Trumpism and 2016 Through the Eyes of Reagan

Delightful time in Los Angeles on Tuesday (I even met by chance a Power Line reader on the streets of Pasadena at lunch time—you’re everywhere!), where I was invited to address the fall dinner of the Friends of Ronald Reagan at the California Club downtown. They asked for a Reaganite perspective on Trump and the election. Here are a few short excerpts from the talk:

I take as my opening theme Winston Churchill’s remark that the future, though imminent, is obscure. Yet we are confronted with an astounding spectacle: the two parties have nominated candidates each seemingly destined to lose. The GOP has nominated the one candidate that could lose to Hillary Clinton, and the Democrats have nominated the one candidate who could lose to Donald Trump—though I suppose Democrats could have tested that proposition by nominating Bernie Sanders instead. And somehow Hillary clearly misunderstood the suggestion that she “be more like Bernie,” and decided to imitate “Weekend at Bernie’s” instead. From the viewpoint of the voters, it is tempting to call this situation “deplorable,” but that term has lately been pushed into the waste basket . . .

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While we might not think of Trump as another “great communicator,” he has certainly been effective in tapping into, or giving expression to, some of the inchoate frustrations of millions of Americans who have lost confidence in the political class. There is something quite interesting about Trump’s rhetorical style, which contrasts very sharply with Reagan’s communication practices.

A clarifying example of this can be found back in 1976, when Reagan, then challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, became embroiled in a controversy about his views on Social Security, which he had suggested ought to be reformed perhaps in some radical ways. When asked about the matter, here’s how Reagan answered:

“I’ve always believed that you say the qualifier first. If you say, ‘Now look, let’s make it plain; the first priority must be that no one who is depending on [Social Security] for their non-earning years should have it taken away from him, or have it endangered. It is endangered today by the shape it is in.’ So then you go on and say, ‘Now, the program is out of balance. Down the line someplace, can come a very great tragedy of finding that the cupboard is bare. Before that happens, let’s fix Social Security.’”

There’s a certain gentleness, not to mention reasonableness, to Reagan’s way of putting the matter. This is not unique to Reagan; he was just very good at it. It is the way most politicians take positions—stating qualifiers before laying out a tough conclusion or proposal for change. You lose fewer votes that way; to the contrary, it is the way to build a majority for change.

The most salient thing to notice about Trump is that he states his positions in exactly the opposite fashion: he states a hard position first, in an utterly unreasonable or seemingly extreme way, and then allows for qualifications later. Let’s build a wall and deport illegal aliens; but then we’ll let a lot of them back in through some kind of normalized process—and perhaps not deport many at all. Let’s have a total ban on Muslim immigration, while later saying we have to get better at how we screen Muslim immigrants and refugees from certain dodgy countries.

This is highly unusual, as I say, but also effective in one way. Trump’s seeming unreasonableness is precisely what attracts a large number of frustrated Americans, while also repelling a large number of Americans. A large number of Americans—perhaps a majority—are disgusted with our political class, and the conventional rhetoric by which our leadership class conducts our public business. Trump’s direct and plainspoken contempt for this state of affairs is like a bracing fresh wind in a stuffy room.

What Reagan did with humor and a deft touch, Trump does with broad insults. We’re governed by idiots and clowns and stupid people, Trump likes to say. I agree with him every time I go through a TSA line at the airport. Reagan thought much the same thing, but he never expressed himself the way Trump does.

Reagan’s barbs at bureaucrats and dysfunctional government were usually expressed with a light touch, which I think was all the more effective for cloaking its contempt within his humor and storytelling ability. Reagan’s stories always got the point across without having to state the point directly. Who can forget Reagan’s fondness for the timeless chestnut that “The most frightening words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”? Or his favorite joke about economists, who are a handy proxy for government planners: “I’ve seen too many economists who have a watchchain with a Phi Beta Kappa key at one end of the chain and no watch on the other end.”

There’s none of that kind of finesse in Trump. Trump, I think it is fair to say, is the most humorless presidential nominee of modern times, with the possible exception of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who struggles mightily at the effort to display any authentic wit in public.


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The are many reasons for doubting Trump’s political prudence and prospects in office should he win, but at the top of the list is this fact: We have never elected someone to the presidency for whom that office was his first public service. Only once before has a major party ever nominated a person with no prior public service, in 1940, when Republicans picked utility executive Wendell Willkie—a good and able man—to be their standard-bearer. And there is a similarity between the circumstances that yielded up Willkie as the GOP nominee in 1940 and the circumstances that have yielded up Trump today. In 1940, FDR had simply driven Republicans out of their minds with frustration, and someone from outside the political class seemed to have the most clear critique of the state of things. And, don’t forget, Republicans had done extremely well in the mid-term election of 1938—the biggest off year blowout until 2010 came along. And yet there was a difficulty on the presidential level then, as we see today for Republicans. Obama has driven Republicans out of their minds in frustration in ways similar to FDR.

All of the conventional analytics right now lead you to conclude that Trump will lose. But this has been an unconventional election, so who knows. Since we in LA are celebrating the final year of Vin Scully’s remarkable radio career, I’m reminded of Scully’s spontaneous remark about Kirk Gibson’s famous home run: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” We might well be saying the same thing the night of November 8.

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One of the most important single sentences in the Federalist Papers comes from James Madison, who reminded us of why our constitutional structure was being set up as it was: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Whoever wins in November, we’re going to be testing Madison’s proposition like never before.