Trump is the Mythological Reagan

Roland Dodds

Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular inactive at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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49 Responses

  1. Art Deco says:

    A little projection and condescension to start the day.Report

  2. Damon says:

    Reagan was indeed, not the small gov’t, less spending Pres he’s been made out, although in fairness, he wanted to spend big on the military and agreeing to the social spending the Dems, who controlled the House (iirc) was something he was willing to do.

    “The Republican masses seem to no longer care what their leaders say about Trump” Of course they don’t. Their “leaders” have been betraying them for a long time and they are waking up to that fact and they are pissed.Report

    • ChuckO in reply to Damon says:

      They betray themselves with their mean spirited dreams. Any party that would hold this as a possibility is in la-la land “people who oppose the increasing secularization of American culture”. WTF! That boat has sailed.

      We aren’t going back to 1855. Wake up, white people, time to move on. Put down the carbs, turn off the TV, get some exercise, find a passion besides hating gays and blacks. Maybe start a business.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to ChuckO says:

        You know, I’m pretty sure that if the Republicans figured out how to put an obviously secular guy on the ballot, he’d win in a landslide.Report

      • Damon in reply to ChuckO says:

        All societies move like pendulums. Or do you believe that humanity moves “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!”?

        All it would take would be a major shock and you’d see all the old habits return. You might want to remember that.Report

        • Murali in reply to Damon says:

          Call me a Whig, but even though there is going to be a bit of a random walk in the medium term, over the long run, society is probably going to move more forwards than backwards, more upwards than downwards casually drifting if, very erratically so towards freedom. The long run of history has seen a general increase in personal, civil and market freedoms. Liberalism, especially in its classical or neo-classical forms is a sort of ESS.Report

          • greginak in reply to Murali says:

            The arc of history does indeed bend in a good direction. But it is one damned jagged arc sometimes.Report

            • ChuckO in reply to greginak says:

              I suspect if you lived in Iraq or Russia you might feel differently. I think healthy societies move forward. I think America’s a great example of how that moving forward terrifies some people and leaves others behind and they fight to move things back to the way things (supposedly) were “in the good old days”. But in moving forward some things are lost and some things are gained. It seems in the U.S. case one thing that is getting lost is the middle class which for me at least has been the best thing about the U.S.Report

              • Murali in reply to ChuckO says:

                Where was Russia 150 years ago? Where is Russia now? Give the middle east a good 200 years of non-interference and they too will begin to look liberalish. Of course actually refraining from intervening in the middle east is a thing you Americans can’t help but doing so that may be too optimistic an expectation on my part.Report

              • ChuckO in reply to Murali says:

                I completely agree we should stop intervening in the middle east. As for Russia I think they are much further behind than their considerable brain power could have taken them.Report

              • Murali in reply to ChuckO says:

                I think culture matters so, Russia (and China) which came from much more absolutist beginnings have much further to go. The point is not where they are now, but where they came from. It doesn’t all have to come together at once. Once people get a bit of the economic liberties and the economic security that comes with it, the others will come. One reason to think that good economic policy will come first is that rational stationary bandits will prefer general prosperity so that they can extract more wealth from the populace.Report

  3. Marchmaine says:

    I read this twice, and my take away is that this is not really an article about Trump as it is about Reagan.

    To the extend that it pertains to Trump, I don’t think you are on target… living in VA and enjoying the wave of political adds in advance of voting tomorrow… Rubio is the guy sending off the “Reagan Vibes” though clearly as a “Child of Reagan” not as a peer. Trump is not really pulling those strings, nor am I getting any sense from conservatives intrigued by him that there’s any sort of Reagan nostalgia. You mention Kengor, but drop principles 2 thru 4: Faith, Family, Sanctity and Dignity of Human life. Those are Rubio/Cruz talking points (as well as the other 8 principles). Kengor himself also notes that Rubio is the one going maximal Reagan.

    To the extent that this is an article about Reagan, meh, the simplest thing I might say is that Reagan was the right president for 1980. That the Republican party is still applying principles arguably appropriate to 1980 all the way in 2016 without appropriate corrections… sure that’s something worth saying – but not really what you do say.

    So, no, your attempt to suggest that Reagan is responsible for Trump does not really resonate; and, if we want to look at parties not learning from their past mistakes, well, there’s more than one in play.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Marchmaine says:

      Roland Dodds is not saying Reagan is responsible for Trump, he’s saying the Reagan *myth* is responsible for Trump.

