The cliché of the 2016 campaign season is that Donald Trump is rewriting the rules of American politics, but he isn't. The history of the quadrennial contest is rich with multi-ballot conventions, slanderous mud-slinging and fratricidal party in-fighting, and more often than not they signal genuine political change.
Strictly speaking, Trump's candidacy most parallels that of the former Governor of New York, Theodore 'Rough Rider' Roosevelt. We will see very soon if Trump's supporters will split the party and storm out of a contested convention as T.R.'s did before the third-party 'Bull Moose' run, or if he can replicate the astonishing Republican landslide of 1904. Both these energetic, self-promoting easterners championed an acquisitive and anti-immigration 'Americanism' with surprisingly progressive calls for government activism.
But Trump's relationship to Ronald Reagan, the post-war candidate he most resembles, while obvious to some rank and file, is more nuanced and dimensional than to Teddy Roosevelt. There are big differences in policy, personality and philosophy between the two men; in many ways Trump is trying to undo the neo-con consensus Reagan ushered in.
Yet to change the party in his image, the 2016 front-runner is using a similar mix of political and leadership attributes it is worth comparing to better understand. So here we go.
1. Great Hair
Reagan and Trump share the larger-than-life personal brand the greatest and most fondly remembered US political figures have always cultivated, and in the age of television that begins with appearance. Remember, LBJ's Great Society changed America forever but JFK's smile originally fronted the package. In the same way, Reagan's (often witheringly funny) biographer Edmund Morris described him at seventy, thus:
'Broad as a surfboard and almost as hard, superbly balanced, glowing with health and handsome enough for a second career in the movies. Hair so dense and fine as to amount to a Marvel Comics helmet'.
Apparently Reagan's characteristic pompadour took decades off him, a trick that doesn't seem lost on Trump.
2. Great Communicators
Of course, this is only a flourish of the wider ability of both men to connect with audiences as career showmen. From silver screen to small screen, Reagan and Trump have mastered the medium of their time to 'huge' political effect. While Reagan moved from sports radio commentating to motion pictures, Trump has parlayed bit parts on the big screen and sporting events to prominence in reality television. And just at the time voters tired of the scripted 'one-to-many' speeches the former and Obama perfected, along comes the latter's unscripted, 24/7, interactive format to better convey the part. In both cases the medium is the message, and that is confidence and competence.
3. Great timing
Just as Reagan answered the retrenchment and perceived weakness of Jimmy Carter's Democratic administration at the end of the Seventies, so Trump has a generational opportunity to provide an optimistic alternative to Obama moving forward, promising better times ahead.
If he can do this- in a way Mitt Romney was unable to- he will renew the cycle of American politics with conservatism again in the driver's seat. Because just as Carter was the electorate's response to an unacceptable Republican in the disgraced Richard Nixon, Obama's election was also a backlash, against war and recession under George W Bush.
So Trump, like Reagan, could rebrand the GOP not only by replacing a defeatist Democrat but also the memory of the last unpopular Republican that paved the way for them.
4. Not a Southerner
Trump is not a Southerner. This obvious likeness would be unremarkable were it not for the fact he has been able to win solidly in the South in any case. Like Reagan, whose South Carolinian campaign manager Lee Atwater pioneered the GOP 'Southern Strategy' of winning over conservative southerners, neither rely on domicile below the Mason-Dixon Line for their popularity. Far from being a handicap, their common regional authenticity means Trump's New York directness is the campaigning analogue of Reagan's sunny California optimism, and contains national appeal.
5. Popular policies
So instead of the cut-glass constitutional conservatism of party creatures like Cruz or Palin, Reagan and Trump share a decades-long journey from vocally supporting the liberal democratic politics of their states only to side with the right-of-center nationally.
The result is a less ideological, more populist approach to policy which challenges party orthodoxy and vested interests; in Reagan's case this was the supply-side his future running-mate called 'Voodoo economics'. In Trump's it is reframing the trade argument. In both cases, the candidate is in personal control of policy.
All this means, in the words of the New York Post's guarded endorsement, that Trump is 'a potential superstar of vast promise'. And here's the thing: any situation that needs turning around requires strong leadership, but especially managing American politics, even aside from the mind-bending responsibility.
That's because the US Constitution creates alternate power bases outside the executive branch that most national leaders don't have to contend with: congressmen and senators elected independently of their leader and each other; the Supreme Court, raucous press and powerful lobbyists; even pols from the same party at the state and local level. It's a wonder anyone agrees to do it.
As so much has been written about the potential dangers of Trump, let's consider the potential upside of his leadership style: a professional manager smart enough to know what he does not, with a track record of surrounding himself with people who do; a non-partisan prepared to look at problems with an open mind and propose entrepreneurial solutions; and the stature, like Reagan, to use the 'bully pulpit' of the presidency to rouse ongoing public support to see his program through.
If awkward pols on The Hill aren't playing ball or break ranks for narrow reasons, I'm sure Trump will relish turning the evening news into an episode of 'The Apprentice' to knock some heads together, and so will the viewing public.
Finally, perhaps the way Trump most recalls Ronald Reagan is in the way they differ. Republican presidents and the conservative movement ever since owe their position, ultimately, to Reagan. George H W Bush won promising to uphold his legacy and his son only won with the name recognition that conferred. Even his detractors still mimic him. But paying lip service to the man the Weekly Standard called 'The Colossus' simply isn't enough to win any more.
Instead, Trump's poll numbers emanate from Reagan's technique of reformulating the GOP coalition to include middle-of-the-road voters, even if different times call for different solutions to make that happen. This is what he means by 'Common Sense Conservatism'.
As we enter the general election Trump will increasingly resemble Reagan in any case, for the same negative claims made against him: that he is an extremist, that the White House is no place for a low-brow entertainer, that he is too unpopular with too many. The revival of the US probably rests on how the people react to that view, just as they did some thirty-five years ago.
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