Opinion

How Reagan was more FDR than Trump — and why that matters for the GOP's future

The story you know is wrong, or at least very incomplete

You all know the story: Liberalism dominated American politics without serious challenge from the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932 through 1980, when Ronald Reagan led an ascendant conservative movement on a successful drive to wrest power away from the center-left. For the next 36 years, conservatives set the boundaries of the possible in Washington, forcing one Democratic president (Bill Clinton) to consolidate the Reagan Revolution and hemming in another (Barack Obama) after he dared to champion an ambitious health-care reform bill during the first two of his eight years in office.

That story is familiar because it gets a lot of things right. But it gets one big thing wrong: Reagan was a liberal.

A right-leaning liberal, yes. But a liberal all the same. We can see this now, not only because of the clarity conferred by hindsight, but also because over the past 14 years Reagan's GOP has been in the process of turning itself into an antiliberal party.

Former President Donald Trump is a big part of that story, but the transformation began before him, and it is continuing alongside but also independently of him now that he's out of office. Whether or not Trump runs and wins the Republican nomination again in 2024, the GOP has left liberalism behind — and with it, Reagan and his most admirable legacy.  

Reagan's liberalism was hard to see at the time precisely because the left-leaning liberal consensus was so strong and the ideological differences between the parties so muddled. In addition to launching and then expanding the American welfare state, Democrats waged World War II and the Cold War, and sometimes, the case of John F. Kennedy, cut taxes. Republicans consolidated the liberal expansion of the federal government, and sometimes, in the case of Richard Nixon, expanded it further, while also opening diplomatic relations with China and doing more than any Democratic president to normalize relations with the Soviet Union.  

That context made Reagan's policy priorities seem like extreme conservatism. The former actor began his engagement with politics in the 1960s as a Goldwater Republican, belligerently anticommunist. By the time he arrived in the White House, in the wake of the 60s antiwar movement and the demoralizing aftermath of America's defeat in Vietnam, his outspoken hostility for the Soviet Union made him sound, to many Carter-era liberals, like a reactionary warmonger. But Reagan's idealistic and hawkish anticommunism placed him firmly in a tradition that traced back to the Democratic presidencies of Harry Truman and Kennedy — and it anticipated the enthusiasm for humanitarian military intervention that swept the international center-left during the 1990s.

As for domestic policy, Reagan was staunchly opposed to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society social programs (especially the advent of Medicare) when he entered California politics. In the White House, he oversaw sharp cuts in income tax rates. But the welfare state's rate of expansion merely slowed over the course of the 1980s (in part because of declining inflation). It was not turned back.

Reagan's "conservatism" thus amounted to taking the foot off the gas of government growth, not slamming on the brakes — let alone throwing it into reverse. The administration also proudly championed immigration and free trade. It did so both as a spur to economic growth and as an expression of its commitment to openness and moral universalism. Reagan genuinely believed all human beings long for liberty — and that, once freed from the yoke of tyranny, they would choose to embrace democratic self-government and modestly regulated free-market capitalism as the best of all possible political and economic arrangements.

That made Reagan a liberal. Not a progressive, of course, and also not someone who explicitly embraced the significant changes to American life wrought by the counterculture of the 60s. Instead, Reagan championed bourgeois norms and restraints. (In his personal life, as the first divorced and remarried president in American history, the story was more complicated.) It's also true that he welcomed into his electoral coalition the nascent religious right and even more extreme reactionary dissenters from mainstream politics and culture. But these groups were very much junior partners in that coalition. What dominated was an idealistic liberalism of the center-right.

This remained true, with some variation, through the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations, even as elements within the party — especially in Congress after Republicans took control of the House in 1994 — began to express more strident views. But an intense grassroots craving for a more culturally populist and combative style of politics only really began to transform the party in an undeniably antiliberal direction once the Reaganite liberal John McCain tapped Sarah Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska, as his running mate in 2008.

Palin gave Republican voters a sassy, down-market, trash-talking alternative to the high-minded idealism that had dominated the party since 1980, and they ate it up. That began a transformation which continues to this day.

