless of whether Trump is buried in an electoral avalanche, as Goldwater was, or wins big, as Reagan did against both Carter and Walter Mondale. Trump is far more representative of the GOP base than all the Establishment conservatives who are huffing and puffing that he is betraying the conservative movement and the spirit of Ronald Reagan. When the Bush family announces it will skip the Cleveland convention, the mainstream media dutifully report it as significant news. But there’s little evidence that many grassroots Republicans now give a damn what any Bush has to say about Trump or much else.
The only conservative columnist who seems to recognize this reality remains Peggy Noonan, who worked in the Reagan White House. As she pointed out in Wall Street Journal columns this spring, conservatism as “defined the past 15 years by Washington writers and thinkers” (i.e., since George W. Bush’s first inauguration) — “a neoconservative, functionally open borders, slash-the-entitlements party” — appears no longer to have any market in the Republican base. A telling poll by Public Policy Polling published in mid-May confirmed that the current GOP Washington leadership is not much more popular than the departed John Boehner and Eric Cantor: Only 40 percent of Republicans approve of the job performance of Paul Ryan, the Establishment wonder boy whose conservative catechism Noonan summarized, while 44 percent disapprove. Only 14 percent of Republicans approve of Mitch McConnell. This is Trump’s party now, and it was so well before he got there. It’s the populist-white-conservative party that Goldwater and Reagan built, with a hefty intervening assist from Nixon’s southern strategy, not the atavistic country-club Republicanism whose few surviving vestiges had their last hurrahs in the administrations of Bush père and fils. The third wave of the Reagan Revolution is here to stay.
Were Trump to gain entry to the White House, it’s impossible to say whether he would or could follow Reagan’s example and function within the political norms of Washington. His burlesque efforts to appear “presidential” are intended to make that case: His constant promise to practice “the art of the deal” echoes Reagan’s campaign boast of having forged compromises with California’s Democratic legislature while governor. More likely a Trump presidency would be the train wreck largely predicted, an amalgam of the blunderbuss shoot-from-the-hip recklessness of George W. Bush and the randy corruption of Warren Harding, both of whom were easily manipulated by their own top brass. The love child of Hitler and Mussolini Trump is not. He lacks the discipline and zeal to be a successful fascist.
The good news for those who look with understandable horror on the prospect of a Trump victory is that the national demographic math is different now from Reagan’s day. The nonwhite electorate, only 12 percent in 1980, was 28 percent in 2012 and could hit 30 percent this year. Few number crunchers buy the Trump camp’s spin that the GOP can reclaim solidly Democratic territory like Pennsylvania and Michigan — states where many white working-class voters, soon to be christened “Reagan Democrats,” crossed over to vote Republican in Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Many of those voters are dead; their epicenter, Macomb County, Michigan, was won by Barack Obama in 2008. Nor is there now the ’70s level of discontent that gave oxygen to Reagan’s insurgency. President Obama’s approval numbers are lapping above 50 percent. Both unemployment and gas prices are low, hardly the dire straits of Carter’s America. Trump’s gift for repelling women would also seem to be an asset for Democrats, creating a gender gap far exceeding the one that confronted Reagan, who was hostile to the Equal Rights Amendment.
And yet, to quote the headline of an Economist cover story on Reagan in 1980: It’s time to think the unthinkable. Trump and Bernie Sanders didn’t surge in a vacuum. This is a volatile nation. Polls consistently find that some two-thirds of the country thinks the country is on the wrong track. The economically squeezed middle class rightly feels it has been abandoned by both parties. The national suicide rate is at a 30-year high. Anything can happen in an election where the presumptive candidates of both parties are loathed by a majority of their fellow Americans, a first in the history of modern polling. It’s not reassuring that some of those minimizing Trump’s chances are the experts who saw no path for Trump to the Republican nomination. There could be a July surprise in which party divisions capsize the Democratic convention rather than, as once expected, the GOP’s. An October surprise could come in the form of a terrorist incident that panics American voters much as the Iranian hostage crisis is thought to have sealed Carter’s doom in 1980.*
While I did not rule out the possibility that Trump could win the Republican nomination as his campaign took off after Labor Day last year, I wrote that he had “no chance of ascending to the presidency.” Meanwhile, he was performing an unintended civic service: His bull-in-a-china-shop candidacy was exposing, however unintentionally, the sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics, from the consultant-and-focus-group-driven caution of candidates like Clinton to the toxic legacy of Sarah Palin on a GOP that now pretends it never invited her cancerous brand of bigoted populism into its midst. But I now realize I was as wrong as the Reagan naysayers in seeing no chance of Trump’s landing in the White House. I will henceforth defer to Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the few Washington analysts who saw Trump’s breakthrough before the pack did. As of early May, he was giving Trump a 20 percent chance of victory in November.
