USA Today writer and author James S Robbins recently wrote an article attempting to weave Ronald Reagan and his campaign of 1980 to that of Donald Trump this year. I’ve heard that comparison from Trump supporters before, in fact, Trump even stole Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” and put it on his baseball hats – as if he had come up with it.
Yet while the Trump supporters keep spinning this narrative the fact remains the comparison is deeply flawed.
First, the notion that Reagan had not become an “establishment” figure in the Republican Party by 1980 is not factual. Yes, Reagan was an outsider when he attempted to challenge Richard Nixon in 1968, and he was certainly an outsider when he ran against an incumbent president of his own party in 1976. But by 1980 all the smart money, from the very beginning of the campaign, was on Reagan.
Before he even announced, he was banking key endorsements in major presidential primary states. Reagan had over 50 endorsements by March 1979, including five U.S. senators, 23 House members, two state party chairs and one governor. Compared to his challengers, Reagan had 90 percent of the endorsements by party officials at that point.
That’s not an outsider.
Second, Reagan wasn’t coming from nowhere, like Trump, to run for president. All through 1979 pollsters didn’t even test President Jimmy Carter against any other Republican candidate because Reagan, after years of political involvement, entered the race as the GOP front-runner. And while he did have opposition in the early primaries and caucuses – including George H.W. Bush who no one had ever heard of outside of Washington – so has every other major Republican establishment candidate.
Third, on experience, it is true that Reagan was a former movie actor as Trump is a reality TV host. But that’s where their similarities end. Reagan, who entered politics in 1966, twice won the governorship of California. He spent eight years as the chief executive of the largest state in America – the 7th largest economy in the world. He dealt with legislators on a daily basis, drafted proposed laws, gave political speeches, traveled the country meeting tens of thousands of other elected officials, and he learned all about the political arena. Trump has done none of that. One wonders how much on the job training he will need in dealing with members of Congress and political leaders around the world.
Finally, Reagan offered hope, idealism and humor in the campaign against Carter in 1980. That is in sharp contrast with the name calling, personal attacks and downright contempt Trump has used to inspire his supporters. Reagan said during his acceptance speech, “This convention has shown to all America a party united, with positive programs for solving the nation’s problems.” Key words: United and Positive. He also stated, “I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom.” Compare that to Trump’s platform of rounding up and sending to the border eleven million people, building a gigantic wall and preventing all Muslims from entering the country. Reagan said throughout his presidency, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts.” Can the same thing be said about the campaign this year?
After his primary fight, Reagan quickly brought all factions of the Republican party together. Trump won’t pull that off. We already know Mitt Romney, the last GOP nominee, will not vote for him. Other leading conservatives have started the search for a third party alternative. Ronald Reagan didn’t run against the GOP establishment in 1980 and attempt to embarrass it like Donald Trump has done this year.
Bottom line: The differences between an established and credible candidate like Reagan to an insurgent candidate like Trump are huge. Any comparisons between the two should be met with plenty of skepticism.