The Reagans shows the roots of America's individualism problem

They put conservatism on the path that would ultimately give us President Trump

The Reagans.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Images, iStock)

As president, Donald Trump has had a bizarre habit of comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln. But Ronald Reagan is probably the much better example for understanding Trump's rise to power and how he has governed. That's the implicit message of Showtime's four-part series, The Reagans, concluding Sunday night. Though neither Trump's name nor image appear in any of the four hour-long episodes, the series sets up clear parallels between the two men and their presidencies, a theme acknowledged by most of the major coverage of the show.

On the surface, Reagan's sunny disposition and boundless optimism couldn't be a starker contrast from Trump's vision of "American carnage." But as The Reagans, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, suggests, Reagan's career path from Hollywood celebrity to Commander in Chief — his campaign slogan "Let's make America great again," his emphasis on law and order politics, his slashing of government regulations, his cozying up to the religious right, and his appeals to white racists through dog whistles about "states' rights" and "welfare queens" — all feels frighteningly familiar in the Trump era, even if Trump has never limited himself to just coded language.

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Neil J. Young

Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He writes frequently on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.