Reacting to the rise of Donald Trump, National Review’s Rich Lowry recently called on the Republican Party to get over its inordinate attachment to Ronald Reagan and his legacy. He suggests Reagan’s heirs must devise new policies to broaden the GOP’s appeal, and (implicitly) take down Trump.
Meanwhile, such conventional Republican candidates for president as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio still lovingly invoke Reagan’s name nearly a quarter of a century since he left office. In Rubio’s words, it is “time for the children of the Reagan Revolution to assume the mantle of leadership.”
By this he means, of course, people like himself, and not his nemesis Donald Trump who has a history of supporting Democrats, and can therefore be assumed not to be a “movement conservative,” and therefore, not a Reaganite.
Moreover, the “children of the Reagan Revolution” revile Trump for his opposition to the things they love the most—open borders, fast track trade deals, and military intervention overseas, which they habitually imply Reagan would have supported.
Well, I worked for Ronald Reagan, and Reagan stood for none of those things.
On a personal level Reagan and Trump have a lot in common. Both had notable heads of hair. Both were long-time Democrats before switching parties. Both were media personalities. Reagan was an entertainer who became a corporate spokesman (for General Electric); Trump is a business man who became an entertainer (appearing for years on a program for NBC, which, when it first aired, was a subsidiary of General Electric.)
Reagan, like Trump, divorced and re-married (Reagan once, Trump twice). He was the first divorcee to occupy the White House. He made much of religion and its role in public life but rarely went to church. This sounds like Trump. As Governor of California, Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation, although later embraced the cause of life. He campaigned actively for John F. Kennedy in 1960 only to ardently support Barry Goldwater in 1964. Trump’s views on social issues and politics have also evolved in similar kinds of ways.
Neither had Washington experience; both were considered interlopers by the power elite.
Both led insurgencies against the GOP establishment, which loathed them. Reagan was branded lazy, too old, not terribly bright, a warmonger and a danger to the Republic in an effort to bring him down. Trump is also the object of much contumely generated by well-paid establishment spin doctors specialized in character assassination.
Both were “big picture” guys who did not pretend to be policy mandarins. The U.S. presidency combines the roles of head-of-state and head-of-government in one office. Reagan was always more plausible as King than Prime Minister; he always had strong chiefs of staff who managed the day-to-day affairs of government while he concerned himself with the far bigger task of setting the strategic direction and engendering public support for it. Trump, I suspect, would govern in much the same way.
Thus, Trump’s personal history and political evolution find lots of parallels in Reagan’s career. Republican politicians who suggest Reagan would be appalled by Trump are whistling Dixie: they may be right, but there is no evidence to prove that they are, and plenty to suggest they are not.
The Rubio wing of the party loves to suggest Reagan would have endorsed its militarized foreign policy. But he went to war only once—in Grenada in 1983—in what was really a police action to rescue U.S. medical students from the clutches of Cuban construction workers, and rarely “sent in the Marines” (although he did so in Lebanon, and promptly withdrew them following a terrorist attack that killed hundreds of our finest soldiers in their sleep).
If Reagan revamped and expanded the U.S. military, it was not because he sought what the Washington war party some years later would call “global strategic predominance,” or “benevolent global hegemony,” or “full-spectrum dominance”—all euphemisms for empire, which the libertarian-inclined Reagan had no interest in at all—but because he saw an expanded military as a requirement of national defense, and as vital to ending the Cold War in a peaceable manner.
His ending of the Cold War was a protean achievement, in my view, his finest, which is why it is so shocking to see those who claim to be his heirs fanning the flames of conflict with Russia. His subtle and sophisticated diplomacy—backed not by the use of military force, but the implied threat to use it—constituted something of a master class in the conduct of foreign policy.
The result was a substantial “peace dividend” for the United States and the West, including the prospect of putting our financial house in order and rebuilding the country. With the demise of the repressive, atheistic Soviet regime, Europe faced the happy prospect of finally putting an end to the continental civil war that broke out in 1914, and of laying the groundwork for an entente cordiale embracing all of the Northern Hemisphere.
This would have required the creation of new structures of trans-Atlantic economic and security cooperation to replace the antiquated ones held over from the Cold War (NATO, for example)—including the integration of post-Soviet Russia, not its encirclement.
This vision flowed from the logic of the collapse of the USSR, and Europe’s drive to integrate. It is the sort of vision that would have inspired previous generations of U.S. leaders, diplomats and foreign policy specialists—people like Dwight Eisenhower and Dean Acheson and George Kennan—when they laid the groundwork for the post-World War II order.
All of this is a far cry from the bellicose views expressed in recent Republican debates. One candidate says he wants to “punch the Russians in the nose.” Another declared, with an air of great self-satisfaction, that if elected, she would refuse to meet with Vladimir Putin. Yet another calls Russia’s popular head-of-state, a man who, whatever his faults, has brought his country back from the brink of dissolution and made it a formidable player on the world stage and a defender of the Christian faith in the Middle East, a “gangster” and a “thug.”
Several want to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, a great way to provoke a Third World War—this time with a nuclear armed power. All want to sanction Moscow so as to prevent any rapprochement between Russia and Germany, and thereby reinforce the division of Europe Reagan moved heaven and earth to overcome.
Such mindless bellicosity is standard fare in Washington these days. It betrays a stunning failure of vision. And the myopia is not limited to Russia policy. Some candidates for president lament the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, then insist Assad—their resolute protector—must go. They seem blissfully unaware of the contradiction.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is getting some important things right: if the goal is to wipe out ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Nusra and other jihadists, Americans should welcome Russia’s efforts to at least stabilize Syria and bring an end to the civil war.
He says he can talk to Vladimir Putin and arrive at understandings. Good, it is high time. Rather than threatening to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement on his first day in office, as some of his opponents have pledged to do, he has said he dislikes the agreement, says it was badly negotiated, but will respect it and enforce it.
Oddly enough, these are mature positions that outclass those of several of his opponents who love to pose as policy heavyweights but have a penchant for taking childish approaches to serious matters.
The establishment is in a dither over Trump lest the rebellion he is leading presage the end of everything it holds most dear—open borders (paving the way for the disappearance of the old United States and its replacement by “the world’s first global society,” in the words of the late publicist Ben Wattenberg), our endless series of optional, illegal wars that bear scant relation to any discernible US interests, the subversion and overthrow of foreign governments, including secular ones in Moslem countries that protect Christian minorities, and wretched trade deals that enrich the oligarchy while leaving the rest of the nation in the lurch.
Meanwhile, sovereign debt is $20 trillion and we have $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
Memo to Rich Lowry: the GOP’s problem is not Reagan and his legacy—it is the noxious brew of policies it is wedded to.
Still less is the party's problem Trump—our only political leader who understands that we cannot go on like this.
In focusing like a laser on establishment policies millions of Americans find intolerable—open borders, fast track and endless wars—he has become their tribune. That is why he is winning. And that is why I suspect that if my old boss Ronald Reagan were with us now, he would not be averse to the prospect of a Trump victory in November.
Anthony T. Salvia was Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs under Ronald Reagan, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau, and is now Partner at Global Strategic Communications Group, a firm de