In my forthcoming study of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, tentatively titled “The Disciple and The Alchemist,” I wrote about Reagan that,
He was a transcendent optimist—a spokesman-as-leader—who employed alchemy and soaring rhetoric to obviate contradictions. He stood, as appropriate at any given time, near either Democratic or Republican mirrors to reflect and project his appeal through a libertarian prism, matching the prevailing mood of the electorate. From the threat of communism, to fatigue of government intervention, to the embrace of an evil enemy, he knew how to change the angle of the camera and strike an appealing pose for his audience.
As I observe the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump for president today, I cannot help but hear echoes of Reagan’s appeal and alchemic modality. And, the electorate seems to be just as depressed (or angry) today as it was in the latter stages of the Carter presidency.
The comparisons are eerie. While Reagan espoused the “Gospel of Prosperity,” Trump promotes what David Brooks of The New York Times has labeled a “Gospel of Success.” Meanwhile, Obama speaks of self-restraint and sacrifice the same way Carter spewed jeremiads of sacrifice-based redemption. Like Reagan, Trump also believes in American exceptionalism based on overt power, projected for the benefit of Americans first. Notwithstanding missteps, like Vietnam before Reagan, and Iraq/Afghanistan before Trump, for Trump Americans remain the chosen people in a chosen land, the new Israel. Meanwhile, Obama, like Carter, tries to re-identify America as a force for moral good, waging humanitarian wars (Libya) and preferring cooperation to competition. I can’t remember ever hearing Trump (or Reagan) utter the word ‘cooperation’. Reagan’s Hollywood-styled past and Trump’s New York/Atlantic City slick-shtick (and multiple marriages) also place them in stark contrast to the Obama/Carter image of up-from-nothing populist purity. Furthermore, I can easily see Trump reeling in the Religious Right the same way Reagan did with his “I know you can’t endorse me … but I can endorse you”; especially with either Palin or Huckabee at the bottom half of the ticket.
Trump has also taken a page out of Reagan’s early campaign playbook in his attempt to de-legitimize the President. Reagan questioned Carter’s strength, patriotism, and decisiveness, while Trump has pounded the birther issue with the conviction of a Klansman. Trump will easily get the angry white vote, and if he can co-opt the Religious Right (now Christian nationalists) with whitebread exceptionalism, he’s halfway there. Trump’s next target will be to add the other half—fiscal conservatives—to his electoral coalition. He’ll question Obama’s fiscal toughness in the face of huge deficits and the recent S&P outlook downgrade on US securities. Trumps own fiscal follies will no doubt be recast as the scars of experience in a Hobbesian world. He will ask the Reagan question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” and will couple it with “Who would you rather have at the negotiating table, a nice guy, or a winner?” He might even say to Obama: “You’re fired!”
Reagan’s appeal resided in its simplicity; he pulled on American’s sense of patriotism and desire to “stand tall” again. He re-imagined America’s special destiny as a “shining city on a hill.” In a complex world full of nuance and strange alliances—one that calls for an Obamaesque mind and demeanor—Americans may decide they’d just like to feel good again. They may prefer illusion to reality. If they do, Trump’s orangish hair (like Reagan’s) won’t matter. Some say Trump’s anger will do him in; this may prove to be wishful thinking by Obama supporters. After all, aren’t we all angry? Trump should summon his inner Reagan, and Obama better not make the same mistake Carter’s advisors did when they hoped they would face Reagan on election day.