      Though I don’t quite agree with that either. Ronnie is not really a gollum, he’s an avatar, a battle flag – a iconic symbol to rally everyone around, to unite groups with deeply divergent interests and preferences. As Reagan himself used himself back in the day.Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    A while ago, Lee pointed to a quote that described nerds as people who take ideas seriously. As such they are probably more likely to be ideologically rigid, more likely to spend a great deal of energy coming up with a systematic and coherent worldview, etc.

    Most political writers whether they are on the left, right, or libertarian side are nerds and hence take ideas very seriously. Though I admit that the Right-wing and Libertarian-side seem to stress “first principals” more than the center-left. The center-left seems to be more of a grab bag of “Let’s see what works…..”

    The issue is that in order to create this consistency or to sell it to the masses, the right-wing created this mythical avatar of Reagan and all must be Reagan’s airs. At some point, myths become distorted and changed and edited to fit under immediate needs.

    I am not sure whether Trump is the mythological Reagan or not but the right-wing stress on first principals always struck me as eventually leading to disaster. The kitchen sink approach used by the center-left leads to another set of disasters.Report

  5. Catchling says:

    Reagan grew the size of the federal government tremendously… hiked defense spending by over $100 billion a year to a level not seen since the height of the Vietnam war.

    Since when does increasing defense spendng count as growing the government? Killing foreigners isn’t “government” in the bad sense of the word, ergo Reagan wasn’t a hypocrite.Report

  6. Richard Hershberger says:

    The mythologizing is not limited to Reagan. This bit is representative:

    “President Obama’s legacy to America will be the decline of a great superpower, weighed down by crushing debts…”

    The myth is that deficits are a problem created by Democrats, and the solution is to elect Republicans. Yet look at this fascinating chart:

    Part of it is unsurprising. The deficit skyrockets during a world war, for example. But look at the more recent decades. Start with 1977 and notice how the deficit quite suddenly begins falling. Now look at 1981 and it shoots up again, reaching the highest peak since WWII. It begins to fall a few years later, but rises again in 1989. It goes up for four years, then suddenly plummets, even turning into a surplus. Then eight years later is rises again, and after some hesitation it far surpasses the peak of the 1980s. Then it plummets again. You don’t need to be a professional historian to match these rises and falls to which party held the Presidency. It turns out that a Democratic President correlates nearly perfectly with lower deficits, and a Republican President with higher.

    Anyone remember how during that surplus period of the Clinton administration there was a plausible plan to pay off the national debt entirely? There were hand-wringing think pieces worrying about how the world economy would function without US Treasury bills.

    This seems to have gone down the memory hole. Just like the Beirut Barracks bombing of 1983. That never happened in the world of Mythological Reagan.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Anyone remember how during that surplus period of the Clinton administration there was a plausible plan to pay off the national debt entirely? There were hand-wringing think pieces worrying about how the world economy would function without US Treasury bills.

      Note that this was largely a combination of being at a really good place in the business cycle, plus productivity enhancements, plus spending restraint the likes of which had not been seen in generations and were not seen again until the next time a Democratic president faced an obstructionist Republican Congress. It maybe have happened because a Democrat was in the White House, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Democratic policies.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        It becomes a partisan criticism this way-

        On the spending side-
        Both sides love to spend, they just love to spend on different things.
        Dems love to spend on infrastructure and social programs, Reps love to spend on the military.

        The difference is that military spending is almost always much much more expensive than any other kind of spending. I won’t belabor the point with examples with which you are all familiar, but even a small war would fund the most extravagant liberal agenda.

        On the revenue side-
        One side, and one side only, seeks to increase revenue. The other side seeks to minimize revenue, to starve the beast.

        So putting them together, the conservative agenda even in idealized form leads to higher spending with reduced revenue, i.e., deficits.Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          I won’t belabor the point with examples with which you are all familiar, but even a small war would fund the most extravagant liberal agenda.

          You won’t get a defense of our current levels of military out of me, but this simply isn’t true. The Iraq War cost something like $2 trillion total over ten years. The Federal government alone spends more than that on social welfare spending every year. Not even quasi-public goods like education, but straight-up cash and in-kind private goods. At its post-Cold-War peak around 2010, total military spending was under 5% of GDP, or about 1/7th of total government spending (federal + state + local).Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Brandon Berg says:

            When you say the government spends a trillion dollars a year on social welfare spending, you are referring of course to Social Security.

            Which is only true if you disregard the fact that SS is essentially revenue neutral- it takes in as much revenue from the payroll tax as it spends on benefits. And I have never heard a conservative publically call Social Security recipients as “welfare recipients” (although I would love to).

            Medicare is straight up spending, and can rightly be called such- but again, no Tea Party speaker has ever suggested that the Medicare recipients in his audience were “welfare moochers” (although I would love to).