What is to be done to lower those odds further still? Certainly the feeble efforts of the #NeverTrump Republicans continue to be, as Trump would say, Sad! Alumni from the Romney, Bush, and John McCain campaigns seem to think that writing progressively more enraged op-ed pieces about how Trump is a shame and embarrassment for the country will make a difference. David Brooks has called this a “Joe McCarthy moment” for the GOP — in the sense that history will judge poorly those who don’t stand up to the bully in the Fifth Avenue tower. But if you actually look at history, what it says is that there were no repercussions for Republicans who didn’t stand up to McCarthy — or, for that matter, to Nixon at the height of his criminality. William Buckley co-wrote a book defending McCarthy in 1954, and his career only blossomed thereafter. Goldwater was one of McCarthy’s most loyal defenders, and Reagan refused to condemn Nixon even after the Republican senatorial leadership had deserted him in the endgame of Watergate. Far from being shunned, both men ended up as their party’s presidential nominees, and one of them became president.
If today’s outraged Republican elites are seriously determined to derail Trump, they have a choice between two options: (1) Put their money and actions where their hashtags are and get a conservative third-party candidate on any state ballots they can, where a protest vote might have a spoiler effect on Trump’s chances; (2) Hold their nose and support Clinton. Both (1) and (2) would assure a Clinton presidency, so this would require those who feel that Trump will bring about America’s ruin to love their country more than they hate Clinton.
Dream on. That’s not happening. It’s easier to write op-ed pieces invoking Weimar Germany for audiences who already loathe Trump. Meanwhile, Republican grandees will continue to surrender to Trump no matter how much they’ve attacked him or he’s attacked them or how many high-minded editorials accuse them of failing a Joe McCarthy moral test. Just as Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus capitulated once Trump signed a worthless pledge of party loyalty last fall, so other GOP leaders are now citing Trump’s equally worthless list of potential Supreme Court nominees as a pretext for jumping on the bandwagon.
The handiest Reagan-era prototype for Christie, McCain, Nikki Haley, Peter King, Bobby Jindal, and all the other former Trump-haters who have now about-faced is Kissinger. Reagan had attacked him in the 1976 campaign for making America what Trump would call a loser — “No. 2” — to the Soviets in military might. Kissinger’s disdain of Reagan was such that, as Craig Shirley writes, he tried to persuade Ford to run again in 1980 so Reagan could be blocked. When that fizzled, Kissinger put out the word that Reagan was the only Republican contender he wouldn’t work with. But once Reagan had locked up the nomination, Kissinger declared him the “trustee of all our hopes” and lobbied to return to the White House as secretary of State. As I write these words, Kissinger is meeting with Trump.
And the Democrats? Hillary Clinton is to Trump what Carter and especially Mondale were to Reagan: a smart, mainstream liberal with a vast public-service résumé who stands for all good things without ever finding that one big thing that electrifies voters. No matter how many journalistic exposés are to follow on both candidates, it’s hard to believe that most Americans don’t already know which candidate they prefer when the choices are quantities as known as she and Trump. The real question is which one voters are actually going to show up and cast ballots for. Could America’s fading white majority make its last stand in 2016? All demographic and statistical logic says no. But as Reagan seduced voters and confounded the experts with his promise of Morning in America, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that Trump might do the same with his stark, black-and-white entreaties to High Noon.
