During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump acolytes claimed that he was the second coming of Ronald Reagan — the similarity being that both men were elderly Republicans scorned by the bien pensant. Now, more than a year into the Trump presidency, some of his fans are getting cheekier. They insist that President Trump is actually better than Reagan.
The Heritage Foundation claimed that 64 percent of its ideas were implemented by Trump during his first year — better than the 49 percent for Reagan. Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, agreed . As did Cesar Conda, a former aide to both Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who gushed that Trump “has more big conservative wins in one year than Reagan ever did (Gorsuch, 12 circuit court judges, HUGE tax & reg cuts, 4% unemployment, Jerusalem Embassy, ISIS destroyed, etc.).”
A perfectly plausible proposition, if you know nothing about Reagan or Trump.
Reagan took office during a low point in modern U.S. history: Fifty-two Americans had just been held hostage in Iran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia had fallen to Marxists. The U.S. military had been hollowed out following the Vietnam War. The economy was being devastated by double-digit inflation (11.8 percent in January 1981) and interest rates (14.9 percent ), stagnant growth (minus-0.2 percent in 1980), and high unemployment (7.5 percent ). Oil prices had just spiked again (a gallon of gas cost $3.51 in today’s dollars), leading to long lines at the pump. Spirits were sagging. And Reagan had to confront all these problems with his party controlling only one house of Congress.
By contrast, Trump took office amid a long period of growth that began under President Barack Obama. In January 2017, inflation (2.5 percent ), interest rates (3.7 percent ) and unemployment (4.8 percent ) were all low. The economy in 2016 grew at 1.5 percent, after 2.9 percent growth in 2015; Trump’s first year saw 2.3 percent growth. Trump was also fortunate to have Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. And lucky, too, not to have faced a major crisis during his first year — apart from the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, which he mishandled.
Reagan wasn’t so fortunate. Barely two months into his presidency, he was shot and could easily have died. Then came the air traffic controllers’ strike. Martial law in Poland. And another, even bigger recession triggered by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to wring inflation out of the economy. By the end of 1982, unemployment had spiked to 10.8 percent — the highest rate since the Great Depression.
Through all this adversity, Reagan showed more dignity, humor and grace than Trump has exhibited in his whole life. Typical was Reagan’s quip in the hospital after nearly being assassinated: “Please tell me you’re all Republicans,” he said to the doctors. When have you ever heard a spontaneous witticism from Trump?
Reagan proceeded to implement an ambitious agenda to reverse America’s military and economic decline. He fired the air traffic controllers. With bipartisan support (including 48 Democrats in the House ), he cut income taxes by 25 percent and lowered the top rate from 70 to 50 percent. Again with bipartisan support, he launched the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history — defense spending went up 24.9 percent in 1981 and 20.4 percent in 1982. By contrast, Trump requested a 9.4 percent increase in his first year, but Congress never passed a budget, keeping defense spending essentially flat. He is seeking a 13 percent increase for next year .
The cost of Reagan’s defense buildup was higher deficits, but it was worth it to bring down the “evil empire.” Discarding detente, Reagan said on May 17, 1981, “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. . . . It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” A decade later the Soviet Union was no more.
Trump’s record simply isn’t as impressive. He hasn’t succeeded so far in repealing Obamacare, expanding the military or getting Mexico to pay for his border wall. His tax bill, passed on a party-line vote, was only the eighth-largest tax cut since 1918; Reagan’s 1981 tax cut was No. 1. Trump’s tax cuts and spending increases, however, will add far more debt than Reagan ever did. Trump has trimmed some regulations, but his cuts haven’t been nearly as significant as Reagan’s. He did appoint a lot of judges but so did Reagan — including the first woman to the Supreme Court. And Trump’s “victory” over the Islamic State was mainly a continuation of what Obama had already been doing.
As impressive as what Reagan achieved was what he didn’t do: He didn’t demonize the press, attack minorities or immigrants, demean the presidency, obstruct justice, accuse his political foes of “treason” or have his lawyer pay off a porn star. The Gipper inspired the nation after the malaise of the 1970s. In other words, he really made America great again. The grifter only talks about it.