            The conservative base, Trump’s audience, is overwhelmingly in favor of SS and Medicare- when they talk about social welfare spending these programs are strictly excluded.

            Once SS and Medicare are separated out, the level of social welfare spending drops off the cliff to a pittance, around 50 billion or so, which in perspective is about a week of active fighting in Iraq.

            The point here, is that the conservative agenda is inherently deficit. The things the conservatives want to spend money on- Defense, “non social welfare” social welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare- are all very expensive, while they are adamantly against raising enough revenue to fund them.

            I would go so far as to say that it is literally impossible to construct a “conservative budget” that is balanced and acceptable to the conservative base.Report

            • Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

              Once SS and Medicare are separated out, the level of social welfare spending drops off the cliff to a pittance, around 50 billion or so

              I saw that Facebook meme, too, but it’s off by a factor of 20 or so. In 2012, federal, state, and local means-tested spending was on the order of a trillion dollars.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Yabbut… Clinton was using his advantageous position in the business cycle to pay down the debt. Then Bush came in and starting blowing shit up while reducing revenues.

        One cycle through you can point to the business cycle. But we are talking over and over again for the past forty years. At some point it becomes reasonable to suspect something more than coincidence is going on.Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          Sadly, that’s impossible. We’ve been told for decades that Democrats are “tax and spend” whereas Republicans are all about fiscal responsibility.

          Don’t come here with your charts and graphs and suspiciously liberal numbers and argue otherwise. 🙂Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    A million years ago, Vikram wrote a lovely post called “Why Republicans Will Have a Hard Time Gaining Asian Support“.

    The line I remember was “The problem isn’t their positions; it’s that we suspect they would in fact take some internal satisfaction in not getting our vote.”

    One of the things I’ve noticed about the Trump phenomenon is that he seems to be actively courting the… I am not sure about the best phrasing of this… let’s call it the “Juggalo” vote.

    His “I love the poorly educated!” quote was mocked by all kinds of respectable people… but, you know what? The poorly educated who heard that heard that for the first time from any presidential candidate.

    The Juggalos finally have someone who doesn’t merely want their vote to help him or her win, they have someone who not only acknowledges their existence without pity or contempt but tells them that he loves them.

    And the Republican Elite are doing an amazing job of communicating “they would in fact take some internal satisfaction in not getting” the vote of the juggalos.

    Trump is going to be compared to Reagan for a good long while. He’s going to get Reagan in ’80 election numbers.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      I agree with you up to that last sentence.

      Trump will get the Juggalos vote, the low info GOP vote and the Juggalo sympathetic vote. He’ll fail to get the rest. One can note that Juggalos are a very large number of people but one must also consider that a large number of those people don’t consider themselves juggalos and would not appreciate being called as such. They’ll vote against Trump or at least they won’t vote for him.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to North says:

        There are a lot of candidates against which I would say you’d be right.

        I don’t see Hillary being one of them.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

          I’ve never believed that Hillary will be a strong candidate in the general (the opposite in fact) but I’ve been lazily content to think she’d have a better chance than Bernie given his Socialism!!! But lately I’m seeing a shift in Bernie’s messaging on the TV/radio away from free college!! and towards less specifically “ideological” positions: get money outa politics, have the economic winners (Wall Street) pay their fair share in taxes, etc. Stuff that sorta generally – rather than specifically – resonates. All of which is to say, if he wins the primary (which is a long shot) it’ll be because he’s tacking back to the right a bit, and that strategy could play really well in the general. Better than Clinton, anyway.Report

    • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

      People have always courted the votes of the “poorly educated” or jugalos. Always. They just used different terms, they used more neutral terms or just called them americans or Kansans or VFW members or whatever. The only thing Trumpy is doing differently is asking for their votes in his vulgar or unfiltered style. His schtick is saying the pretty much the same things pols or people have always said just in with an in your face, loud mouthed attitude.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Jaybird says:

      But the big question is how much of the GOP vote is Juggalos and how much of the GOP vote hates Juggalos. If Trump is doing extremely well at getting 30% and alienating everyone else, that’s a losing strategy.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to trizzlor says:

        The Juggalos that I’m thinking of have never voted in an election before.

        “Well, why are they going to start voting in elections now? You can’t magically say ‘oh, I know that they will vote for Trump!’ and then pretend that they actually will!”

        This goes back to the primaries and caucuses having record turnout. I see that as an indicator for record voter turnout. (See, for example, 2008.)

        Democrats are experiencing anemic turnout. I see that as an indicator for anemic voter turnout. (See, for example, 2008 and 2012.)

