Like many people who don’t inhabit the alternative universe known as 21st century American conservatism, I have been cogitating a lot about why Donald Trump has sustained his popularity among those who affiliate with the Republican Party. After poring over a list of his stands on and approaches to the issues, his background, his attitudes towards politics, his demeanor, speaking style and other pertinent aspects of his candidacy, the answer hit me with the strength of an epiphany.
Donald Trump is popular because he is just like Ronald Reagan in all significant ways, except for one: Reagan spoke with a smile of hope, whereas Trump prefers a frown of angry fear.
Let’s take a look at the many ways Trump resembles Reagan. Trump is still active, but I’ll make my comparisons in the past tense for ease of reading:
Both served as omniscient hosts for television shows. Before TV, both had mediocre careers, Reagan as a B movie actor and Trump as a real estate developer who sent properties into bankruptcy multiple times, lost billions of his investors’ dollars, and achieved a net worth about half of what it would have been if he had passively invested the hundreds of millions he inherited from his father into stocks.
Both started as progressives, but then moved far right before beginning their political career. Both campaigned as anti-establishment, anti-government outsiders, cultivating dissatisfied and resentful voters who were convinced someone or something had taken away their birthright, a group comprising to a large degree whites without a college education who voted the Democratic Party line before 1980.
Both were divorced, non-observant secularists with what some might label amoral pasts who nevertheless found lots of support among very religious Christians.
The economic platform of both depended on lowering taxes and removing government regulations to transfer wealth and income from the middle and lower classes up the socio-economic ladder to the rich and super-rich.
Both supported building up our armed forces and advocated a robust use of the military to resolve foreign conflicts and prosecute foreign policy. Both articulated foreign policy stands with bluster.
Both painted a vision of America based on a mythical past and declared confidently that he would return the country to those halcyon days.
Both demonized innocent groups and turned perceived enemies into one-sided all-evil comic book villains. Both appealed to our worst natures in matters involving race and charity for the poor. One minor difference here that reflects our loss of civility in the public sector—Reagan would always talk in polite, a well-understood code, such as “welfare queens,” whereas Trump mixes code with vulgar explicitness.
Neither was a master, or even an apprentice, of the everyday details of developing and pursuing policies, preferring to talk about and consider only the larger picture.
Although one cultivated a westerner’s demeanor and the other thought he epitomized the Big Apple, both were old-fashioned, town-and-country, meat-and-potatoes, American songbook types who reflected a pre-rock-and-roll mentality and zeitgeist, one in which women play an inherently inferior role. Neither gave a hint of enjoying intellectual pursuits. Both artificially processed their hair to appear younger.
Both tended to make their points using anecdotes instead of facts. Both proved to be quite able to fabricate realistic-sounding lies to support their views. Neither ever backed down from a lie once told, and often doubled-down by insisting on the veracity of his false statements. Consider the similarities between Reagan’s denials on the Iran-Contra scandal and Trump insisting that thousands in New Jersey cheered on rooftops as the Twin Towers toppled on 9/11.
The one salient difference between The Gipper and The Donald is that Reagan delivered his messages with a smile that told us that he was confident about the future. Reagan spoke optimistically about the glorious, limitless utopia in store for the country upon his election, which contrasted with four years of Jimmy Carter’s sour wailing about how bad things were. Now it’s Trump who is bemoaning the present, but instead of whining as the cartoonish media image of Carter did, Trump bellows aggressively, shows his teeth and brandishes his bloodlust, much as Segismundo in Calderón’s classic drama “Life is a Dream.” Interestingly enough, every Republican candidate is painting a similarly dire picture of the U.S. economy and society in alarmist terms that makes it seem as if we are on the verge of a complete collapse and invasion.
Facial expression aside, though, Trump is heir to the Reagan mantle. But times have changed. Conditions have worsened for most Americans, thanks in whole to the policies that Reagan advocated.
Trump’s bellicose sky-is-falling approach matches our anxious zeitgeist. Trump feeds off the panic felt by several groups: by evangelicals as they see the country accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion; by blue collar whites as they see manufacturing jobs continue to disappear and the ones that still exist generate less purchasing power than before; by nativists and racists who fear immigrants and minorities are taking over the country and that the government is giving away their hard earned dollars to support those they believe to be inferior; by gun owners fearful of a coming wave of gun control ordinances as Americans grow tired of gun deaths and injuries. Overriding all these anxieties is the fear felt by most Americans of another terror attack, which has caused some to become xenophobic and anti-Islam.
Thus, when Donald Trump speaks to his supporters, who years ago formed the core of Ronald Reagan’s constituency, all The Donald does is turn the Reagan smile upside down and makes it a frown.