As the Republican Party and the American Right at large begin the inevitable soul-searching phase after Donald Trump’s departure, some are foolishly returning to the notion that the past holds the key to our political future. But this hopeless effort to return to an idealized past is just an attempt to avoid an inevitable future.
For 30 years, one name was virtually synonymous with the Republican Party: Ronald Wilson Reagan. For three decades, a sizable portion of Republican voters, and certainly a majority of conservative “scholars,” “experts,” and “thinkers,” considered President Reagan to be the physical embodiment of everything it means to be a “conservative.”
As a result of Reagan’s enduring, if not somewhat artificially extended popularity, every GOP presidential primary season from 1988 to 2012 consisted of a would-be Spartacus routine, wherein just about every candidate would declare, “I am Ronald Reagan!”
But all of that came to a grinding halt when, in 2016, one candidate dared to declare instead: “I’m not Ronald Reagan. I’m Donald Trump. Deal with it.”
Surpassing an Idol
The memory of Ronald Reagan has most recently been used as a cudgel with which to attack President Trump, with claims that the 45th president was somehow “insufficiently conservative.”
Never mind, of course, that President Trump in many ways surpassed President Reagan for the title of the most conservative president in history, at least by most objective standards. He certainly can claim the title of the most pro-life president in recent memory; unlike Reagan, President Trump actually addressed the Annual March for Life in person in 2020, becoming the first sitting president to do so. And his words were backed up with numerous actions, with his Department of Health and Human Services implementing numerous measures to protect the lives of the unborn at the federal level and internationally.
It certainly can be argued that President Trump has done more than any president since Reagan to secure international peace, from his negotiations with North Korea to the plethora of historic peace deals negotiated in the final months of his presidency. In just three months, President Trump negotiated twice as many peace deals in the Middle East as the previous six presidents, including Reagan, combined. That is nothing short of a titanic accomplishment, which can easily be considered on par with Reagan’s efforts to peacefully end the Cold War. President Trump also surpassed Reagan in one key metric: Unlike the 40th president, the 45th president never got the United States involved in a new armed conflict overseas, the first president with this distinction since Jimmy Carter.
Even the Heritage Foundation, which is widely considered the most influential conservative think tank in the country (if not the world), declared President Trump to be an even more successful conservative president than Reagan; in his first year alone, President Trump implemented 64 percent of Heritage’s “Mandate for Leadership,” its official list of policy recommendations, far surpassing the number implemented by Reagan over the course of his entire eight-year presidency.
A Bygone President for a Bygone Era
But it’s not enough that President Trump greatly surpassed President Reagan even by conventional metrics of conservatism. One of his greatest achievements has been the fundamental and ideological transformation of the Republican Party.
As Breitbart’s John Nolte succinctly summarized, President Trump has changed the GOP from “the country club party in the sway of war-mongering NeoCons, the Chamber of Commerce, cheap labor, outsourcing, and being suckers for free trade,” to “the party of the working class . . . against the suicide of free trade,” and “opposing endless wars.”
And that transformation is exactly what some “conservatives” cannot bear.
Despite President Trump’s unprecedented success, there have already been a spate of articles from all the usual suspects insisting that the Trump presidency was a mere “phase” that must be overcome, with a return to the nostalgia of the Reagan era.
As to be expected, there were a plethora of these delusional fantasy pieces from the ranks of National Review, including Frank Lavin and Alexander Salter. But there was a similar appeal from Ben Shapiro’s vanity project, The Daily Wire, where Daniel DiMartino writes, “Reaganism should be the future, not the past.” Anyone who may be shocked by the latter most likely does not remember the time when that same website ferociously denounced Trump as an outright socialist because he dared to suggest that the GOP should become a pro-workers party.
One major criticism of the Trump presidency is a recurring theme in the writings of both Lavin and The Daily Wire; the laughable and frequently debunked notion that “free trade” is still the best economic solution for the United States, a criticism that simply cannot stand on its own against President Trump’s truly historic trade accomplishments, including replacing the disastrous NAFTA deal with the vastly superior USMCA.
Lavin also argues, curiously, that Trump was a terrible president because he could not achieve bipartisanship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as if Trump’s mean tweets were to blame rather than Pelosi’s deranged dual-impeachment efforts. Lavin also laments that President Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shared common ground on free trade and protectionism, and that both decried such disastrous trade deals as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So, according to the National Review mindset, bipartisanship is only good when it’s between the establishment wings of the two major parties, not when it is achieved among the populist and outsider wings.
Many of these sad arguments were more thoroughly debunked by the redoubtable Paul Gottfried in Chronicles. Although he points out many key flaws in their arguments, the most comprehensive answer is that theirs is a worldview that is heavily outdated. Their arguments are far too reliant on a Cold War dynamic that, like the Reagan presidency, has been gone for over 30 years now.
A New Leader for a New Cold War
Of course, there is nothing wrong with liking President Reagan or fondly remembering his presidency. But it must be said that many of the reasons conservative groups continue to idolize him are based on obsolete notions of what can still be successful in America today. Reagan’s approach was appropriate for a president confronting the Cold War—taking the fight directly to the Soviet Union and dismantling global Communism. As such, he was rewarded with two of the biggest electoral landslides in American history, which is perhaps another reason so many cling to his memory; they too, understandably but hopelessly, dream of another Republican candidate who can win 49 out of 50 states.
But the Cold War is over. We face a new threat, one that merely echoes elements of Communism and socialism, but is far more complex than the black-and-white dynamic of the United States versus the USSR. It is this very same domestic enemy that has made impossible the kinds of landslides that Reagan fans so desperately hope to recreate.
The ongoing cultural assault on America, the attempted revision and outright erasure of American history, the horrendously biased media, and the attempt by one of the two major parties essentially to label half of the population as domestic terrorists are all threats that Reagan’s specific example could not possibly speak to, because he did not face these issues when he was alive or when he was in power.
We won the Cold War. International Communism was defeated by Western capitalism and freedom. But now some of the biggest threats we face come from within the very same economic system that we proudly promoted for half a century.
Only a fool would deny that there is a growing crisis in our country that has been fueled, in large part, by big corporations, Wall Street megadonors, and the rise of a terrifyingly monopolistic Big Tech. Diehard Reagan fans will insist that any government intervention in the matter is akin to the very Communism we sought to destroy, and will take the Ben Shapiro stance that we should simply let the “free market” take its course and work everything out—ignoring the fact that “free markets” are precisely what led to this crisis in the first place.
There is only one president who has served in the face of these new challenges and understands the severity of the threats we now face. And that is exactly why it is time to move on from the Cold War consensus that Ronald Reagan is the gold standard of the American Right. The Donald has taken the Gipper’s place.