        Trump could well be alienating people left and right (no pun intended) but he’s going up against Hillary Clinton who has alienation problems herself.Report

    • ChuckO in reply to Jaybird says:

      Juggalo’s don’t vote. So that’s a bad metaphor. The poorly educated that Trump was talking about are the old fashioned working poor (that used to be able to work the line somewhere to be middle class) who can’t get line work at manufacturing businesses anymore because they are a bad combo of unskilled and unwilling to work for the wages those jobs (to the extent they exist anymore) pay.Report

  8. Stillwater says:

    I dunno. In my own explanatory theory, I don’t pin Trump’s appeal on Reagan mythology as much as another myth (or semi-myth, depending on how you look at it): the Great Man theory. People see in Trump a person who, by the sheer power of his will and force of his character, can achieve great things and alter the course of history (and the present) for the better. And even then, I don’t think that account is explanatorily complete since I tend to think a substantial (or at least not insignificant) factor driving his support is a “throw the bums out” sentiment as well.

    One thing I think we can reliably predict, tho, is that if Trump wins all the pundits and “smart guys” who simply cannot comprehend the Reasons for Trump (which is 99% of em, as far as I can tell) will eventually coalesce around one or perhaps two intellectually satisfying but still-confused theories which will then become the “established historical narrative”.

    So we’ll have created a Mythology about Trump that’s is wildly divergent from reality, just like the current mythology about Reagan is.Report

  9. trizzlor says:

    >>Reagan’s appeal as a figure of admiration is in the emotional response individuals have to his presidency.

    My sense is that voters from both parties want someone who won’t go into the details. It’s true that conservatives are susceptible to appeals to loyalty & authority (“I’ll make them pay for it, you can trust me”). But liberals are equally susceptible to appeals to caring & expertise (“I’ve spent time with the victims, and I’ll get smart people to solve it”). So Trump gets away with ignorance by saying that he’ll just get it done, and Sanders gets away with it by saying that he’ll assign the right people. But both are getting away with it.Report

    • North in reply to trizzlor says:

      The last sentence is a touch shaky in that both Trump and Sanders are not winning. Trump, may be winning but Sanders appears to be rather unambiguously losing at this point.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to North says:

        But that’s partly because Hillary has gone left to grab some of Bernie’s positions – obviously not as far as left as he is, but enough to blunt his momentum. Also, the actual ‘base’ of the Democratic Party (suburban women and African-American voters) never glomped on to Bernie like the actual ‘base’ (Southern and Midwestern working class whites) of the GOP glomped on to Trump.Report

        • ChuckO in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          Bernie’s a classic McGovern style excite the college kids type of candidate. The college kids have never managed to get out and vote though so if history is a guide that’s a losing constituency.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to North says:

        Are Sanders’ losses ideological or structural? It seems to me like he’s losing because of (a) poor ground game; and (b) poor connection with the black vote. There’s a chicken/egg problem, sure, but I don’t get the sense that either of these failures are due to his reliance on vague policy and experts; if anything, it’s that he hasn’t ramped up the “caring” dial enough.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to trizzlor says:


          I think it’s a bit … descriptively inaccurate … to say that Bernie is losing. I mean, well, it’s perfectly accurate of course, but he entered the race with pretty much a single purpose in mind: to pull Clinton to the left. And not only has he achieved that goal, he’s actually competitive, which is the real surprise of the overall Dem primary arc, seems to me. (It says something about Clinton as a candidate as well as the interests and concerns of the Dem voting base.)

          To your point tho, the blocs he’s losing are older whites and all AAs. So if you want to pin a reason for why he’s losing, it’d be poor support from those demos. And as I’ve said before, I’m surprised that Clinton has such a lock on AA support.Report

    • Roland Dodds in reply to trizzlor says:

      @trizzlor Yes, I agree that both parties engage in these types of appeals. Look no further than what the average Democrat thinks of JF Kennedy, often constructed entirely from pleasantries rather than policies.

      By focusing on the myth of Reagan and how Trump has captured it, I did not intend to say similar sentiments aren’t present to the “great Democrats of old.”Report

  10. Jaybird says:

    More grist for the mill:

    Rand’s (Not Ayn or Paul, the corporation one) election survey is out.

    Check this out:

    Among people likely to vote in the Republican primary, people are 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Donald Trump as the first-choice nominee relative to all the others if they “somewhat” or “strongly agree” that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Using statistical techniques, we can conclude that this increased preference for Trump is over and beyond any preferences based on respondent gender, age, race/ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, household income, attitudes towards Muslims, attitudes towards illegal immigrants, or attitudes towards Hispanics.

    Holy crap.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

      Using statistical techniques, we can conclude” … well, just about anything you want to conclude.

