He considered any publicity good. He “spun one narrative after another that was palpably untrue, [finding it] …next to impossible to say anything that is not in some crucial way untrue.” “He [didn’t] let anybody get too close. …Those who worked with him found him curiously elusive.” He had no interest in briefing books. “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed.” Sound familiar? This is how the distinguished historian and UNC Professor Emeritus William Leuchtenburg described Ronald Reagan in his 2015 book, The American President. So what Gerald Ford might have aptly called our current “Nightmare” isn’t entirely new. Here we go again.
I couldn’t help being struck by the similarities between the Gipper and the Donald. Reagan was sworn in at age seventy, so too will Trump. Being six months older he will be the oldest ever. Both disregarded facts on the stump and beyond. Periodic fabrication and outright lying is something Reagan took all the way through his tenure. It reached its peak late in his second term when he denied both selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras. Leuchtenburg contends that his actions – trading with an enemy and unauthorized arming – constituted impeachable offences. Only because Democrats (who controlled Congress) feared having to face George HW Bush as an incumbent in the upcoming election did he escape prosecution. Reagan represented the then radical right of his party much as Trump represents an extreme today. We Americans have a short memory and may have forgotten how ominous we thought the Reagan presidency would be. We survived.
Survived, but Reagan, the GOP mythical icon, had a profound and lasting impact on the country’s direction. So much so that twelve years on, Bill Clinton, despite liberal inclinations, determined his only path to the presidency lay in pulling his party to the right of center, to govern as a New Democrat. That produced, among others, “an end of welfare as we know it”, (after pushback from the military) “don’t ask don’t tell” and “three strikes”. It wasn’t enough for the opposition. Tokened by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract” the right never lost its focus on regaining power and extending Reagan’s conservative “revolution”. Barack Obama moved further left but met bitter resistance from the start. His progressive legislative initiatives had no Republican support and others had to be accomplished by Executive Orders, many of which can – probably will – be reversed by Trump. Democrats are said to be the majority party – Hilary Clinton outpolled him in November’s election – but that “majority” has proved ephemeral. Republicans, dominated by the hard right, hold the executive mansion in a majority of states and beginning in January will control all three branches of the federal government. We will survive Donald Trump, but not without paying a significant price. The Supreme Court, especially, is likely to skew conservative for decades to come.
I reach back to Reagan’s election and our survival as a reassurance, but that doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about the immediate future. Quite the contrary. The fact that there are similarities between Trump and Reagan doesn’t mean they are the same. I ran into Bill Leuchtenburg here in Chapel Hill a few days before the election and we shared our dismay in watching the 2016 campaign. I said that to my knowledge, there had never been anything like it, never a candidate like Trump. He concurred, and of course from the perspective of a scholar who, unlike an opinion blogger like myself, actually can back up his assessment with a lifetime study of the presidency. I’m privileged to live in the same community and to have him as an acquaintance.
In significant ways, Donald Trump is very different than Ronald Reagan. Professor Leuchtenburg describes Reagan’s politics as “divisive”; Trump’s are polarizing. While being “grossly ill informed” relative to earlier presidents, Reagan had served as governor of our largest state. Trump has zero government experience, which makes him not merely ill informed but inexperienced and totally unprepared. Like Reagan, Trump is a performer who knows how to move and indeed manipulate a crowed, but unlike him he has shown himself to be an obsessive misogynistic and xenophobic narcissist. Also, while Reagan worked within a clear ideological framework and surrounded himself with experienced people, Trump seems to function with no such compass, relying on loyalists, some with no credentials for carrying out their assigned job. Perhaps most important, Reagan may have been a rightist ideologue, but was never mean spirited. His persona didn’t give license to the kind of audience hate speech that often was heard at Trump rallies nor did he give an essential White House role to the likes of the alt-right Steve Bannon. We know what Reagan did as president, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once he is sworn in on January 20. His actions since November 8 are hardly reassuring, in fact they point to our worst fears not our best hopes. His continued use of tweets, the latest to claim that absent millions of fraudulent ballots he would have won the popular are frightening. But we’ll have to wait and see.
Our first and still relatively primitive car “GPS” systems offered us less than perfect turn by turn directions from here to there. To say that the resulting trips were often circuitous, even torturous, would be an understatement. Following such directions once took me on an hour long drive to a destination I discovered upon arrival was just fifteen minutes away. The American story is very much like those circuitous road trips; the opposite of a straight line. More often than not, that means two steps forward and one back or even one step forward, two back. President Obama likes to refer to our democracy as “messy”. It can be very frustrating, even unnerving. Mirroring the human condition, it is complex not simple. We should keep that in mind when characterizing this past (or any) election and those who drove its perplexing outcome.
Trump voters, and indeed voters in general, are not a monolith. One vote can reflect current views and emotions, but long term it can’t change fundamental facts. For some, this election represented a white person’s rebellion against a change in our racial and ethnic balance – of who is in control – but it can’t alter demographics. Some voters may have expressed discomfort with growing secularization or marriage equality. That won’t alter the views or practices of the upcoming generation. Some – more than would admit – simply didn’t want a woman in the Oval Office. But that will come to pass, must come to pass. Some, as evidenced by a rise of hateful speech and actions, are simply bigots. They represent not only something reprehensible but also a real danger that dare not be underestimated or overlooked. It will present a test for the new president’s own identity and intent. Much, perhaps most, of the vote expressed frustration about the economic and social stalemate that has come to characterize their lives and, worse, spell a dismal outlook for their children’s future.
One thing is for certain. None of us, regardless of how we affiliate or how we voted, should either over read or under read the results. Warning signs were and are present for both Republicans and Democrats, for the right and the left. Whoever is up at bat, should understand that at present “all is not well in Mudville”. Victory parties and loss wakes should not be read as more than they are, another fleeting moment in time. Work will be required to repair our still imperfect union, step by often painful step. We’ve seen much in the past, ups and downs. Here we go again on another roller-coaster ride, but let’s not allow ourselves to be either complacent or cynical. What comes after this is not inevitable, but rather lies in our hands. If many like myself were deeply disappointed, indeed shocked, by the election results, I believe many of those who voted for Trump, who believed his unrealistic promises, are destined to be deeply disappointed by what is to come, what is not to come. We’ll have to find a way of coming together if we want to move forward.