Many of President Trump’s defenders like to depict him as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. This is entirely understandable. Reagan is the superhero of the modern Republican Party. If you can argue that he would have loved you, you’ll have all the street cred and political legitimacy anyone could ever want.
That’s why casting Trump in Reagan’s role has become a conservative cottage industry. One conservative website recently treated its readers to a listicle of “15 things Trump and Reagan have in common.” (“No. 4: Trump shares Reagan’s ‘passion’ for what he believes in.”) And earlier this year, former presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, that Trumpist avant la lettre, made the claim that both presidents are joined at the hip by a common ideology of “American nationalism.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), not necessarily a Trump fan, surprised many when he invoked the Gipper after the missile strikes on Syria in April.
Perhaps the most remarkable Trump-Reagan analogy came last week, when a commentator on the Fox News website lauded Trump’s recent speech in Saudi Arabia. The article, modestly titled “Donald Trump — miracle worker,” praises the president for taking what the writer sees as a brave and principled stance against terrorism: “In essence, like Reagan confronting the Soviets in June, 1982 and Churchill confronting the Nazis in May, 1940, Trump distilled the issue. He elevated global discussion, taking everyone with him to a unifying, catalyzing plane, articulating clearly the stakes shared by all countries, religions and people: Good versus evil.”
It’s a startling comparison. Reagan and Winston Churchill were bravely pleading the cause of free nations against threatening tyrannies. Trump was doing just the opposite. He was actually speaking at a summit of Islamic leaders — pretty much all of them dictators or tyrants — whom he aimed to enlist in the cause of fighting terrorism. The fact that many of those listening (and above all his hosts, the Saudi royal family) have themselves contributed mightily to the spread of jihadist ideology merely underlines the perverse nature of Trump’s remarks.
Reagan was defined by his belief in freedom. He absolutely and firmly believed that everyone in the world aspired to freedom and deserved it. He said so on many occasions — perhaps most memorably on this very day in 1982, when he delivered a remarkable speech at the British Parliament, a venue he picked precisely because of its historic association with parliamentary democracy. He spoke in ringing tones of the need to “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
And just in case there’s someone out there who claims he was referring only to white Christians, he added: “This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”
Compare that with Trump’s words in Riyadh: “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.” I doubt that anyone was fooled by that talk of “shared values.” Last time I checked, the United States doesn’t behead people or ban women from driving. But, as Trump admitted, he had no intention of lecturing anyone about that.
Reagan did sometimes lecture. He could be quite clear about what he thought people wanted, and he didn’t think that it was limited to Americans. When he urged Mikhail Gorbachev “to tear down that wall” in 1987, he said it because he thought Poles, Russians and all the other peoples behind the Iron Curtain were just as deserving of freedom as Europeans or Americans were.
Reagan would have been perfectly entitled to tell Gorbachev what he wanted to hear. After all, the Soviet leader had plenty of nukes. But Reagan didn’t pull his punches. Trump’s speech, by contrast, was all about reassurance — he made a point of offering “stability” in the place of “radical disruption.” In other words: “As long as you kill plenty of terrorists, you can go right ahead and keep doing whatever you want to your own people. We won’t mind.”
Let’s be clear: Reagan acknowledged that the United States’ allies included some who weren’t very free. When push came to shove, however, he was entirely willing to allow U.S.-allied dictatorships in South Korea and the Philippines to fall. In his speech 35 years ago, there was no mistaking his core position: “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”
It’s entirely possible that Trump and Reagan might have shared a few views on some subjects — tax policy, say. But on the one issue that really matters — whether humans deserved to be free or not, regardless of their origins — their differences were irreconcilable.