The Donald Trump fans have hit on a new talking point to try to convince skeptical conservatives to overlook Trump’s glaring lack of experience, questionable grasp of the issues, and electability problems and pull the lever for him on election day. The talking point is: Look, Trump is just like Reagan, and Reagan both won the election and turned out to be a pretty darn successful President.
This particular inane talking point has become increasingly ubiquitous among Trump defenders in the last couple of weeks. Former Reagan political director Jeffrey Lord, in particular, has been given a more or less permanent home on CNN in which he is, as far as I can tell, paid exclusively to favorably compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan, and to excuse the holes in Trump’s resume and/or knowledge by saying that Reagan had similar ones. With the CNN debate being held in the Reagan Presidential Library tonight, expect the Reagan comparisons by the Trump campaign and their surrogates to get completely out of hand today.
The basic gist of this argument is generally as follows: Like Trump, many people dismissed Reagan because of his background in showbusiness. Like Trump, many people (especially the media and Republican party elites) thought Reagan was a buffoon who would lead them to general election doom. Like Trump, Reagan wasn’t a stickler for the details of policy but instead stuck to a broad vision and trusted others to implement specifics. And like Trump, Reagan used to be a Democrat, so you shouldn’t hold Trump’s past positions against him.
As with so many things that are connected to the Trump campaign, this talking point sounds good on a superficial level, but even the slightest amount of scrutiny causes it to immediately disintegrate. Let’s examine the many ways in which Trump’s record prior to this point does not qualify him to be even in the same conversation with Ronald Reagan.
The Experience Factor
It is doubtless true that both Trump and Reagan initially came to political prominence due to celebrity. Obviously, people chortled at the idea of Reagan the actor becoming President in somewhat the same way that they would the guy from The Apprentice becoming President. But what this comparison summarily ignores is the difference between what Reagan did after leaving Hollywood and what Trump did after the end of The Apprentice.
This one simple fact alone is enough to render the Trump-as-Reagan meme void: after leaving Hollywood, Reagan spent two terms as governor of the nation’s most populous state. This fact alone made him one of the most well qualified people – politically speaking – to ever run for President. Although Reagan had the aura of an outsider (compared to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, certainly), he had an actual record of achievement as governor (albeit one that was not unblemished) that he could run on. He had faced a tough electorate twice, and was able to win re-election by standing on his record.
If Ronald Reagan were running in the 2016 primary, he would (with the suspension of Rick Perry’s campaign) be the second most politically experienced candidate in the race, behind Mike Huckabee (and one could doubtless argue that eight years of successfully governing California is a much stiffer accomplishment than ten years in Arkansas). Whatever might be said about him, no reasonable person would call him a “novice” or an “outsider,” at least in the same way that Trump, Carson and Fiorina – who have never served in any elective office at all – are today.
The Former Liberal/Democrat Factor
Definitely, Reagan grew up and identified as a Democrat, and talked extensively about how the Democrat party left him, leading to his defection to the GOP. However, Reagan’s conversion, and the leg work he put in for the conservative cause before his victory in 1980, puts Donald Trump’s conversions of convenience to shame.
Reagan first ran for President in 1976, but before doing that, he worked tirelessly to assemble a voting coalition that would bring him to office and that would ultimately unify the conservative movement and give it a political home in the Republican party. Reagan’s introduction to politics came during the 1964 Presidential campaign, during which he campaigned prominently for the doomed candidacy of Barry Goldwater, at great risk to his own political fortunes. Sticking his neck out in favor of a guy who would go on to suffer one of the worst defeats in United States history earned major chits for Reagan among people in the Republican party whose aid he would need later.
Trump, it goes without saying, has never done anything even remotely equivalent to come to the public defense of a conservative or Republican who was on the losing end of a brutal election. In fact, judging by how he responded to [mc_name name=’Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000303′ ] earlier this year, and the way that he has publicly embraced Democrats when they are winning, it is nearly certain that Trump would have instead dismissed Barry Goldwater as a “loser” and shunned his campaign publicly.
