This fall, the scariest show on television hasn’t been zombies or vampires or even scary clowns.
It has been the Republican debates.
For weeks, Donald Trump and his fellow GOP presidential candidates have traded increasingly dire diagnoses of American decline. On Tuesday night, the nation reached its hypothetical nadir.
Trump repeatedly warned that America was headed toward “disaster.” Our health care system was going to “implode,” he said. In fact, “nothing works in our country.”
“We’re not respected as a nation anymore,” he said. “We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.”
Once again, he wasn’t alone in his bleak outlook.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson compared the United States to a patient “in critical condition.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida accused President Obama of having “destroyed our military.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Obama had created “the most unstable situation we’ve had since the World War II era.” Not to be outdone, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky suggested three times that we’re on the brink of World War III.
Perhaps the most frightening prediction, though, came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who opened his remarks by asking the audience to envision “the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound.
“We have people across this country who are scared to death,” he said.
The debate rhetoric quickly became so fearful that conservative moderator Hugh Hewitt — a man whose book includes the ominous subtitle “Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It” — felt compelled to stop and ask whether the candidates wanted to offer something more uplifting.
“This will be the debate that Americans talk about at Christmas,” he reminded them. “And thus far, in the first 10 minutes, we haven’t heard a lot about Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill. We’ve heard a lot about keeping Americans out, or keeping Americans safe and everyone else out. Is this what you want the party to stand for?”
So far this campaign, the answer appears to be yes.
Hewitt’s question about Reagan was no off-the-cuff remark. Led by Trump, this batch of Republican candidates strikes a much different tone than the Gipper, who, even in the midst of the Cold War, focused less on America’s enemies than on its own “greatness.”
Trump, more than any other candidate, has borrowed that term and tried to make it his own. (He used it 41 times in his presidential announcement.) He frequently compares himself to Reagan, not only in his evolution from Democrat entertainer to Republican politician but also in his claim to having a grand vision for America.
Whereas Reagan’s was relentlessly optimistic, though, Trump’s promise of “making America great again” is framed largely by fear.
From his June 16 presidential announcement, Trump’s campaign has gone negative. Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” he claimed. China was “killing us.”
“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he said.
Compare that to Reagan’s vision of the country more than half a century ago.
“I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land,” he said in one his first documented speeches, delivered in Fulton, Mo., in 1952. “It was set here, and the price of admission was very simple: the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.”
The contrast to Trump’s immigration policy — including his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States — couldn’t be clearer. But it’s the rhetoric, the tone, of the two politicians’ speeches that are even more distinct.
From his first campaign for president to his departing remarks from the Oval Office, Reagan likened America to “a shining city on a hill,” a “beacon” or a “magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
For Trump, America is more of a fortress, with its “winners” surrounded by a “great, great wall” to keep the “losers” out.
“It certainly is curious that Trump aligns himself so much with Reagan, yet is running a campaign that is antagonistic to Reagan’s glowing optimism,” Matt Motyl, a political psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The Washington Post.
From the day that Reagan erupted onto the national political scene, his speeches were marked by lofty, dreamy rhetoric.
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he said during his first televised speech, stumping for Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona in the fall of 1964. “We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
Many historians credit that optimism with getting Reagan elected.
When Reagan ran for president in 1980, the country was in economic — and, he argued, spiritual — recession. Incumbent Jimmy Carter had tried to fight unemployment by boosting government spending, only to see inflation rise. The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, and its botched rescue attempt, had raised questions about Carter’s decision-making. The era seemed to be encapsulated by a speech that Carter gave in the summer of 1979. Dubbed the “crisis of confidence speech,” Carter read letters from American citizens criticizing his administration and worrying about the future. “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” the president told the nation.
“I cannot promise you everything will be better from this moment forward, that there will be no more sacrifice, because there will,” Carter said a year later. “And I will not lie to you and say that all is right in the world, because it’s not, or all right in our nation, because it’s not.”
Carter’s sober message couldn’t compete with Reagan’s sunny optimism.
Democrats “say that the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith,” Reagan said when accepting the GOP nomination in July 1980. “My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.”
In his one and only debate with Carter later that year, Reagan cagily implied that America had declined under the incumbent, but without dwelling on doom and gloom.
“Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls,” he famously said. “You’ll stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Although Trump has promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” Reagan once said that “no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”
And although Reagan escalated the Cold War arms race, his rhetoric, at least, focused more on American resilience and supremacy than the Soviet threat.
“The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization,” he said shortly after taking office in 1981. “The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it; we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Reagan earned his title if “The Great Communicator” because he spoke simply yet evocatively, according to biographer Lou Cannon.
“The choices this year are not just between two different personalities or between two political parties,” Reagan said during his 1984 reelection campaign. “They’re between two different visions of the future, two fundamentally different ways of governing — their government of pessimism, fear, and limits, or ours of hope, confidence and growth.
“He had a gift for optimism,” Cannon wrote after Reagan’s death. “He always spoke of the future.”
Despite ordering the invasion of Grenada and arming Iran — unwittingly, he claimed — Reagan’s vision of America was much less bellicose than the one that Trump has painted on the campaign trail. Even when threatening military action, he seemed subdued.
“America is the most peaceful, least warlike nation in modern history. We are not the cause of all the ills of the world. We’re a patient and generous people,” he said when accepting the GOP nomination again in 1984. “But for the sake of our freedom and that of others, we cannot permit our reserve to be confused with a lack of resolve.”
Trump appears to have adopted Reagan’s American exceptionalism, but he added an apocalyptic twist.
“We can’t live like this,” Trump warned on Dec. 8 as he called for a ban on Muslims. “You’re going to have more World Trade Centers. It’s going to get worse and worse, folks.”
“Something bad is happening,” he warned a week earlier in a stump speech casting suspicion on Muslims and mosques. “Something really dangerous is going on.”
Fortune magazine recently called it Trump’s “doomsday rhetoric,” pointing out that his language ironically echoes that of the group he has sworn to annihilate: the Islamic State.
After performing an analysis of every word Trump spoke over the course of a week, the New York Times had another word for the political firebrand’s style of speech: demagoguery.
“His entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language of division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush,” Jennifer Mercieca, an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University, told the Times. “If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like [George C.] Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
Reagan’s tone could be preachy and moralizing, but it was reassuring. His message was essentially that with him in charge, we’d be all right.
For Trump, it’s much more ominous: Without him as commander in chief, we’re all in for a “disaster.”
He has even claimed that he can “feel” or “predict” when terrorists are about to strike the United States. “I said Osama bin Laden is going to come and do damage to us,” he said. “And nobody believed it.”
“Donald Trump appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero — the only one who can conquer our foes, secure our borders and ‘Make America Great Again,'” Mercieca wrote on The Conversation.
Trump’s alarmist rhetoric has also pulled many of his fellow GOP candidates into the same realm.
Even Rubio — the candidate who, with his good looks and ill-fated immigration reform, arguably most closely resembles Reagan — has been drawn down the doom-and-gloom debate rabbit hole by Trump. The senator from Florida has slammed Obama and, at times, his GOP opponents, with increasingly fearful rhetoric.
There are risks and rewards to the pessimistic approach.
“Speaking in these terrifying terms is unlikely to garner Trump or any of the Republicans much support from moderate voters, but it very likely will motivate their core conservative constituency to turn out and cast their ballots,” explained Motyl, the political psychologist.
“Today, presidential campaigns are won and lost not by who persuades more moderate voters to swing to their side, but rather by who can fire up their base and get them to the polls,” he said. “President Bush won in 2004 by doing a better job at turning out conservative evangelical voters than Senator Kerry did at turning out working class liberals. President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 by getting liberal Americans and African Americans fired up and ready to go, while Senator McCain and Governor Romney failed to ignite the conservative base the way that Bush did in 2000 and especially 2004. At this stage, it seems clear that the GOP doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes they made in choosing fairly moderate candidates in 2008 and 2012.”
Yet, there is also another risk to the frightening rhetoric on display so far at the GOP debates, Motyl added.
“One element that is going to be tough for the Republicans is that if they are hoping to win by using terrifying imagery and language, they’re going to have to continue ramping up the terror for the next 11 months,” he said.
“That’s a long time for people to continually be motivated by fear.”