Donald and Ronald

Just how different is Trump’s presidency from Reagan’s?

Congresspeople watch closely as President Ronald Reagan signs into law a landmark tax overhaul on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 22, 1986 [File: Bob Daugherty/AP]
Congresspeople watch closely as President Ronald Reagan signs into law a landmark tax overhaul on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 22, 1986 [File: Bob Daugherty/AP]

Joe Scarborough has a show on MSNBC, Morning Joe. He is virulently anti-Trump. He has even said the US president is “openly racist” and, “if you support him, then you’re supporting that”. Joe has called Donald Trump “completely detached from reality”, “everybody around Donald Trump knows he’s not stable”. His partner – on the show and in life – Mika Brzezinski – denounces Trump even more adamantly. As do his regular and irregular guests.

Joe was a Republican congressman from 1995 to 2001. He continued to identify himself as a Republican until last month when he went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to announce, live, that he was quitting the party.

Joe has a real need to say that today’s Republican Party – Trump’s party in his eyes – is significantly different from the party he supported and served, which was, he routinely says, “the party of Lincoln and Reagan”.

President Abraham Lincoln died more than 150 years ago. The “Solid South” was so enraged at him for beating them in the Civil War and at his party for ending slavery that they voted Democrat for the next 100 years. Then the Democrats started supporting civil rights for people of colour. The Republicans saw the opportunity, courted them and flipped them. The Solid South is now theirs. It has been a long time since the Republican Party has been “the party of Lincoln”. Let us put that aside.

Is the GOP still the “party of Reagan”? Oh, very much so. And I was recently reminded exactly how much while re-reading a book I wrote during his presidency back in the 1980s: “You Get What You Pay For”. As I flipped through the pages, I found myself saying, over and over again, “that’s just like Trump”.

Joe constantly points out that Trump started his campaign with racism, riding down the escalator, attacking Mexicans. Joe thinks this illustrates a difference.

But Ronald Reagan also started his presidential campaign with racism. He chose to make his kick-off speech in the heart of the Solid South, in Mississippi, quite near where three civil rights workers had been murdered. He said, “I believe in states’ rights.” It was the biggest dog whistle of the day, code for segregation, and the crowd cheered.

He continued: “… we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” It had been the Republican Party that had tried to impose integration after the Civil War. Reagan was making it clear that his party was completely divorcing itself from Lincoln’s vision.

It was not a one-off. Reagan ran against the “welfare queens” and against “the strapping bucks” who stood in front of you at the supermarket, buying steaks with food stamps, while you made do with hamburger helper, earned by the honest sweat of your brow. It was a brilliant strategy that turned government programmes into handouts to minorities with money stolen – through taxes – from good white people.

It was called the Southern Strategy. Reagan did not invent it. But he sold it with warmth, charm, and a smile.

What he brought to the presidency that was really original was making up stories and never being embarrassed that they were not true. He made up a tale about a mysterious stranger who gave the Founding Fathers the courage to sign the Declaration of Independence.

He loved the tale of a bomber pilot who decided not to parachute from his shot-up plane in order to stay and comfort a wounded member of his crew as they plunged to the ground and received the Congressional Medal of Honor … posthumously … and told it often, although it had only happened in a movie.

He said that he had been present at the liberation of a concentration camp during World War II, though he had never left Hollywood.

It used to be that being caught in a lie harmed your credibility, but Reagan, for the most part, got away with it. In doing so he set a new standard that opened the tarnished road that Trump rides down on today.

If you believe that government is bad, then it makes sense to put people in charge of agencies who are committed to destroying those agencies. Reagan did that with the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and more.

You also appoint people that really should have been vetted. He made his old crony, Edwin Meese, attorney general. But Ed was embroiled in corruption charges his whole time in office, demoralising the entire Justice Department. His Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan, was indicted.

His Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger, was charged by the independent counsel, but pardoned by Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, before it could go to trial. His National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, pleaded guilty to misdemeanour criminal charges in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal but was also pardoned. McFarlane’s successor, John Poindexter, was convicted of multiple felonies also in relation to the same scandal, but the ruling was later overturned.

Reagan only had one African American cabinet member, Samuel Pierce, who was put in charge of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pierce knew nothing about housing and was as incompetent a cabinet minister as we have ever had, just like Trump’s only African American cabinet member, Ben Carson, who also incompetently runs the same department.

The attitude of the Reagan folks was best expressed by Secretary of Labor John Block, “If they’re going to shower all this money around, we’re going to get some of it.” The administration was rife with corruption – or as journalist Haynes Johnson later wrote, it was “marked by numerous instances of officials cashing in on their public positions for personal profit”.

So, Joe, and all the ex-Republicans, and the upright Establishmentarians, Trump may be vulgar, Trump may be abrasive, but in terms of racism, corruption, and destruction, he is Mr Reagan’s true heir. Trump’s Republican Party is what it has been at least since the 1980s, only more so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

More from Author
Most Read