Ronald Reagan was dismissed by the liberal Left as an intellectual lightweight who let his advisors do his heavy lifting. This former B-actor, they said, could barely manage his lines, let alone CIA briefing papers. He looked good, sounded good, was charming, warm, and accessible, they admitted; but in a world still in a cold war, a country still stumbling from years of an economic downturn, and potential chaos on our borders, what good was Hollywood?
Eastern progressives laughed and snickered at his airy press conferences at which this genial man dismissed all challengers with an ‘Aw, shucks’ disingenuousness and folksy humor. No one knew where the President stood on important issues because he himself had no idea.
How wrong these critics were. In focusing on their stock-in-trade – white papers, exegesis, and textual deconstruction – they missed the point. Reagan never said he was an intellectual, was proud of his Hollywood career and his simple beginnings, and was the least pretentious President since Washington.
Yet Ronald Reagan was one of the most savvy and astute politicians ever. He like most Americans did not think in terms of issues but of meaning. His mantra of small government, private enterprise, patriotism, military strength, and family values. Each of these iconic images resonated with an American public looking less for policies and programs than enlightened leadership. Everyone but Eastern intellectuals understood perfectly clearly what Reagan meant.
Reagan had a vision which was adeptly placed within an emotional visual and textual context. Reagan made frequent allusions to “A City On A Hill” from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden”; and in fact his Shining City on a Hill became the iconic phrase of his presidency. Reagan first used this image on the eve of his election in 1980:
I have quoted John Winthrop's words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining "city on a hill," as were those long ago settlers....and in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:
These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill.
...I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.... (Wikipedia)
All his other ideas flowed from this core belief. Patriotism was not what Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel” but an expression in a belief in the America that Reagan had enunciated. A strong military was not only a temporal defense against our enemies, but a statement of right no different that that of the ancient Jews who stormed the walls of Jericho to establish a kingdom of God.
Small government and family values referred to the bedrock principles of the Founding Fathers who had never envisaged the arrogation of power and abuse of it common in Reagan’s day and today.
In short, the American electorate did not need or want details. Reagan’s vision was enough. Reagan Democrats – white collar Northern unionists voted for him in large numbers. Anyone who understood the radical nature of the President’s vision would have foreseen his hardline stance against Big Labor, and yet factory workers, teamsters, and teachers all became Republicans because of Ronald Reagan.
The similarity between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan is striking. Although Donald Trump is a far cry from the generous, kindly, profoundly patriotic Reagan, he understands like his predecessor the importance of meaning. Few people who are passionate about Trump take his most incendiary words about immigration – send ‘em all back, keep Muslims out, build a wall, etc. – seriously. Voters understand that he will never even try to do this, and he is only enunciating a principle – illegal immigration is a threat to the American commonwealth.
Illegal immigration, they say, is driving down wages, depriving native-born Americans or legal residents of well-paying jobs. If the flow of illegal immigrants were stanched, employers would have to pay higher salaries and pay generous benefits. In an age of Islamic militancy and terrorism, it is wise to be extremely cautious about accepting refugees from the Middle East. Wahhabi-style aggressive denial of women’s rights and the widespread African Muslim practice of female circumcision should never be part of ‘multiculturalism’. A country divided by language can never be a fully integrated cultural whole, and English as the only language of law, commerce, and instruction is important.
In other words, Trump has enunciated an important principle on which many voters agree.
Trump’s challenge to ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not racist, but a desire to right the balance between black activists and the police. Many Americans, not just on the Right, feel that black political activism and liberal capitulation to it have put the police at risk, emboldened those who refuse to accept personal responsibility for their actions, and caused even more frictions in society.
People get Trump not only because he gets them, but because he is willing to be more aggressive in their defense than anyone since Ronald Reagan.
The Left sees Trump as a demagogue, a dictatorial emperor reminiscent of Hitler, and the most dangerous man on the planet. Everyone else loves Trump’s sideshow, his glitz, trophy wife, yachts, planes, and billions; and since they have gotten his message from the very beginning, simply laugh and enjoy the performance.
Political observers all know that campaigns – especially primaries – have little or nothing to do with the Presidency. The primaries are arenas for red meat, evangelism, and hysteria. They of course have not always been this way (see the YouTube video of the Kennedy-Humphrey debate in the West Virginia primary in 1960 – a respectful, thoughtful, and engaging affair), but increasingly they are discounted as venues for serious exchange. Whether Trump, Rubio, or Cruz, whoever sits in the Oval Office will be a changed, more modest, accommodating, and moderate man.
It is wrong to dismiss Trump as a clown and buffoon, for to do so condemns tens of millions of Trump supporters. Americans may be unschooled and unsophisticated, but they are not stupid; and to assume that they are being manipulated by a crazed demagogue is patronizing and insulting.
One thing is for sure. A Trump presidency will be as radically transformative as that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s rollback of government, enthusiastic support of business and enterprise, and military posture were definitely not warmed-over soup. Trump will surely take a strong anti-immigration stance, move aggressively against ISIS and al-Qaeda, support Israel unequivocally, stand up to educators who in their desire for ‘inclusiveness’ have prejudiced the talented and ambitious, and challenge universities and other institutions who have abridged the right of free speech.
None of these actions are crazed, but reasonable conservative interventions. He will be as pro-business as any good Republican, lower taxes, eliminate onerous regulations, and provide official support for American industry.
Only the radical Left is frightened by Donald Trump because they have not been paying attention. He is America in all its glitzy, Hollywood, Las Vegas glory. He is crass, outspoken, and self-confident. A recent survey showed that voters admire Donald Trump’s wealth more than Ted Cruz’s. They like the way Trump has mastered the art of the deal, made his bones in the jungles of Wall Street, New York Real Estate, and Hollywood; made billions and lost millions; and flaunts it all. Cruz’s bootstrap saga is dull by comparison.
The old adage, “You need to get out more” could never be more appropriate for liberal academics, pundits, and media producers. It is about time.