*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Iranian hostage crisis contributed to Jimmy Carter’s loss in the 1976 election. It was the 1980 election.
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Page 7

Frank Rich and the Pitfalls of Historical Analogy

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Donald Trump is greeted by President Ronald Reagan at a 1987 White House reception in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)Donald Trump is greeted by President Ronald Reagan at a 1987 White House reception in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
Analogies are one of the most seductive and misleading of all expeditions into historical interpretation. Analogies can be an imaginative form of reasoning, as they enrich insight by connecting seemingly disconnected topics. But they can also be deceptive. For a certain type of American political commentator, every minor vicissitude in foreign relations is another Munich, and every blow up in the Balkans a replay of the Guns of August, with dire consequences for us all. Pathetic third-world caudillos always represent a new Adolf Hitler, and Western statesmen who warn against them are hailed as another Winston Churchill.
In a recent issue of New York magazine, Frank Rich embarked on an extended foray into historical analogy through his comparison of Donald Trump with Ronald Reagan. As these things go, it isn’t bad, and there are several interesting points of similarity between the two: both cut their teeth in the mass media world of fantasy and illusion; both acted flexibly in their tactics rather than as rigid ideologues; both had to overcome initial resistance by their party establishments; and both were woefully underestimated by the high-minded and the conventionally wise men of the editorial pages.

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But the analogy soon becomes strained. It is true that there are points of resemblance since both were Republican presidential candidates, just as there are points of resemblance between a house cat and a Bengal tiger because they ultimately derive from the same ancestor. Rich correctly notes that Trump, like Reagan before him, has a less than documentary devotion to the truth. But there is a crucial difference in the nature of their fabulations.
The Lies of Reagan and Trump
Reagan’s whoppers were (mostly) just-so stories in the service of some anecdote or reminiscence rather than the gaining of political advantage, and they often occurred in the company of intimates or other small groups. One never quite knew about Reagan, but we often got the feeling — witness his remark to Israeli Prime Minister Shamir about having “seen” the Nazi death camps being liberated when he had actually seen an Army documentary film while in an Army film unit in Culver City — that there was a very permeable line between cinematic fantasy and physical reality for this retired actor. As with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the untruths were psychological props to maintain the illusion of starring in the role of a lifetime. And when he uttered them, White House spokespeople were anxious to walk them back.
In Trump’s case, the lies are straightforward, calculated political tools, generally spoken on the hustings or in interviews, rather than among his cronies: to attack a political opponent, obscure a weakness in his own record or to appeal to his low-information constituency. Sometimes they serve all three political objectives at once, as with his attack on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, for being “Mexican.” The charge impugns those who would damage Trump, diverts attention away from the material facts in the case and reinforces the prejudices in his voting base. And nobody on his campaign dares correct or minimize it.
Just how premeditated Trump’s lies are may be grasped from the fact that when Trump “University” was still operating years ago, students were coerced into giving video “endorsements” of how valuable the courses were as prospective legal protection against the likely avalanche of fraud suits. Trump’s deviations from the truth are anything but someone’s exaggerated reminiscences of the back lot at Warner Brothers, but consciously constructed lies designed expressly to advance his material interests as he sees them.
Reagan’s Passivity and Trump’s Desire to Control
There is another aspect of Reagan’s character that couldn’t be more different from Trump’s: his curious passivity at times. Political biographies may not be the best source for evidence, since the whitewashing of hagiography frequently creeps into the accounts. Marc Eliot’s Reagan: The Hollywood Years, on the other hand, gives up a more unvarnished picture of Reagan’s character formation, mostly free from the foreshadowing of later political eminence.
Here we see something other than a future leader of the free world in the making, but a more contradictory personality. There were periods of ambition, but they alternated with phases of passivity, where he was more the instrument of others than a leader. His activity as a confidential FBI informer, “Agent T-10,” suggests a willingness to please those in authority, as well as a certain furtiveness. Informers are rarely unambiguous heroes in Hollywood dramas.
