Whatever else happens during the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one thing is certain: Candidates will claim to be like America’s 40th president. The competition to show who most resembles Reagan has become a ritualized part of the GOP-nominating process. Many people have drawn comparisons between the man known as The Donald and the man never known as The Ronald—starting with Trump himself, who adapted Reagan’s 1980 slogan “Let’s make America great again.” Like Reagan, Trump is a former Democrat and a one-time TV star, whom the media initially dismissed as having little chance of reaching the White House.
But there is a more significant parallel that has gone unnoticed: Trump is running on essentially the same message as Reagan. Reagan insisted that America’s problems were not as complicated or intractable as everyone seemed to think. “For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to the complex problems which are beyond our comprehension,” Reagan said at his 1967 inauguration as governor of California. “Well, the truth is, there are simple answers—there are not easy ones.” He made a similar statement in his famous 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, and he never wavered from it. The simple answer was to be tough—tough on cutting the budget, tough on domestic protesters, and above all, tough on the world stage. Reagan’s 1980 foreign-policy slogan promised “peace through strength.” He told audiences, “We have to be so strong that no nation in the world will dare lift a hand against us.” One Reagan campaign ad used the word “strength” or “strong” five times in the space of one minute.