First there was the Tea Party, an angry, antiestablishment protest of the Obama administration's push to pass the Affordable Care Act, and its wave of electoral success in the 2010 midterms. Then, in 2012, GOP primary voters showed surprising enthusiasm for a series of populist protest candidates — Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich — before finally settling on the consensus nomination of Mitt Romney, the last of the Reaganite liberals to get a shot at winning the White House.

After Romney's failure to defeat Obama's bid for re-election that year, grassroots anger deepened on the right. Trump captured that anger and begin augmenting it from the moment he launched his candidacy in the summer of 2015. After more than three decades of serving as junior partners in the party's electoral coalition, Republicans (as well as disaffected Democrats and independents) who dissented from — or even resented and despised — liberalism in all of its political and cultural manifestations had found a champion.

More than a dozen alternatives to Trump in the 2016 primaries tried to meld Reaganite themes with expressions of antiestablishment resentment, but a plurality of the voters opted for the purer expression of populist antiliberalism that spewed effortlessly from the mouth of the demagogic billionaire conman. By the time Trump had beaten back every effort by the old center-right liberal establishment to deny him the GOP nomination and an eventual victory against Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Republican Party had been irrevocably altered.

Trump has often claimed the mantle of Reagan for himself, just as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) attempted to elide the differences between the 40th and 45th presidents in a recent speech (at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library no less). But all such efforts amount to obfuscation.

The contrasts between Reagan and Trump are stark and unbridgeable. Where Reagan spoke of America as a confident beacon of liberty and self-government for all people yearning to rid themselves of tyranny, Trump openly admires dictators and regularly portrays the country as beset by a litany of potentially disastrous problems that he alone can fix. Where Reagan took pride in America's ability to attract and assimilate immigrants from around the world, Trump treats outsiders as a dangerous threat to the nation who must be kept out with walls and brutalizing policies. Where Reagan had faith in the power of free markets to benefit people everywhere, Trump views them with suspicion and treats interactions among nations as zero-sum contests in which Americans often lose out.

Then there are the myriad ways in which Trump (along with his stylistic progeny at all levels of the party) diverges so thoroughly from Reaganite liberalism that setting up one-to-one contrasts fails to capture the magnitude of the change. Trump displays thoroughgoing contempt for the rule of law. He deliberately spreads civically corrosive lies, even when it incites violence against core institutions of American democracy. He demonizes the free press, calling journalists "enemies of the people." Some of his closest advisers aim to "deconstruct the administrative state," including replacing much of the nonpartisan career civil service with political appointees personally loyal to the president.

Put it all together and we're left with a flagrantly antiliberal form of politics that breaks decisively from Reagan — and indeed from the politics practiced by every American president since at least FDR. That's why the longstanding tendency to separate the Reagan era from the one preceding it needs to be rethought. The real (or at least much bigger) disjunct comes in 2016, not 1980.  

Those wondering about the moral and political character of Republican future need look no further than the provision recently attached to several abortion-related bills in Missouri's legislature by state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a tenaciously pro-life Republican. Building on the unorthodox "bounty-hunter" provision of Texas' six-week abortion ban, which encourages private enforcement of the law by empowering civilians to file lawsuits against anyone thought to violate it, the Missouri provision would allow lawsuits against anyone crossing (or helping others to cross) state lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion.

It's true that every Republican president since Reagan has supported overturning Roe v. Wade, which would return abortion policymaking to the states (where it stood until 1973), and appointed Supreme Court justices to achieve that goal. But now that the high court appears on the verge of doing precisely that, at least some in the post-Reagan GOP aim to push much further — to infringe the freedom of interstate travel and effectively gut the jurisprudence of federalism, which denies the legitimacy of extraterritorial criminal law. (Only federal law can apply beyond the bounds of any single state.)

How will the courts ultimately respond to what would be an alarming assault on individual freedom? As we learned last week, the Texas law has survived legal challenge. There's reason to hope Coleman and her cheerleaders in Missouri and around the country will be disappointed. But the truth is we just don't know. The approach she's taking  — and that others in a series of red states are bound to follow if Roe is overturned — is so boldly and chillingly novel that we can't yet be sure what their fate will be.

What we can know is that something in American politics, and specifically in the Republican Party, has changed. The center-right liberal party of Ronald Reagan has become the antiliberal right-wing populist party of Donald Trump and his imitators. That's something all liberty-loving Americans, of any ideological variety, have cause to lament — and to fear.

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