Is Donald Trump the new Reagan? Like pretty much everyone else, when the Donald launched his campaign last June I assumed it was a vanity project to give him some cheap publicity. When he began making outrageous policy statements (by outrageous I don’t mean that they’re wacky or incoherent, just far outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable and in good taste by the political and media classes in United States and most of the rest of the western world) like many others I expected him to go a step too far and come crashing down. Instead he kept climbing in the polls until the nomination is his to lose.
There were some smart people out there who recognized early on that Trump’s appeal might extend well beyond the GOP and wrote about it. A couple of such opinion pieces can be found in The Spectator, and the Atlantic. From the latter:
Critics have charged that Trump’s message is too simple—that it’s foolish and unrealistic. But he refuses to entertain that possibility. When a Washington Post reporter asked him recently if he had encountered any campaign issue that turned out to be more complex than he initially thought, he wouldn’t take the bait. “This is not complicated, believe me,” Trump maintained. Similarly, in 1980, the Carter camp accused Reagan of having a “terribly simplistic view of the world” and espousing “simple-minded theories.”
More recently, it’s begun to dawn on some conservative commentators that perhaps the people whose votes the GOP desperately needs if it’s ever to take back the White House aren’t exactly pure laine, and are quite at home with the Donald.
So, what do my Trump-supporting neighbors prioritize? It’s a reasonable approximation of the “three-legged stool” of Reagan Republicanism, but with important philosophical distinctions from true movement conservatives.
First, there’s patriotism, but it’s not a patriotism that implies or mandates a particular foreign policy or national-security philosophy. It’s embodied in a deep love for this country and a desire to defeat its enemies, but no particular commitment either to intervention or isolationism. They’re repulsed by the Left’s mindless multiculturalism and elite’s disdain for America, but they’re foreign-policy pragmatists. Fight when it’s smart, and don’t let political correctness get in the way of national defense.
Next, there’s cultural conservatism, but it’s not the cultural conservatism of the evangelical Right. In other words, they don’t really care what anyone else does with their lives, but they’re unwilling to join the sexual revolution either personally or politically. They’re not crusaders in either direction, but they perceive the Left as attempting to draft them into a movement they find personally distasteful. When Bill Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” he was tapping into this mindset — speaking to those who dislike abortion but aren’t willing to place it at the centerpiece of their politics.
Finally, there’s a commitment to economic opportunity, but it’s not embodied by intellectual devotion either to free markets or to small government. You won’t hear former Democrats crying out for social-security reform or changes to Medicare — unless those changes make the system more stable and reliable. And southern voters have proven that they’re more than willing to hand out generous, targeted tax breaks and subsidies to pull manufacturing out of the North or to welcome Japanese automakers to their new, union-free homes in Dixie. Call it “corporate welfare” all you want, but these new Republicans simply don’t care.
The fact is, there probably aren’t enough ideologically pure conservative voters out there to elect a Republican president. We’ve been treated to the sad spectacle of the GOP attempting through the last four presidential elections to eke out a win by capturing the minimum number of “swing” states needed because the Party wasn’t prepared to try reach out and expand their base. Reagan understood that to win you need to bring new people into the tent. So does Trump.