More dispositive is Reagan’s role as president of the Screen Actors Guild and unofficial errand boy for his own agent, the ruthless Lew Wasserman, head of the film and television production company, MCA. Wasserman became a Hollywood powerhouse by simultaneously running a talent agency and a production company, a clear conflict of interest that later prompted the government to investigate MCA for antitrust violations. Reagan himself was the subject of a grand jury investigation. Throughout the period of Reagan’s activity in the Screen Actors Guild, he used his position to benefit Wasserman by striking deals that not only exempted MCA from conflict-of-interest clauses, but cheated other actors out of their residuals.
Whether these things occurred because of Reagan’s conscious connivance or passive malleability, the net result was that Reagan acted as someone else’s stooge, whether J. Edgar Hoover’s or Wasserman’s. We see the same sort of passivity during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was precisely his lack of engagement that got him off the hook. Reagan’s defense hinged on the public’s willingness to believe that his under­lings could have concocted and executed an egregious crime right under his nose without his having an inkling of it. The public bought it without a blink: It fit a character assessment that was widely accepted. It was different from Watergate because everyone knew Richard Nixon was obsessively engaged in every aspect of his presidency.
If there is one thing we can be sure about with Trump, he is in charge. He does his own tweets; he wants to choreograph the Republican Convention as if he were in charge of a media production company; and he personally berates campaign surrogates, including high-ranking Republican officials, for not viciously attacking Judge Curiel. It is hard to square his volcanic personality with what Reagan’s chief of staff Don Regan said he saw in the White House. Regan boggled at the president’s pas­sive acceptance of his subordinates’ maneuvers. “I did not know what to make of his passivity,” he wrote in his memoir after one notable personnel shakeup. “He seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making a decision. One might have thought that the matter had already been set­tled by some absent party.”

“Shaking up” a political system, and presumably the complex society that undergirds it, is a risky proposition, and more things can go wrong than fortuitously come out right.

This difference in the two men’s basic characters is so profound as to make toting up minor similarities an interesting parlor exercise, but dispositive of very little. It is perhaps truer to say that the two men are similar in being widely representative of the Republican Party base during their respective candidacies. They also reflected something of the psyche of broad masses of people during particular stages of the United States’ long social unraveling since the Vietnam War. Where this analysis of Trump is weak is its diagnosis of what it all means. Rich indirectly praises Trump by saying, “he was performing an unintended civic service: His bull-in-a-china-shop candidacy was exposing, however unintentionally, the sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics, from the consultant-and-focus-group-driven caution of candidates like Clinton to the toxic legacy of Sarah Palin on a GOP that now pretends it never invited her cancerous brand of bigoted populism into its midst.”
This is a common trope among those who claim to see through the farcical charade that often is US politics. A disillusioned ex-Republican of my acquaintance openly admitted to voting for Trump in a primary in order to “destroy” the Republican Party structure, which he hates. There are many on the left who want Hillary Clinton, the hawkish establishmentarian (which she unquestionably is), to get her comeuppance. Others see US democracy as having deteriorated to such an extent that it does not matter which tool of the oligarchy occupies the White House.
The Fragility of Democracy
I personally have been in the camp of the severe critics of US politics. To me, it appears that the country has gradually slid into a money-soaked oligarchy that retains the form, but little of the spirit, of a constitutional republic, much as Rome, even under its empire, maintained the husk of a senate. But that is hardly the worst it could be, or could become, as a glance at Ukraine, Brazil or, yes, Weimar Germany, would demonstrate.
Democracy, even such a democracy as we have, is inherently fragile. Those who get a guilty pleasure at thinking Trump will destroy the GOP are in some ways the same as Trump voters who proclaim the reason they support him is that he will “shake things up,” even while they don’t believe he will do the things he promises. But “shaking up” a political system, and presumably the complex society that undergirds it, is a risky proposition, and more things can go wrong than fortuitously come out right. Try shaking a crying infant and see if that improves matters.
