By Larry Schweikart
Many in the conservative movement over the past 40 years have longed for another Reagan. Indeed, for years there was an overt effort to preach to conservatives to stop looking for “the next Reagan.” Every election, Republicans were lined-up against the Gipper: Will they be Reagan enough?
Donald Trump’s entry into the political world shocked everyone, to say the least. But of all the things he has done, assuming the mantle of Dutch is probably the most surprising. In so many ways, Trump is nothing like the Gipper. He can be openly vulgar or profane. His speeches, while effective, lack the eloquence of the Great Communicator. Certainly Trump’s sense of humor is nothing like that of Reagan, who could brush off a slight with a self-deprecating joke that actually made the critic look bad. After his recovery from the assassination attempt, Reagan won near universal admiration—after Trump beat the China Virus, his opponents audibly groaned.
In terms of governance, it appeared Reagan was better at persuading Democrats and recalcitrant members of his own party to join in and pull on the rope. And without question, Reagan had more traditional party personnel ready and willing to serve in various administration positions than Trump could have hoped for.
And yet . . .
The two men have far more in common than certainly the Reaganophiles would ever admit, as I show in my biography of Dutch called Reagan: The American President:
Age: Both were of similar age at the time of their election—Reagan 69, Trump 70. The Gipper was tagged with lacking energy and said to need a nap, yet insiders who traveled with him marveled at his energy and stamina and his love for physical work on the ranch. Trump, of course, sleeps only a few hours a night and is the Energizer Bunny of politics.
Divorced: Both men were divorced, Trump twice. Both were known as ladies’ men. After his divorce from Jane Wyman, Reagan was at one time reported to be dating more than a dozen top Hollywood starlets.
Path to the Presidency: Lou Cannon, one of Reagan’s biographers, wrote “No other president ever reached the White House by the road that Ronald Reagan traveled, and the path he traveled is no longer there.” (Raises hand) “Excuse me, Lou, but Trump traveled a very similar path.” Both, for most of their lives, were something other than a politician. Both spent time in show business. Both were in, or worked with, labor unions.
Showbiz: Both Reagan and Trump had a strong show business background. Obviously, Reagan’s was in movies more than television, though he did host General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days. Trump, of course, was the star of The Apprentice. In other ways, however, Trump was on the cusp of show business a great deal, whether his cameo in Home Alone 2, his appearances at WWF events or his role in beauty pageants. Both men intuitively knew the power of image, the power of stagecraft, and the importance of reaching ordinary people—not elites who were owned by outside interests.
Revolutionary Means of Communicating to the Public: I often noted to people who questioned me about Trump’s tweets that Abraham Lincoln is revered as a fantastic communicator—but that’s only because we didn’t hear him speak. He had a high, screechy voice that undoubtedly was not pleasant. Yet we think of him as a gifted orator because his written speeches are beyond compare. Lincoln could not make it in today’s politics. In addition to his voice, he was anything but photogenic. He had neither a face for TV nor a voice for radio. But he had that charisma in person—which in the 1860s was precisely what was needed. Think, however, about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who probably after Lincoln was the next in line to be lauded for his communication skills. Roosevelt had what Lincoln lacked: a honey-dripping voice that was perfect for radio of the 1930s. What FDR did not have was the visuals to go with it. He was either in a wheelchair or using arm braces due to his waist-down paralysis from a bought with polio. But when it came to radio? He was the master. Reagan arrived at a time that radio was passé and television was the central form of political communication—and he was perfect for television. Reagan obviously had good looks, but he also had a near-photographic memory that allowed him to look at the camera, not the teleprompter, when speaking. His delivery was honed by decades of work in show business to make his timing (especially of his jokes) perfect.
More important, though, Reagan rose in a time when there were only three major television networks. While certainly they had a liberal bias, in those days anchors and reporters hid their bias for the most part (Sam Donaldson excluded.) The President was the President—his speeches were carried without interruption. There were no panels of talking heads beforehand telling you how stupid the address that was coming was going to be, or a panel afterwards calling the President a liar. Compared to current coverage, they were downright reverent. This played totally to Reagan’s strengths. He would build a case, inject some jokes to break the seriousness, and always, always, always offer an uplifting view of America.
Trump’s style of communication fits the era he is in. Politics is far more brutal. There is no reverence for the President, unless it was the Great Messiah Barack Obama. Reporters are rude and crude in their questions, and networks routinely fail to cover major Trump speeches, labeling them “campaign rallies.”
Rarely did the Gipper’s communication skills fail him, but his first Iran-Contra speech and his plea for aid to the Nicaraguan Contras were two examples where they did. Trump, on the other hand, found that he had to make an end run around the media just as Reagan had used the media to make an end run around the media itself by going straight to the people in his addresses. Trump’s tweets are a lifeline that could, for the most part, not be diluted or colored until, finally, in 2020 Twitter began to censor his tweets outright. More important, Trump far more than Reagan understands the power of free media, especially in his 2016 campaign. Bad press is better than no press the old showbiz saying goes. Trump got that.
As Joel Pollak and I pointed out in our 2017 book How Trump Won, the rallies were badly misunderstood. They not only bolstered the faithful but provided an enlistment ground for election workers and callers. The media also was local and regional, allowing Trump to make an end run around national media by getting local media to cover some of his rallies.
Underestimated: Throughout their careers, both were regularly underestimated. Both played on that factor.
Other: Finally, both were strongly supported by the religious and evangelical communities, both won surprisingly easy victories in their primaries, both had to deal with a special prosecutor. Above all, both loved America and saw the United States as having a special place in the world.
Whether or not the similarities are broken because of Trump’s failure to win re-election, remains to be seen. But if you’re looking for the 21st Century Ronald Reagan? Look no further than Orange Man.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States; author of Reagan: The American President, and founder of the Wild World of History, an online history curriculum with complete U.S. and World curricula for grades 9-12 that includes teacher’s guide, student workbooks, maps/graphs/charts, tests and answer keys, and video lessons for all units.