Many of Donald Trump’s supporters have compared him to Ronald Reagan. It is quite instructive that Trump himself picked up the 1980 Reagan campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Trump speaks positively of Ronald Reagan, and, like Reagan, claims to be a conservative.
“Of course Trump is a conservative,” writes a Trump enthusiast at Townhall. “Actually on the most important issues of the day, he’s the most conservative GOP Presidential candidate since Reagan.”
Many longtime Reagan conservatives beg to differ. The Trump comparisons make them bristle.
But if Trump insists he is a conservative, then it is incumbent upon him to do something that ought to be fairly simple: explain how and why he is a conservative. He should tell us—as Reagan often did—what conservatism means.
On this particular date, which happened to be Reagan’s 66th birthday, he acknowledged that conservatism is often described differently by “those who call themselves conservatives.” Nonetheless, differing claims by different people calling themselves “conservatives” does not mean that we cannot identify certain common conservative principles. To that end, Reagan stated:
The common sense and common decency of ordinary men and women, working out their own lives in their own way—this is the heart of American conservatism today. Conservative wisdom and principles are derived from willingness to learn, not just from what is going on now, but from what has happened before.
The principles of conservatism are sound because they are based on what men and women have discovered through experience in not just one generation or a dozen, but in all the combined experience of mankind. When we conservatives say that we know something about political affairs, and that we know can be stated as principles, we are saying that the principles we hold dear are those that have been found, through experience, to be ultimately beneficial for individuals, for families, for communities and for nations—found through the often bitter testing of pain or sacrifice and sorrow.
In that same speech to CPAC, Ronald Reagan enunciated a number of conservative principles and positions: freedom and liberty, free markets, religious freedom, constitutional rights and protections, anti-communism, smaller government, local government, individualism, voluntarism, communities, families, self-reliance, hard work, common sense, reason, faith in God. (In my book on Reagan conservatism, I distill 11 principles that I believe capture Reagan conservatism.) He called for a prudent and just government that spends money wisely and whose stewards act with integrity and honesty. Here, too: we need a nation comprised of outer order and inner order, a virtuous government that is the product of virtuous citizens.
And finally, Reagan told CPAC that the time had come “to present a program of action based on political principle that can attract those interested in the so-called ‘social’ issues and those interested in ‘economic’ issues.” He wanted a complete conservatism that combined the two core strands of contemporary American conservatism (the social and economic) into “one politically effective whole.”
There is no sense in Trump’s statement of any grounding let alone a rich or nuanced cognizance of conservative philosophy.
What’s worse, Trump gave that definition with a look of surprise and unpreparedness—with a deer-in-the-headlights look. That is worse because only two weeks prior he was asked the same question in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where his response was shockingly dismal. The candidate this time should have been equipped to give a better answer.
Trump’s “definition” is, in short, anything but a picture of conservatism. To the contrary, what you just read is a picture of a non-conservative exploiting a conservative movement in order to try his hand at getting elected president via the Republican Party—the party of Reagan conservatism.
This definition from Trump is confusing, incoherent, and incomprehensible, and it is a vindication of legitimate concerns by true conservatives that Donald Trump as the GOP’s new standard-bearer is poised to do enduring damage to the modern conservative movement that Ronald Reagan did so much to advance.
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