Trump vs. Reagan (Part 1): Two Strands of Conservatism Separated by a lot More Than Just Time
We might start this week with that comparison: Ronald Reagan was incredibly decent to people who thought differently than he did. He didn’t castigate them with nasty aspersions. It was common to hear Reagan charitably say of liberals, “Well, they’re just confused.” He himself had once been a liberal (as had Trump, who still may be one), and thus often gave liberals the benefit of the doubt, or at least didn’t lambaste them, even when they thoroughly deserved it. The worst language that Reagan employed came in the service of repudiating something truly vicious that required his strongest moral approbation, such as referring to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” to communism as a “disease,” or to the Chinese leadership under Mao as “a bunch of murdering bums.”
The only occasion I know of on which Reagan denounced opponents as “liars” and “cheaters” was not toward the likes of fellow Republicans (as Trump does daily), but to party apparatchiks in the Kremlin. In Reagan’s very first press conference, he smiled and calmly explained to the Washington press corps that the Soviet leadership had “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat…” He said that the Soviets considered their relativistic behavior “moral, not immoral.”
The point here is that Ronald Reagan directed those harsh words at targets that fully earned them. Donald Trump has fired off such language at a long line of genuinely good men and women on the conservative side, some of them the best and brightest of a movement that Trump had never been a part of until this campaign.
Reagan called communists liars and cheaters. Donald Trump calls conservatives like Ted Cruz liars and cheaters.
That is just one comparison of many I will make in this column in coming weeks. Donald Trump’s candidacy and status as the presumptive Republican nominee—and, more so, his claims to be a conservative—represent a huge teachable moment for conservatives, especially for Reagan conservatives. It is a moment that must be seized.
To that end, I will follow up next week with a good starting point: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump providing their definitions of conservatism.
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