Time matters. Reagan grew up as a Democrat, but before he ran for the Republican nomination for President, he spent well over a dozen tireless years in the trenches building a conservative coalition and helping get conservative Republicans elected. After the Goldwater campaign in 1964, and his own campaign for Governor of California in 1966, Reagan began what would become a remarkable journey to create a political realignment of the entire country that was a testament both to his magnetic and infectious personality and also a tireless work ethic that many underestimated.
During this time period, and in particular after his narrow loss to Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries, Reagan criss-crossed the country giving speeches, raising funds where he could to support the conservative organizations that would provide the intellectual backbone for the Reagan revolution (and many of which still serve the conservative cause today), and talking with literally everyone he could about his vision for America and the Republican party.
As an example of this, our own Dan McLaughlin’s father wrote to Reagan in the fall of 1978 out of the blue as a concerned citizen about a matter that might have seemed esoteric, and was stunned to receive a personal response from Reagan:
As I said, time matters. By the time 1976 and definitely 1980 rolled around, there was no doubt about where Ronald Reagan’s loyalties were. By way of comparison, within the last decade, Donald Trump has been an active supporter of Democrats like Chuck Schumer, and of course the Clintons. Rather than being a tireless worker for conservative organizations, Trump has donated six figures to… the Clinton Foundation. Trump has actually bragged about refusing the Club for Growth’s request for a donation.
There is a monumental difference between the trust voters should and do place in politicians (like Reagan) who change positions, spend over a dozen years working tirelessly for their new positions, and then run for office and politicians (like Trump) who were seen hobnobbing with the main partisan opposition two elections ago, and who have ostensibly changed positions just in time to run for President without having put in any leg work at all to demonstrate the strength of their convictions or their ability to persuade other of those convictions.
The Buffoon Factor
It is certainly true that many people accused Ronald Reagan of being a buffoon or a man who is unable to grasp intricate details. As long as Republicans have run for office, Democrats and the media have accused Republicans of being dumb. And it’s also true that people have accused Trump of being dumb, or a buffoon, or a man who has no grasp of policy or details.
The difference, of course, is that in Reagan’s case, it wasn’t true. In Trump’s case, it is.
The way the two men handled this particular criticism speaks volumes about whether it was true or not, with respect to them. Reagan, for his part, never spent significant time rebutting the criticism that he was dumb, harping on his intelligence, or trying to convince people he was smart by telling them how smart he was. Rather, he simply spoke with the American people and allowed them to determine on their own: “Here is a man who is plenty smart, no matter what the media says about him.”
Observe Reagan’s very first foray into politics, his speech at the 1964 Republican convention, and tell me this is a man who was unable to grasp details of policy or to talk coherently about them:
No one who spent any considerable time actually listening to Reagan talk was actually convinced that he was stupid, no matter what the media said about him. And he accomplished this without ever once telling people how smart he was. Now observe how Donald Trump handles the same criticism:
Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
As Alex Castellanos correctly noted yesterday on CNN, anyone who constantly tells you how big he is, is probably pretty small. And for no one is that more obvious than Donald Trump. I’m not talking about him not knowing who Solemaini is, or apparently not knowing the difference between the Quds and the Kurds. I’m talking about overall, he has never shown any ability whatsoever to grasp or articulate any policy with any level of command at all, including immigration policy.
If Trump was really like Reagan, he would shut up the doubters by showing them that he has command of the issues; however, he is completely unable to do so, so instead he must constantly tell us how smart he is. The majority of the American people can tell the difference. And that is why America ultimately rejected the claim that Reagan was a buffoon and elected him twice (handily); and it is also why Trump will never be able to shake this label.
The superficial similarities between Reagan and Trump elide over the fundamental differences that make the comparison unfair and insulting to Reagan, and to the movement that swept him to office. Trump’s backers and surrogates should quit making it, if they have any respect for the legacy of the man at all.