Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism

My dear friend Adam Goldman, who is an active member of many conservative and Republican organizations (you can see his impressive credentials below the article), has contributed the following article that I believe readers of The Gymnasium will appreciate. Adam is an astute political observer and defender of the Republican Party and its historic big-tent compromising approach that he defends as a natural and necessary component of Federalism and American values. While the libertarian-leaning purist in me personally wants to push the party into one of much more limited government and classical liberal directions, Adam makes excellent observations on the value of the party that exists today, of the two-party system, and illustrates that even the hero Reagan compromised and performed actions inimical to populists on the right. Further, he draws a remarkable contrast between the optimistic and moral approach of Reagan to the brash authoritarianism of Trump. I hope my readers will enjoy this article and comment on it and I hope you value and look forward to contributions from Adam and others for diverse viewpoints in the days to come.

Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism 

Splinter movements from our twin political parties are nothing new in American history. While it is of utmost concern, considerable examination into Donald Trump’s highly questionable personal and business backgrounds have been undertaken elsewhere and need no further recitation herein. I examine and compare, rather, the rise of the Trump phenomenon to that of the Reagan revolution, through the lens of America’s late 20th century history political culture as well as its Constitutional and partisan framework.

The Republican and Democratic parties are by nature very large businesses that encompass a very diverse range of both the religious and the secular, including both labor and business, and other movements, spread across a continent.  For America to enjoy relative benefit of the stability of a two-party system, it must out of necessity subordinate the purist impulses of certain factions within these diverse coalitions. This simple logic of 2 + 0, and not 2+1 or 2+2, is not embraced by many who revile their “establishment” leadership within their respective parties. These rejectionists are imbued with an authoritarian impulse, and when its spokesman meets with a base of support that crescendos in a positive feedback loop, the results can be inherently destabilizing, as the GOP is witnessing this year with the rise of Trump.

Trump has very successfully redirected the Tea Party angst of 2010 from Obama against the Republican party as a whole. By comparison, in 1968 violent counter-cultural and student movements joined to force their way into Eugene McCarthy’s coronation, a moderate Democrat. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy earlier unglued the Democratic party, temporarily. It became unstable and dysfunctional. The result was the election of their arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon, a flight to stability and a symbol of strength for most voters. The uprising on the furthest flank from the center of the party led to a result in direct contradiction to its stated goals.

In 1996, Pat Buchanan led a similar, but much more orderly, rejectionist insurrection within the GOP. Frustrated with the dilution of Reagan’s supposedly pure vision of conservatism, millions flocked to his side. Memories fade quickly though: Reagan made numerous compromises with Tip O’Neill, his famous “six o’clock” friend, and Democratic Speaker of the House, in order to secure broad tax cuts and increased defense spending. Reagan in turn agreed to raise gas taxes, eliminated the IRS deduction for auto loan interest, raised the Social Security eligibility age, incurred massive deficits, barely made a dent to social welfare spending, lost 200 Marines in a terrorist bombing during a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, and signed the 1986 law granting amnesty to illegal aliens without guarantees regarding promised enhanced border security. Republicans under Newt Gingrich made corrective progress over the course of the decade following Reagan’s tenure by reforming welfare and reducing deficits dramatically. This is the essence of the process of America’s constitutional process, which always defies quick solutions, but if permitted its arc always bends toward limiting the Federal power. Nevertheless, President Clinton quickly dispatched his GOP rival Senator Bob Dole, whose campaign emerged gravely wounded from the purist Buchanan-led primary uprising.

The GOP benefited dramatically in 2010 from the Tea Party’s grassroots coalition, which turned out millions of voters only four years following the GOP’s huge losses in the 2006 Congressional elections. For all of the Tea Party’s purity of purpose toward resurrecting a second Reagan Revolution, it forgot its own history: the necessary compromises that Reagan strategically agreed to, and the failed insurgence of Buchanan, who prevailed in a tactical victory but lost the war. It is of no surprise that Pat Buchanan several years ago touted the effectiveness of the “Christian” Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin in turn, stated his recent admiration for Trump, whom the latter has not yet disavowed.

