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Thursday, 15 March 2018

Trump one year on: how did we get here?

Recently there has been much commentary about the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States and his first year in office, a key theme of which has been whether it represents a victory for a resurgent populism in the West. Typically, the historical comparisons offered to help understand the Trump phenomenon are Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s – particularly given Trump’s re-running of Reagan’s mission to “Make America Great Again” – and Richard Nixon’s presidency (1969-74), which claimed to represent a “silent majority” of Americans (although it collapsed, and ultimately ended, amid national scandal).  However, as an historian of contemporary North America, it is increasingly clear that the most apt historical comparison for Trump is not with Reagan of the 1980s, but instead the Reagan of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Trump’s 2016 election victory is most comparable with Reagan’s political breakthrough when he became Governor of California in 1966. Just as Trump’s national political presence arguably began with his contribution to the “Birther movement” reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency, Reagan’s arrival on the national scene was as a supporter for the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964. Reagan was consequently able to take advantage of his own personal “name recognition”, the Goldwater movement, and limited Republican talent in California, to ensure that he became his party’s nominee for Governor in 1964. Similarly, Trump’s celebrity, arguable authenticity, and the frustrations of the Republican base with its establishment politicians, meant that the former Apprentice host captured America’s Grand Old Party.

 Crucially, both Reagan in 1964 and Trump in 2016, despite their fame and fortunes, claimed to be citizen politicians who wanted to represent the “people” and challenge the political status-quo. Reagan’s campaign saw the former actor emerge as a master of electioneering in a television age, just as Trump utilised Twitter to speak directly to his supporters and antagonise his opponents. Despite the best efforts of their respective opponents – Governor Pat Brown for Reagan, Secretary Hillary Clinton for Trump – the political establishment could not make anything ‘stick’ sufficiently to stop the Republicans emerging victorious. 

Upon taking office in Sacramento, Reagan’s team did not have any idea about what a Governor should do and simply assumed that competent businessmen could organise State government. Those who were willing to work for a government salary found themselves to be an inexperienced and conservative executive branch working with – or against – an experienced, liberal Democrat controlled Californian legislature. While Trump’s frustrations with Congress could worsen after the upcoming mid-terms, he has certainly seen some of his domestic agenda falter, despite his own party controlling both Houses of Congress. Moreover, in an effort to ensure that his administration worked more effectively, the importance of the likes of Steve Bannon have been replaced by the effective drafting of Generals into key roles at the White House.

As Governor of California, Reagan was unable to act on his conservative ideals. For instance, he signed an extremely liberal abortion law, raised taxes and favoured environmental issues ahead over economic ones. Yet he left office in 1975 as the pre-eminent conservative in America – his rhetoric was more powerful than the reality of his record. Despite an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to usurp President Gerald Ford’s nomination by the Republican Party for the 1976 presidential election, Reagan was the darling of his party’s national convention. Likewise, Trump is yet to break ground on The Wall, but his supporters are still with him. Rather than contempt, familiarity ostensibly breeds success: ideas and image matter more than reality, especially if the messenger of those ideas is speaking for “the people” – or at least some of the people, who are prepared to back their chosen “insider” who claims to be fighting an outsider’s good fight against an establishment that allegedly no longer represents the interests of ordinary people. Given that many of Reagan’s supporters enthusiastically supported his tentative campaign for the presidency in 1968, just two years into his tenure as Governor, it can hardly be surprising that Trump has simply not stopped campaigning and recently appointed a Chair for his re-election campaign, ignoring all other obvious and potential banana skins. Trump 2020, here we come.       

For further reading, please see:

James H. Broussard, Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America (London: Routledge), 2015, chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Iwan Morgan, Reagan: American Icon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), chapters 4, 5 and 6.

Dr James Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in History and teaches on the American history modules at Oxford Brookes University. He has written books about the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and U.S. Presidents and Northern Ireland. 

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