“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Ronald Reagan told one of the first CPAC gatherings in January 1974. “The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia.” Quoting Pope Pius XII after World War II, Reagan said, “Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.”
Contrast that with what President Trump said Friday when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump’s speech, coupled with the appearance a day earlier by White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, provided the most definitive articulation of the “America First” philosophy that carried Trump to victory in November and that is redefining conservatism and, with it, the Republican Party.
“We need to define what this great, great unprecedented movement is and what it actually represents,” Trump said. “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that put and will put its own citizens first. For too long, we’ve traded away our jobs to other countries. So terrible. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while leaving ours wide open.”
Reagan’s speech in 1974, along with his frequent later appearances at CPAC, was an evocation of his vision of America as a shining city on a hill and “the last best hope of man on Earth.” His vision called for an outward-looking America, a nation whose unique power and position carried with it obligations to the rest of the world. Those themes animated his conservatism throughout his political career.
Trump, the economic nationalist, cast things differently. Among the most arresting lines in his speech were these: “There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag,” he said. “This is the United States of America that I’m representing. I’m not representing the globe. I’m representing your country.”
Reagan might have agreed with the literal words spoken by the 45th president. He was an American president who traced his philosophy to the Founding Fathers and patriots. He was not a believer in global government or handing powers to international bodies such as the United Nations. Still, the contrast between Trump’s and Reagan’s visions cannot be overstated.
Reagan espoused American exceptionalism and a nation seeking to defend freedom around the world. Trump looks inward and appears to begrudge the responsibilities of leading the world that previous presidents, Republican or Democrat, have embraced.
It is commonly asserted that Trump and Trumpism have buried Reagan and Reaganism, that the conservatism of the past few decades is rapidly being replaced by a mixture of policies that range across the ideological spectrum, some of which are contrary to what conservatives have long espoused.
That assertion of the takeover is mostly true. The speed with which the transformation of the Republican Party is taking place is breathtaking, at least on the surface. Many conservative intellectuals remain holdouts. But rank-and-file Republicans so far are enthusiastic, and Trump’s hardcore supporters are ecstatic.
Last year, Trump was a no-show at CPAC, a candidate who threatened the old conservative order. This year he arrived as a conquering hero.
Trump is still a work in progress. His speech at CPAC sounded much like the campaign speeches he gave last fall, replete with promises yet to be fulfilled. His supporters give him credit for keeping those promises, as the first weeks of his administration have been a projection of his intention to do just that. The details of his promises remain sketchy. Trump’s Tuesday night speech to a joint session of Congress could begin to fill in some of those blank spots.
Some of his agenda is conventional conservatism as it has been defined since and even before Reagan. Domestically, Trump is for lower taxes and less regulation to spur business activity and economic growth. Bannon used a phrase that perhaps sounded ominous to describe the struggle to enact this agenda. He called it the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
In less grandiose language, it represents an effort to pare back the federal government. Republicans have long advocated exactly that. Reagan tried and was partially successful in taming the federal behemoth — but not the deficit. Trump’s advocacy of these policies is one big reason so many traditional conservatives, and particularly Republican elected officials, are making their peace with a president whose candidacy they opposed and whose language and style repelled them throughout the 2016 election.
Trump and Reagan shared something else: Each sought to redefine the Republican Party as one that was open and welcoming to working-class Americans, many of them longtime Democratic voters. Reagan battled the Republican establishment on his way to the presidency, and he sought to create a new coalition of voters for the party.
“The New Republican Party that I envision will not be and cannot be one limited to the country club, big-business image that, for reasons both fair and unfair, it is burdened with today,” Reagan told CPAC in 1977. “The New Republican Party I am speaking about is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat.”
Like Reagan, who brought many white ethnic, working-class voters to his side during the 1980s, Trump owes his victory in part to his success in attracting more support than previous GOP candidates from that same constituency. On Friday, Trump said: “The GOP will be, from now on, the party of the American worker. . . . We will not answer to donors or lobbyists or special interests.” (That, even though his Cabinet is populated by billionaires and Wall Street veterans.)
Trump and Bannon see a world of entangling alliances and multinational trade agreements that they seem to believe have ill served the United States and the American worker. They cast themselves as part of a right-wing populist movement challenging governments throughout Europe over immigration, refugees and other policies. For Trump, the Islamic State and radical Islamists represent the greatest threat to security and stability.
Trump and Bannon would argue that the world is far different than it was when Reagan came to power. The Soviet Union, with which Reagan battled, no longer exists. Trump sees Russia as a potential ally against the Islamic State. But Russia’s interference in the election casts a shadow over Trump’s presidency, and Trump’s gentleness toward an aggressive Russian President Vladimir Putin is anathema to Reaganites.
Trump opened his speech Friday with another screed at the media as dishonest, repeating his claim that news organizations are the enemy of the American people. When Reagan appeared before CPAC in 1981 shortly after his inauguration, he said this:
“During our political efforts, we were the subject of much indifference and often times intolerance, and that’s why I hope our political victory will be remembered as a generous one and our time in power will be recalled for the tolerance we showed for those with whom we disagree. . . . We must hold out this exciting prospect of an orderly, compassionate, pluralistic society, an archipelago of prospering communities and divergent institutions.”
That too is a contrast between the 40th president and the 45th.