The roots of authoritarianism are neither peculiar to the right or the left. Trump may be its spokesman on the right today, however tomorrow it is all but certain that the tides of unwritten history will give rise to another on the left. The result is always certain in a two-party political environment, which is that the results of its efforts are always self-defeating.

The banality of Trump is a reflection of the temperament of his supporters, who have neither the disposition nor inclination to consider the long-arc of Constitutional lawmaking. In fact, the very words “Constitutional lawmaking” provoke disdain and anti-“establishment” mockery from his supporters. They view compromise as not only unnecessary but anathematic, despite all mathematical proofs regarding veto overrides, a bicameral legislature, and an independently elected executive (unlike European parliamentarian systems). Comparisons to the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany are exaggerated, but the impulse to authoritarianism is by no means to be conveniently ignored, despite America being the oldest democracy. The renown historical philosopher Hanna Arendt examined the rise of the Third Reich closely and concluded that in spite of Germany’s position as the most highly technical and educated society in continental Europe, a motivated and large plurality of its citizens were drawn to Hitler’s crudity and demagoguery. How did this occur?

Hitler exploited four themes that motivated ordinary Germans: the loss of the German middle class’ purchasing power due to hyperinflation from post-war debt, the loss of international prestige and status (due to the Versailles Treaty’s disarmament clauses), and impatience with the new, inexperienced fledgling democracy in Berlin which could not produce a consensus regarding which policies ought to address these crises.  The fourth theme tied together the previous three, which blamed these crises squarely upon the “establishment”. Hitler further stoked fears of an establishment “conspiracy” against ordinary Germans by gradually amplifying xenophobic rhetoric of a Jewish fifth-column, which reflected old mythologies from the Middle Ages which still resonated.

The goodwill of the majority of America’s people and the strength of its community organizations, whose Protestant and Catholic spokesman have weighed in recently against Trump, all but guarantee that the horrors of the Reich will never be repeated here. However, for the Tea Party to successfully overcome its impulse to authoritarianism and regain its focus on continuing the Reagan revolution, it must re-embrace the Constitutional process, and unequivocally denounce demagoguery. It begins with an honest self-assessment of its own disregard for Reagan’s principles, which follow.

Reagan’s speech, manners, and civility always shamed his occasionally crude, low-minded opponents with a forceful appeal to moral reasoning. For Reagan, the goal was never “winning” at the expense of anyone. For Reagan, winning was a tide that lifted all boats, including those of the left. For Trump, personal wealth is the goal for not only himself but for his supporters. Reagan, on the other hand, felt the tide of rising wealth that lifted all boats was merely a means to an end. The end was not wealth, but security and a realization that God desires to bless those that are His. That financial security can then be used to bless the world and lift millions out of poverty and oppression. Reagan believed that America should lead in that effort. Trump has cast his vision for America as merely one of acquiring more goods and personal wealth and self-satisfaction, a shallow appeal at best to consumerism. By contrast, Jesus taught an entirely different paradigm of the reason for wealth, as a means to a different end altogether. At the risk of hyperbole, we can conclude that Reagan’s economic vision is consistent with that of Jesus of Nazareth, although I’m sure Reagan’s humility would most certainly preclude his agreement to such notions.

For the foregoing reasons, we can safely conclude that the character and values of Reaganism stand in diametric opposition to that of Trump. What is more, we can rest assured that Ronald Reagan himself would very likely have absolutely nothing to do with someone of the persona of Donald Trump.

Adam Goldman is current Board Member and former Vice President of Florida Right to Life, a founding member of the Center-Right Coalition of Central Florida,  serves on the Central Board of James Madison Institute, and served on the statewide Florida steering committee of the Mitt Romney campaign.