      {{“Have you analyzed the data?” “Yes, we’ve applied various statistical techniques, if that’s what you mean.”}}

      OK, with that outa the way, I think the conclusion is consistent with what a lot of folks have been saying all along: that Trump supporters feel left outa the gummental, policy-forming process for whatever particular reason.* How that left-out feeling manifests as support for Trump, however, is left outa the snipped analysis from Rand, and I’d guess it’s contained in a list of various preferred policy proposals they believe Trump will enact (or try to anyway). Which brings us back to immigration, xenophobia, bigotry, working class wage issues, ending political corruption (which is sorta ironic), ending ISIS, etc etc.. That is, the long laundry list of ostensible reasons why people support Trump over another candidate.

      But maybe I don’t fully understand the implications of the study.

      *I think the emerging CW is that this part of the analysis constitutes a repudiation of establishment GOP politics, not only as a political machine, but as a collection of national level policy planks.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Stillwater says:

        Although — and to be clear, I am not saying you are wrong, Still, just playing Devil’s AD — it does seem like at every data point there is a reason to disregard his ability to succeed. And each time he makes a hash of those reasonings, those goal posts get moved further back.

        Which isn’t to say he’s going to win. More that I am growing more and more cautious about reasoned arguments for why he can’t.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          Oh, I hear ya. One data point supporting the idea that nobody-knows-what-the-hell-is-going-on-anymore is the CNN poll posted today – the first poll after Trump either got his ass handed to him by Rubio or alternatively absolutely destroyed Rubio with some solid zingers! – which has Trump up to 49% nationally. It’s just a data point, but coming off a performance that (I’d bet) most “respectable” conservatives cringed over his poll numbers rose.

          So, you know, something weird is going on here. 🙂Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I think there are two big things that come up –

          1. That you have to be shocked that 35-50% of the Republican primary vote (which to be liberal is say, 20% of the voting population) are white supremacists. I am not shocked by this at all. Trump is just saying the parts that other candidates, including Romney and every other Republican running has only inferred until now.

          2. That the other candidates running are actually good at politics – look at the entire 2016 Republican field – who among them had actually faced an opposition that could credibly oppose them? Even Scott Walker ran in low turnout midterm elections. I mean, maybe you’ve got John Kasich, but even Kasich is facing the Ohio Democratic Party, which is in a footrace every year with the Florida Democratic Party to be the worst Democratic State Party in the nation.

          OTOH, whether you like her or not, Hillary has taken a political punch or seven.Report

  11. j r says:

    I have read this post a couple of times and I guess that I’m just not getting the hook. Right from the beginning you link to an article counting the number of times that GOP candidates invoked Reagan, that notes Trump’s number as zero. The people most likely to evoke the name and legacy of Ronald Reagan are the folks who are right now doing everything that they can to stop Trump. I agree that Trump is a golem, but I’m not sure in what way he is a golem animated by the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

    The reason that Reagan is popular with movement conservatives is because he was an incredibly popular conservative. All the mythologizing stuff is window dressing. Reagan beat an establishment Republican candidate and then the sitting Democratic president. And he won re-election in, depending how you count it, the biggest landslide in the history of competitive presidential elections. At the end of the day, nothing succeeds like success.

    The point of all this is that whatever you think of Ronald Reagan, good or bad, he was a guy with a lifelong interest in policy, not someone who opportunistically weighed in on politics in the self-serving manner that Trump has. Reagan was the president of SAG during the HUAC days. He was hired by GE to draft and deliver speeches on economics and policy. He stumped for Goldwater, which culminated in the “A Time for Choosing” speech that paved the way for his California gubernatorial campaign. By the time Reagan ran in 1980, he’s already been a serving governor for eight years and been through one unsuccessful presidential bid.

    None of this is to say that you should like Reagan, only that the connection to Trump is tendentious at best. Donald Trump is a populist salesman. He’s a guy who showed up at the right time, saying the right things, which is generally what populists do. I’m not sure that it is much more complicated than that.Report

    • ChuckO in reply to j r says:

      I hate to speak for the author but I think part of the point is that the Reagan myth is so deep in the heart of the base that Trump evokes it on a primal or subconscious level.

      His nonsense evokes Reagan’s “were dropping the bombs on Russia in five minutes” macho.Report

      • Roland Dodds in reply to ChuckO says:

        @chucko Yes, exactly. @j-r is right that Donald does not reference Reagan or necessarily hold any of the late president’s policy positions. It is that he has tapped into the elements of Reagan that have been celebrated and mythologized over the last 20 years. Now the likes of National Review and Mark Levin are throwing a fit as someone walks in an plays the very character they have crafted in adulation.Report