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.
Trump is proposing a comparable strategy. His suggested immigration policy—deport everyone who came to the U.S. illegally, build a wall on the southern border, and make Mexico pay for the wall—has garnered the most attention, but his other ideas follow a similar template. How to deal with ISIS? “You bomb the hell out of them,” then encircle them and take away the oil they control, he told Bill O’Reilly and Anderson Cooper in two separate interviews. “Once you take that oil, they have nothing left. And it’s so simple.” As far as manufacturing jobs going overseas, Trump used a hypothetical example of Ford threatening to build a plant in Mexico and promised he would put a 35 percent tariff on any Ford vehicle brought into the U.S. “It’s that simple,” he told a crowd in New Hampshire. “Believe me.” And on economic competition with China: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China, in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
Critics have charged that Trump’s message is too simple—that it’s foolish and unrealistic. But he refuses to entertain that possibility. When a Washington Post reporter asked him recently if he had encountered any campaign issue that turned out to be more complex than he initially thought, he wouldn’t take the bait. “This is not complicated, believe me,” Trump maintained. Similarly, in 1980, the Carter camp accused Reagan of having a “terribly simplistic view of the world” and espousing “simple-minded theories.”
Reagan was undeterred. On the stump, he continued to offer straightforward prescriptions for inflation and the oil crisis, the two major economic problems facing U.S. consumers. “Government causes inflation,” Reagan said. “We’ve got to make government make it go away,” by cutting taxes, reducing spending, and deregulating business (this would also reduce unemployment, Reagan argued). When asked about energy, he quipped, “Does it take a genius to figure out that the answer to our having all we need and no more being dependent on OPEC is to turn the energy industry loose to produce all the natural oil and the natural gas that is to be found here?”
The message—that simple solutions exist, but other leaders lack the strong will to implement them—was a central aspect of Reagan’s appeal and is key to understanding the Trump phenomenon. But in the long term it won’t pay off for Trump as it did for Reagan because of two major differences between the 1980 election and the 2016 election: the opposing candidates and the voters’ mood.
Reagan’s message worked beautifully against Jimmy Carter in 1980 because it drew on their differences. Carter’s speeches as president emphasized that there were no simple solutions—restoring America’s confidence and prosperity, he said, would take years of hard work and sacrifice (most memorably, he told people to turn down their thermostats and drive less). It was very refreshing for voters to hear someone saying the opposite. It was also easy for Reagan to paint Carter as weak and vacillating. Carter appeared utterly powerless to resolve the Iran hostage crisis, and his pursuit of Cold War detente had been undermined by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Despite Carter’s distinguished Navy career, even his personal image exuded weakness, as exemplified by the media’s fixation on how a “killer rabbit” had startled him on a 1979 fishing trip.
Donald Trump is trying the same tactic, deploying an arsenal of colorful insults against his opponents. But while Jeb Bush has played into Trump’s hands with his inability to give clear answers to questions about immigration and the Iraq War, most of the other Republican candidates mirror Trump’s tough-guy approach, advocating a strong, interventionist military and a hard-line policy on immigration.
And in the event that Trump wins the Republican nomination, he will have a hard time convincing independents and Democrats that the hawkish Hillary Clinton (assuming she is the Democratic nominee) is weak on defense. Attempting to outflank her, or his Republican primary opponents, on the issue of military power exposes Trump to a risk that Reagan was determined to avoid: coming off as a dangerous madman.
Reagan worried that, like his ideological forebear Barry Goldwater, he had an image as “trigger happy,” and he worked hard to change that. But if Trump tries to dial back his confrontational rhetoric—and he may be doing so, based on his non-response to a recent interview question about potential Chinese aggression—he risks alienating the voters who find his tough talk appealing. He’d be taking the same foreign-policy stance as his Republican opponents, except with no credentials to back it up.
And even if Trump were running against a Jimmy Carter, his task would be much harder than Reagan’s, for in 1980 the public’s mood verged on desperation. Events in Iran and Afghanistan dealt a serious blow to the confidence and pride of a supposed superpower still reeling from the humiliation of leaving Vietnam to the communists. Of even greater concern to most voters, the economy was in shambles, with real GDP shrinking at an alarming rate and inflation soaring to nearly 15 percent (the highest figure since the aftermath of World War II). As a candidate in 1976, Jimmy Carter had popularized the term “misery index,” the sum of the unemployment rate and inflation rate, as a measure of the economy’s health. It exceeded 13 in 1976, and Carter argued that Gerald Ford, having presided over such a dismal economy, didn’t deserve to return to The White House. In 1980, however, the misery index reached almost 21, and Reagan made sure to remind Carter of his earlier comment.
Some people would argue that the U.S. is in equally bad shape today as in 1979-1980. A recent poll found that 86 percent of Republican voters believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to 67 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats. In a dire situation, voters will take a chance on someone they might otherwise consider too dangerous or extreme, as they did with Reagan. But in 2015, the misery index is under 6, and experts predict that come Election Day, voters will be feeling more optimistic about the economy than they have for years.
Few independents or Democrats will be willing to roll the dice on Trump. They probably won’t have that chance anyway, because although Trump is delivering Reagan’s message, he is unlike Reagan in several ways that will make it hard for him to capture the Republican nomination. Reagan had a consistent ideology that was completely in step with his party’s base. He had extensive political experience as a two-term governor of California. And he was a polished speaker who avoided gaffes expertly. Trump lacks the conservative credentials, the experience, and seemingly the ability to control what comes out of his mouth. The road from the debate in California to next summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland is a long one, and those deficits are likely to catch up with him.