Republicans must choose: Are they the party of Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump?

Reagan’s sunny, inclusive vision and principles are the antithesis of what Trump preaches

By Marcus M. Witcher, Ph.D. author of Getting Right with Reagan; The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016

original published in the Washington Post; 08/24/2020

This week, Republicans will nominate Donald Trump for the second time for president. Trump has built a cult of personality. In the past month alone, he has tweeted about potentially postponing the election and asserted he had the right to limit mail ballot usage — neither of which he has any constitutional authority to do.

These assertions are a stark contrast to what Republicans claimed to support in the last decades of the 20th century — small government and limited federal power. And this is nothing new for Trump. From his comments about Charlottesville, to his family separation and detention policy at the border, to his trade wars with half the world, to his assault on international institutions, to his reckless disregard for separation of powers, Trump has redefined conservatism. He has moved it away from Reagan-era Republicanism — a belief in the rule of law, free trade, civil society, decentralization and working though international organizations abroad. What’s worse is Trump has done so with few objections from many elected Republicans who claim to be Reaganites.

A loss by Trump in November will lead to a moment of reckoning for Republicans and conservatives. But to build a party for the future, they must understand how they got to this moment and how Trump’s brand of conservatism rose to the fore.

Trump’s style of conservatism is not new. In both its ideology and policy positions, it is most similar to the paleoconservatism of Patrick Buchanan, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and was a political commentator. In the wake of the Cold War, some conservatives in the early 1990s began to focus on immigration and a more militant nationalism, as well as reinvigorating the culture wars. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan was given a prime-time speaking slot after challenging President George H.W. Bush in the primary and receiving almost a quarter of the vote.

Buchanan proclaimed there was “a religious war going on … it is a cultural war.” And who were the enemies in this new war? They were feminists, immigrants in the country without authorization, free traders, internationalists and other purported barbarians who would destroy the fabric of Western civilization. One political journalist, Molly Ivins, quipped the speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

Immediately after Buchanan spoke, however, Ronald Reagan, addressed a Republican convention for the last time, painting a stark contrast with Buchanan. Reagan called on Republicans to recognize that they were all — regardless of religion, color or creed — “equal in the eyes of God.” But he insisted this was not enough, that as Americans “we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” In contrast to Buchanan’s divisive message of America at war with itself, Reagan reminded the audience “in America, our origins matter less than our destinations.”

The former president mentioned the progress that had been made, but he emphasized “with each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity … many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope [and] still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence.” Reagan asked those present in the convention hall and those at home to pledge “ourselves to a new beginning for them.” He concluded Americans must “apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America so that everyone among us will have the mental tools to build a better life.”

According to Reagan, only by working together, united as one America, could the country provide equal opportunity and a prosperous future for all Americans.

Commentators recognized the two very different messages being presented. The Washington Post asserted Reagan’s remarks were “a model of sensitivity compared with the hate-filled harangue of Pat Buchanan that preceded it.” The Wall Street Journal noted it was “impossible to imagine Ronald Reagan talking in the way Pat Buchanan does about keeping foreign people and foreign products out of the U.S.” It concluded Reagan would never “give the impression that his political actions drew their energy from reservoirs of bitterness and antipathy.”

Throughout the 1990s, the two different versions of conservatism on display that night in Houston continued to compete for the soul of the movement. In 1996, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “We Knew Reagan and Pat Buchanan is No Gipper,” in which it explained that Reagan’s nationalism “was muscular but also optimistic,” whereas “Buchanan’s darker nationalism flows from a perception of national decline.” While Reagan hailed “America’s immigrant past and future,” Buchanan wanted “a five-year halt in legal immigration.”

At the time, Buchanan’s views lost out. Bob Dole beat him in the 1996 Republican presidential primary, and in his acceptance speech, Dole made clear for “anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion,” the exits were “clearly marked.” And Dole was emphatic that he would not compromise on this inclusive vision.

While Dole lost, George W. Bush won a narrow victory four years later preaching compassionate conservatism with a focus on education, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and welcoming immigrants. Buchanan left the party, running on the Reform Party ticket in 2000.

But Buchanan’s divisive, nationalist, anti-immigrant conception of conservatism never went away, helping to scuttle bipartisan attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, 2007 and 2013-2014, while often being voiced by an increasingly influential group of conservative commentators.

And in 2016, defying conventional wisdom that to win Republicans needed to reorient their party, especially on immigration, Trump captured the White House by wielding Buchanan’s playbook. Buchanan recognized this, telling Politico in 2017 he was “elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush. … And then he goes and uses my slogan [Make America First Again]. … It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Reporter Tim Alberta put it succinctly: “Buchanan’s boldest achievement — and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy — was being Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Yet the party of Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan is not the party of Ronald Reagan. Though certainly not without flaws, Reagan offered an optimistic, forward-thinking and more inclusive brand of conservatism on which to build. Indeed, Reagan provided Americans with some of the most quotable passages about the benefits of immigrants to the United States.

The conservative movement is at a crossroads. It can continue the culture wars and welcome the label of hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and even racism — and in the process become all the things critics on the left have claimed it to be all along. Or it can take a step back and reflect on its past. Revisiting the tenants of Reagan conservatism would be a start. Perhaps conservatives could begin by embracing Reagan’s goal that history remember him — and by extension, conservatism — as someone who “appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather than your doubts.”

About the Author Marcus M. Witcher is a scholar-in-residence in both the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the coeditor of Public Choice Analyses of American Economic History, Volumes 1–3.