Again, like Trump’s followers, the sophisticates are gullible cynics. They profess to see through politics as a marionette theater, yet swallow the most unlikely propositions: either that Trump will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, or that Trump will cause the Republican Party to collapse.
Republicans now control 31 governorships and both houses of 31 state legislatures, a hold that is nearly unprecedented. People like Sam Brownback, Scott Walker and the unspeakable Rick Snyder continue to misgovern their states according to the American Legislative Exchange Council template. Even if Republicans take a shellacking in 2016 and lose the House and Senate, what is to prevent them from regaining their hold in 2018? Ah, demographics. But that didn’t stop the GOP, after serious electoral defeats, from roaring back in 2010 and 2014.
Whether it was McCarthyism, the nomination of Barry Goldwater, Watergate or the disasters perpetrated by Bush the younger, the wise men of the op-ed pages always informed us that the Republican Party must change — become more moderate — or die. And each time, the GOP picked itself up and became more, not less, right-wing, and promptly fabricated some bugaboo or scapegoat — commies, hippies, secular humanists or Muslim terrorists — to distract working people from looking too closely at property relations in this country.
It is true that a Trump defeat won’t fundamentally change the GOP, but how does his berserker-like demolition of his primary opponents have some sort of silver lining that exposed the “sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics?” Did not every sentient person know that before?
What Trump accomplished was this: Societies maintain themselves by a thick web of laws, but these will not function unless there is an underlying, unwritten code of civility, decorum, social trust and vice at least pretending to pay tribute to virtue. Honduras and Somalia are obvious counterexamples. What Trump has done goes far beyond even the elastic standards of Republicans these days. Think what you will of Mitt Romney, he didn’t try to implicate the father of his primary opponent in JFK’s assassination or accuse President Obama, his general election opponent, of conspiring to murder his own White House aide.
Trump’s Assault on Civility
Trump is mining new territory for a presidential candidate, and it cannot but coarsen US culture even further beneath its already subterranean depths. Children at high school basketball games have taunted the opposing players with Trump’s trademark invective; inspired by Trump, two people in Boston beat a homeless man. This is dangerous territory, whether Trump wins or not.

Eighty-five years ago, an aspiring leader was mocked, even in his own country, for his silly Charlie Chaplin moustache. It did not impede his rise.

And then there is the seething atmosphere of incipient violence at Trump rallies, something we have not seen from major party candidates in living memory. At this point, we can place Rich’s Trump-Reagan comparison into perspective: He doesn’t mention the violence, and suggests that a Trump presidency would merely be a comic-opera “train wreck,” likening it to a mash-up of the George W. Bush and Warren G. Harding administrations, with Trump being “manipulated” by underlings. Rich emphatically believes that Trump is not a would-be dictator like Hitler or Benito Mussolini, as he allegedly possesses neither the “discipline” nor “zeal” to be a successful fascist.
No doubt Rich, as a cosmopolite sophisticate, feels it is a bit down-market to use the word “fascist” for fear of having someone invoke Godwin’s Law. But, as he insists on making analogies between Trump and historical persons, he has opened the door to other, less flattering analogies.
That tense atmosphere of aggression and violence at Trump rallies — where have we seen that before? The almost masochistic exaltation of followers for the man of the hour? The nearly erotic manner in which some women seem to adore their hero and savior? And the open advocacy of torturing enemies of the state as he defines them? Or perhaps demanding that his followers swear an oath of loyalty, not to the state or the constitution, but to him personally? Yes, we’ve seen it all before, and it is a bit out of the range of the archetypal US glad-handing political hack.
To take the most trivial and superficial point of comparison, think of Trump’s ridiculous coiffeur: No 70-year-old man of any dignity would wear his hair like that, let alone a candidate for the presidency. In past times it would have marked him as a joke candidate like Pat Paulsen or Professor Irwin Corey.
