In The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible, David Sehat explains why modern political debate invokes the founding fathers so often. It’s a fantastic book, and I recommend to anyone. Actually, I think everyone should read it. Seriously. Go get it before you doom yourself to become part of the unwashed masses.
Anyway, all of it’s well done, but what really got me thinking was the analysis of Ronald Reagan’s policies. The first person I thought of as I read about Reagan’s shot to the top? None other than our soon-to-be president, Hilary Clinton Donald Trump.
Both are the faces of “pro-business” economics and right-wing social policies. However, it’s more than just that. Otherwise, we could say that any 20-21st century Republican could be Reagan; they’re all from the same party, so of course their basic beliefs would be pretty close. No, it’s also about what these two politicians embodied for the public. Their unique rhetoric on America’s deviation from one certain “path” of righteousness.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
The Road (Less Traveled) to Presidency
It’s common knowledge that both men started their careers outside of the realm of politics. Reagan was an actor, and Trump was a famous businessman with television experience. That was actually part of what made them so attractive to voters—as outsiders, they offered to “shake things up” in a way those part of the perceived “establishment” could not.
Like Trump, Reagan ran for office several times before he was ever nominated. He wasn’t taken seriously. Before he won the 1980 bid, most people would have laughed in your face if you had told them a fading, weirdly conservative celebrity was running for president. When he made it, everyone was pretty stunned.
Both of them were, strangely, originally registered as Democrats. They also seemed to have some very powerful women close to them/acting as their puppet masters.
What comes to mind when you hear “Reagan?” It’s either “Jelly Bellies” or “Trickle-Down.”
When Reagan came into office, he was itching to implement something called Supply-Side economics—more commonly known as Trickle-Down economics. Reagan believed that lower taxes would incentivize business, meaning that in the long run, there would be a larger base of income earners to tax and the government would actually collect more tax revenue than before. He wouldn’t even have to cut government programs, he claimed.
If this sounds really stupid, it’s because it is. Reagan tripled the national deficit from $907 billion to 2.6 trillion in just eight years. In addition, he had promised to lower taxes for the middle class, but the percentage of national income taxed had only dropped by 0.01% by 1989. The people who benefited the most from his policies were the highly wealthy.
Obviously, Trump hasn’t had the chance to work his own economic plan, but the similarities are striking. He has consistently offered lower taxes to ease the burden of the middle class. It sounds appealing, but his proposed system raises concern among economists. Tax cuts would actually be way more significant for the superrich. He promises to increase taxes on the 1%, but the one tax that affects them the most—the estate tax—would be eliminated.
His plan also has possible projections of adding $6.2 trillion to the national deficit.
Social issues are a little bit more of a crapshoot, mostly because Trump keeps changing his mind. Dude flips more often than a teenage cook at IHOP. Reagan was much more clear with his conservative beliefs, which he actually, you know, believed.
What is far more interesting is the way that the two candidates appealed to the American people. Sehat does a great job of explaining how Reagan garnered so much support, and it’s very close to what Trump did.
By the late seventies, people were really tired. LBJ’s Great Society had become Jimmy Carter’s Stagflation Nation. Much of the country blamed the “malaise” on our how liberal we had become. It was the perfect opportunity for an ultraconservative to grab the presidency.
Playing off of the disgruntled pathos of the public, Reagan explained that the country had been diverted from its original, sacred path. It was a path that involved a strict reading of the Constitution, Lasseiz-Faire economics, and Christian values. By becoming so liberal, he explained, we had gotten completely off-track.
His reasoning? It’s what the founding fathers had intended for America when they crafted the constitution. He assumed, like many people, that all of the founding fathers agreed on how the document should be interpreted…and that it was in the way HE interpreted it. While this is nowhere near correct, it became the foundation of Reagan’s “Jeremiad,” or angry spiel about how crappy things were.
He was saying that America was somehow not correctly being America. The only way we could Make America Great Again (eh? EEEEHHHH?) was through a total overhaul of the current policies.
When we look back to 1980, so many factors that led to Reagan’s victory apply to Trump’s in 2016. Masses of displeased conservatives? Check. Economic downturn affecting the working class? Check. Recent era of economic liberalism? Check. Increased government efforts to increase racial equality? Check, mate.
Both of these guys promised a sort of “revolution” at a time when conservatives wanted just that.
There are a lot of similarities. Like Trump 1.0, which is what I am calling Reagan from now on, the president-elect has based his campaign on the same assumptions. Most telling is their shared belief that there is one “right” America.
We can’t be sure whether Trump’s presidency will continue to mirror Reagan’s. Let’s just hope that it includes as many Jelly Bellies.