Donald Trump Is No Ronald Reagan
Trump is like Reagan in the same way that a card table is like a racehorse: They have the same number of legs, but after that the similarities are sparse.
If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he’d have good reason to go after Vice President Mike Pence for defamation of character. The vice president was one of several participants at last week’s CPAC conference who claimed that President Donald Trump reminded them of Reagan.
Trump is like Reagan in the same way that a card table is like a racehorse: They have the same number of legs, but after that the similarities are sparse. It is time to put to rest the tired and inaccurate comparisons that some Republicans like to throw around. “The establishment looked down on Reagan too,” they say, “after all, he was only a movie actor.” Rubbish. There may have been some in the East who looked down on a Republican from the West — ‘twas ever thus — but Reagan was a two-term governor of California and a serious national political figure by the time he ran for the presidency in 1980. Unlike the current White House occupant, he spoke in complete sentences, and beautifully. He could read from a teleprompter with fluency and had the discipline to know when it was appropriate to ad lib, and when not.
More important than the obvious differences of style, Reagan was a person of substance — he was interested in governing because he had views (some of which were controversial, but generally intellectually consistent) about how government could and should work.
One of the biggest differences between Trump and Reagan is the latter’s grasp of the moral difference between the free world and repressive regimes, which he communicated clearly and compellingly. Reagan saw in the Soviet Union the evil of a system that deprived its citizens of their human rights, and he helped Americans see it too. Speaking to a different conservative audience — the National Association of Evangelicals — in 1983, Reagan urged his audience not to dismiss the arms race as a big misunderstanding and remove themselves from the “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” The year before, speaking in the British Parliament, Reagan declared “the march of freedom and democracy [will] leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”
Throughout his political career, Ronald Reagan articulated repeatedly and forcefully a central strategic premise of American national security policy since World War II: that the security and prosperity of the United States and its people is enhanced by the expansion of freedom in the world. Over the last 75 years, there have been disagreements both between and within our two major parties on the tactics of international politics — for example, on the wisdom and efficacy of military intervention or the value of pure realpolitik as an approach — but never has there been a sustained abandonment of the premise that we have a strategic (and moral) interest in seeing more people in more places live in liberal democracies with market economies.
This is part of what is so disturbing about Trump’s moral equivalence between Russia and the United States (and Pence’s refusal to voice the still-manifest truth that free and democratic America is morally superior to kleptocratic, authoritarian Russia.) Trump’s ambivalence about America’s moral strengths — most importantly the individual rights protected by our Constitution and made real through our institutions — accompanies an approach to foreign policy (not to mention domestic politics) which could be called “neo-tribalism.” In Trump’s neo-tribalism, societies are not made up of individuals bound together under a system of law, but of groups delineated by blood and culture, and interact with each other in a global arena. The international system he seems to seek is a competitive, “every country for itself” system, because he thinks he can prevail in this chaotic landscape. He talks about improving relations with other countries, but what he really means is making deals with rulers.
We’ve yet to see whether Trump is really a good dealmaker on the world stage (remember, he somehow managed to bankrupt, among other things, a casino). Even so, it’s true that America has enormous competitive advantages (only some of which Trump seems to appreciate): the scale of our economy, the innovation that drives it, rule of law, a diverse population, world-class universities, and by far the most powerful and sophisticated military in the world, to name a few. America has fared well, and will fare well, wherever international competition is inevitable. But Americans have benefitted most, and will continue to benefit most — in terms of keeping our country safe and enhancing our prosperity — when the United States uses its leadership in the world to build a more cooperative global system, and when Washington supports democratic progress elsewhere in the world. Reagan recognized that even the “winner” doesn’t really win in an every-country-for-itself system.
Trumpian neo-tribalism will make us less secure. It matters for American security whether other countries in the world are free or not. Dictatorships are only stable until they are not — and when they collapse, they unleash threats that don’t respect borders. Similarly, it matters for American prosperity if other countries have competitive, regulated market economies and impartial rule of law. Corrupt and command economies don’t just fail their own citizens, they also make lousy markets for American goods, produce migration flows that are more difficult to manage, and serve as hosts for parasitic non-state actors who threaten our way of life.
History is pretty clear on this. Europeans tried the competing tribes and princes approach, and it gave them centuries of nearly continuous war. That’s part of why they recoil from Trump.
A funny thing happened last month that few people in the United States seemed to notice, aside from some concerned activists: Donald Trump did something good on Twitter. On February 15, Trump tweeted a picture of himself with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López. Tintori has traveled the world speaking eloquently about her husband’s plight in recent years, and reportedly Sen. Marco Rubio facilitated the introduction to Trump. The fact that the president met with the wife of a political prisoner and advocated his release was commendable.
But this tweet was anomalous for at least two reasons: first, Trump rarely uses Twitter to advocate for anyone other than himself. Second, the tweet was anomalous against the backdrop of Trump’s value-free approach to what he calls an “America First” foreign policy. (In fact, in calling the American press “enemies of the people,” a charge he repeated at CPAC last week, Trump sounds more like Lopez’s jailers in the Maduro regime than the man whose imprisonment he was momentarily protesting.)
It would be good to see the new administration stand up for human rights and liberty around the world, but so far, we have little cause for hope. In his speech to Congress on Tuesday night, Trump talked about “free nations” — but not in the way that other presidents of both parties have. He said: “Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people — and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.” Dictators around the world must have drawn comfort from these words. When I was a U.S. diplomat, I met with dozens of representatives of repressive regimes who proclaimed their need to chart their own path. This was usually code for “continue to enrich our elites and crackdown on members of minority religious and ethnic groups, jail journalists, and disappear political opponents.” America has historically stood for the right of individuals to chart their own path, and been clear that it is the obligation of governments to protect the rights of individuals.
Trump continued with a breathtaking abdication of American global leadership: “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” This is a false choice — of course, the job of the president is to represent the United States of America. But for generations America has also been a beacon for the world, drawing millions to our shores because of what we stand for, because of the promise and the possibility that America represents. In the words of Reagan: “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.” To be the leader of the free world is not an added task, it is an honor and a duty inextricable from the office of the presidency.
Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. And that’s not just because he compares unfavorably in terms of experience, moral character, and eloquence. He has also forsaken the strategic vision that Reagan brought to America’s approach to international politics.
Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images
Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomatic fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer