Reagan and Trump, From Morning in America to Midnight
In some ways, the two Democrat-turned-Republican entertainers who ended up being elected President seem very similar — mostly, however, the two men and the moments in history they represent could not be more different.
When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election he won a historic landslide of forty-nine states and 58% of the popular vote, bolstered by his famous claim that it was “morning in America”. Having survived an assassination attempt, fought labor, and initiated a War on Drugs during his first term, Reagan steamrolled over Mondale in ’84 and proceeded to bomb Libya, sell arms to Iran, and effectively end the Cold War over the next four years — leaving office with record approval ratings. Taking his slogan at face value, it makes sense now that if Reagan’s policies were the “morning” of our nation’s conservative realignment, then the election of Donald Trump can only mean the clock has struck midnight.
While Reagan’s morning was ushered in by a enthusiastic landslide, the clock merely inched ahead this time — barely pushed forward to midnight by a margin of tens of thousands of votes. Considering that out of the past three national elections Republicans have won they’ve lost the popular vote twice, it’s clear that time may be running out. Nevertheless, the clock strikes midnight as Trump takes office, assembling a cabinet of detached billionaires and delusional nationalists who represent the dangerous crony capitalism that Reagan’s conservatism has gradually morphed into. Tax cuts and slashed regulations that once held promise and inspired hope in the form of “Reaganomics” have proven themselves over the decades to be nothing but some of the most efficient means of upward wealth distribution, mechanisms that have done nothing but bring us closer to realizing the reality of oligarchy.
The word liberty, now demoted to a meaningless platitude by years of empty rhetoric, remained absent from Trump’s brief, blunt inaugural address. Appeals to American exceptionalism and international leadership have been replaced by blatant nationalism as the movement that began with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” comes full circle to become “I will build a great wall — mark my words.” President Trump’s ego may never allow him to realize it, but as he takes office with an approval rating roughly half that of Reagan’s upon retirement, his administration represents the dying breaths of the neo-conservative political movement in the United States.
As this positive reframe of Trump’s victory inspired me to wonder about the future of our republic, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with the idea that there may be another widespread realignment on the horizon. Looking back to the 1960s and the civil rights movement, it becomes clear that we haven’t had a chance at real institutional change fueled by deep social upheaval since then. Obama may have laid the framework for us to make amazing progress, but few could more clearly represent the backlash to the change initiated by our first black President than Trump— right down to the racist birther lie that gave him a name in politics. Ugly as that backlash may be, there might still be some truth to the saying that sometimes you have to hit bottom before getting back up. Perhaps that’s where we find ourselves today — bottoming out, yet still full of hope for what could be just over the horizon.