New Conservatism: Trump and Reagan
“Make America Great Again”. Now made largely infamous by Trump and his supporters, this slogan was used previously by former governor of California turned 40th president of the United States Ronald Reagan. Of all the past presidents Trump has been compared to, Reagan must be at the top of the list. Known for his tax plan and standing up to the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, many Republicans consider Reagan to be one of the greatest presidents that the United States has ever had. While Reagan and Trump differed greatly in their views of how the country should be run, Reagan seems to agree with Trump in many key conservative areas, including tax cuts, abortion, and defense.
However, while the domestic policies of these two conservative leaders almost seem to mirror each other, their foreign policy is extremely different.
When Trump campaigned during the 2016 presidential election, he made a number of promises that ignited the fires of conservatives across America. By presenting himself as a staunch opponent of abortion, a disbeliever in financial regulation, a proponent of increasing military spending, and a supporter of religion in the public sector, Trump seems to have triggered memories of Reagan among many members of the Republican party. The slogan couldn’t have hurt in reviving those memories, either.
And why not? Like Trump, Reagan was also a strong supporter of banning abortion and promoting religion. In fact, Reagan even advocated for an amendment to the Constitution that would make abortion illegal and another that would permit organized prayer in public schools. Similarly, Trump recently signed an executive order that is designed to allow greater influence for religious institutions in politics. The order was criticized by both sides of the political spectrum, with religious conservatives calling it “disappointingly vague”, and the American Civil Liberties Union claiming the signing was “an elaborate photo-op with no discernable policy outcome”. While the executive order may be just a PR move by the Trump administration to appease his supporters among the religious right, the intention of strengthening the political power of religious institutions remains. This is a step further than what Reagan intended with his public school prayer amendment. Reagan simply wished to “restore the simple freedom of our citizens to offer prayer in public schools and institutions”. In other words, his amendment would have given schools the option of conducting a prayer to start the day, but no student would be forced to participate if they didn’t want to. Trump’s executive order, which had been dialed back significantly from the version leaked in February, is intended to loosen the restrictions on churches and other religious institutions becoming more involved in politics through lobbying and advocacy. In my opinion, this is a much more egregious violation of the separation of church and state than Reagan’s proposal.
The economic policy of the two Republican presidents also bear similarities that excite the voting base of the Grand Old Party. Reagan was famous for his supply side economic policy, dubbed “Reaganomics”, which was characterized by aggressive tax cuts for the rich and reduced government spending. To implement these policies, Reagan cut the income tax rate of the highest income tax bracket from 70% to 28% and the corporate tax rate from 48% to 34%. If those tax cuts sound familiar to you, it’s because Trump has proposed a plan in a similar vein. According to a report published by the Tax Policy Center, Trump’s tax plan will greatly benefit the rich if it’s approved, but few others. Trump’s proposed plan would collapse the current seven tax brackets into just 3 (12, 25, and 35 percent), while also lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% down to 20%. Like Reagan, Trump has argued that his tax plan will help middle and low income Americans the most, but the results of Reagan’s plan and the preliminary analysis of Trump’s seem to tell a different story. According to the analysis done by the TPC, “Taxpayers in the top 1 percent (incomes above $730,000), would receive about 50 percent of the total tax benefit; their after-tax income would increase an average of 8.5 percent”, while the after-tax income for all other groups would fall.
However, where Reagan cut government spending in some sectors, such as food stamps, school lunch programs, and low-income housing, he increased spending in the defense sector by 35%. Reagan may have cut overall government spending by $39 billion while he was in office, but with the increase in defense spending annual government spending actually increased by 2.5%, and the national debt doubled while he was president. Similarly, Trump has stated that he wishes to increase the size and strength of the American military, but his tax plan would cut government revenue by $2.4 trillion in the first decade and $3.2 trillion over the next. Increasing government spending while decreasing tax revenue this drastically will undoubtedly increase the national debt drastically, creating yet another parallel between Trump and Reagan.
While Trump and Reagan seem to have mirrored each other in terms of economic and social policies, their foreign policies appear to be radically different. One of the primary rallying calls of Trump and his supporters is “America First”. They are only concerned about what is best for the United States, regardless of how it would affect other countries. Whether it’s withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership, renegotiating NAFTA, or calling for higher trade barriers in the country, Trump has shown that his policies are aimed specifically at promoting and protecting American businesses. Reagan implemented some protectionist measures himself, but the 40th president of the United States would never have called for the country to go it alone. If you were to attribute Trump’s “America First” slogan to Reagan’s foreign policy, you would think the slogan meant America was first to counter the Soviet Union instead of America putting its own interests ahead of everyone else.
Conservatives prop Reagan up as an uncompromising, tough president who would never back down from a fight, and seem to see the same qualities in Trump, but the reality is that Reagan tried to avoid conflict whenever he could. According to an article by Peter Beinart for Foreign Policy, “Today’s conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America’s enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success”. For all the money Reagan spent on the military, he only engaged in two wars; a ground war in Grenada that lasted two days, and an air war in Libya in 1986 that was even briefer than the one in Grenada. Where Trump seems eager to flex his strength around the world (airstrikes in Syria, raids in Yemen and Nigeria, exchanging inflammatory rhetoric with North Korea, etc), Reagan was reluctant to use force to solve his problems. Although the Republican Party was eager to oust the Sandinista governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Reagan refused to send troops into either country, especially once it was suggested that ousting the communists in South America might require bombing Cuba as well. According to a White House aide at the time, the suggestion “scared the shit out of Reagan” and the man who suggested it, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, was marginalized afterwards and eventually resigned. In contrast, Trump has all but rejected diplomacy with the regime of North Korea, even going as far as to say his Secretary of State is “wasting his time” when it comes to negotiating with Kim Jong Un’s government. Republicans may be able to draw some comparisons between Trump and Reagan, but in regards to how each president demonstrated American leadership to the world, the two could not be any more different.
“Reagan Proposes School Prayer Amendment”, New York Times, Published May 1982, last accessed online October 2017 http://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/18/us/reagan-proposes-school-prayer-amendment.html
John Wagner and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Trump signs order seeking to allow churches to engage in more political activity”, Published May 2017
“President Ronald Reagan’s Economic Policies: How Reagan Ended the 1980 Recession”, The Balance, accessed October 2017 https://www.thebalance.com/president-ronald-reagan-s-economic-policies-3305568
TPC Staff, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Unified Framework”, Tax Policy Center, published October 27, 2017 http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/sites/default/files/publication/144971/a-preliminary-analysis-of-the-unified-framework_2.pdf
Peter Beinart, “Think Again: Ronald Reagan”, Foreign Policy, June 7th, 2010 http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/07/think-again-ronald-reagan/
Martin Pengelly, Ed Pilkington, Tom Phillips, and Justin McCurry, “Trump Says Rex Tillerson ‘Wasting His Time’ with North Korea Negotiations”, The Guardian, October 1 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/01/donald-trump-rex-tillerson-north-korea-time-wasting