Yet 85 years ago, an aspiring leader was mocked, even in his own country, for his silly Charlie Chaplin moustache. It did not impede his rise. This cultivated weirdness is a puzzling mystery, like the inexplicable, insatiable popular hunger for vampire romances. It is noteworthy that in posed photographic portraits, Trump, as Hitler did, takes pains to appear as the stern, square-jawed dominator and man of destiny: Again, hardly the aw-shucks nice-guy image most US politicians would seek to cultivate.
The Hitler Analogy
Many people fall into the elementary error of believing that apprentice proto-fascists require a sort of mechanical discipline to succeed, and that fascist movements rise or fall depending on their machine-like efficiency. But this is to misconstrue the inner logic of fascism: It is not a clockwork mechanism, but a Wagnerian drama of a nation redeemed by a charismatic savior against insidious enemies.

Trump lies, lies grotesquely and lies so often that fact checkers have given up.

Hitler never claimed to be an administrator; the whole tedious business bored him immensely. He always insisted he had an “artistic” temperament in keeping with his failed ambition to be a painter and as a justification for his frequent bouts of laziness and inattention to matters of state. Albert Speer’s memoirs attest to frequent, impromptu automobile trips by Hitler and his retinue into the countryside for picnics to escape making decisions. His governmental administration was organizationally chaotic, and he frequently pitted rival subordinates against each other on the divide-and-rule principle, e.g., Army versus SS, Abwehr versus SD. This has also been a management principle of Trump’s throughout his career.
Hitler’s normal routine at the Berghof was chiefly rambling, soporific monologues about his own greatness or discussions of Wagnerian opera that segued into long evenings watching Hollywood movies (fun fact: Gone with the Wind was a favorite of the media-savvy Hitler and Goebbels). His situation conferences with the military at critical stages of the war were mainly one-sided harangues on the incompetence of his generals and the importance of will power and holding out to the last man, while completely ignoring the elementary military problems of time, space, weather and deployable manpower. In one of the most egregious blunders in military history, the German Seventh Army in Normandy couldn’t fully deploy because it had to wait for Hitler to get out of bed late on D-Day. At the bitter end, he preferred to study architectural models rather than attend to the defense of Berlin.
In sum, Hitler was an egomaniacal narcissist who liked to talk chiefly about his own greatness, and a careless administrator whose attention to detail was none too scrupulous — much like Trump’s financial legerdemain and serial bankruptcies. But he possessed a demonic charisma, paid careful attention to media presentation and regarded his rallies not as party convocations or information bulletins, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a minutely choreographed dramatic spectacle designed to awe, intimidate and cement the devotion of his submissive followers. And this was a man whom mediocre German politicians like Franz von Papen or Alfred Hugenberg initially thought they could manipulate, just as Rich suggests Trump might be manipulated, or the way GOP hacks like Mitch McConnell now claim they will be able to control him.
There is one more point of correspondence: Trump lies, lies grotesquely and lies so often that fact checkers have given up. And, as we have seen, it is lying with a purpose, to defame and belittle enemies, to dominate, to confuse. Here we have an excerpt from Mein Kampf:
[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
Elsewhere in the same volume:
The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.
One can almost hear Trump saying, “I love the uneducated!” Not to belabor the point, but according to a 1991 Vanity Fair interview, Ivana Trump once mentioned that her husband kept a book of Hitler’s speechesMy New Order, near his bed.
Does this mean that my analogy is more accurate than the comparison of Trump and Reagan? Not necessarily: Analogies may provide creative insights, but all analogies are flawed, because all historical events occur in the context of their time, and circumstances never repeat themselves in exactly the same way. But given the fact that the United States is already one of the most violence-prone countriesin the developed world, the raw material at least exists for something resembling fascism to arise with the catalyst of an authoritarian leader.
Trump’s “New Order” would presumably be less Horst Wessel and more Lee Greenwood, with the entire production taking on the tacky, hustling quality of one of Trump’s casinos rather than that of the Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. But those who belittle fascist analogies on principle, and those cynics who, while not liking him, think a Trump victory could be a therapeutic catharsis for our corrupted democracy, might both be in for a rude awakening.

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