Trumpism versus Reaganism

The 2022 Republican primaries are turning into a showdown over the party’s direction: Trumpism versus Reaganism. Who controls the party — the Trump insurgency or the Reagan establishment? Each can claim some wins this year. But the message from Republican voters to Donald Trump is coming through loud and clear: ‘Move on! Stop obsessing about 2020!’

On the surface, there’s not much ideological difference between the Reagan Republican Party and the Trump Republican Party. Both are staunchly conservative. The difference is in the personal style and tactics of the men. Trump leads the radical right — a longstanding sinister force in American politics going back to the anti-immigrant Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, pro-Nazi supporters of America First, anti-Semitic supporters of Father Charles Coughlin, the Joe McCarthy movement, the John Birch Society and now QAnon.

The Trump phenomenon is more autocratic than its predecessors. Its highest principle is personal loyalty to Trump, who attacks anyone who defies him — even if they are on the same side politically. He publicly called Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican Senate Leader, a “dumb son of a bitch” and a “stone cold loser” for not doing more last year to block certification of Joe Biden’s electoral vote victory. 

This year, Trump is on a personal vendetta to wreak vengeance on his perceived enemies. He is campaigning to defeat Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) because she voted to impeach him for incitement of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump met with a wall of resistance in Georgia last week when his endorsed candidate for governor got crushed in the GOP primary and the secretary of state — who refused Trump’s demand that he “find” votes for Trump after the 2020 polls closed — got reelected.

Ronald Reagan held fast to his conservative beliefs but was tolerant of those who disagreed with him. His “Eleventh Commandment” was “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Yet no one ever accused Reagan of being a wuss. 

In a recent CBS News poll, a majority of Americans describe Trump’s Republican Party as “extreme.”

“We are facing a threat we have never faced before,” Rep. Cheney warned, “a former president attempting to unravel our constitutional republic.” And President Biden’s Democratic Party? A majority describe it as “weak.”

“Weak” versus “extreme” is not a happy choice for most voters.

A party taken over by extremists represents a particular danger in a two-party system like that of the United States — because sooner or later voters will demand change. When enough voters say, “We can’t go on like this,” they are likely to embrace whatever alternative is available.

Both parties need to solve their oxymoron problems. For Democrats, that means finding a tough liberal. There used to be plenty of tough liberals. Franklin D. Roosevelt told the 1936 Democratic National Convention, “[My enemies] are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!” Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas Macarthur, a World War II hero, for insubordination. John F. Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ever hear of “the Johnson treatment”? Defy LBJ and you might wake up thinking you were missing an important body part. Those old-fashioned Democrats were all big government liberals. But they were not to be trifled with.

Since the 1960s, “tough Democrats” have been hard to find. George McGovern was “a thousand percent” behind Sen. Tom Eagleton, his first running mate in 1972, until he was pressured into dropping Eagleton from the ticket.

Jimmy Carter was criticized as weak and ineffectual. Walter Mondale got pushed around by the special interests. Michael Dukakis got beaten up by “the wimp.” When the Democrats find a tough liberal, he wins (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). What’s behind Biden’s decline in the polls? He’s perceived as a “weak leader.”

Republicans have a different oxymoronic problem. They have to come up with a “nice conservative.” The stereotype of conservatives is mean and nasty: Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Rand Paul, Tucker Carlson.

Ronald Reagan defied the conservative stereotype. He was a nice conservative. He sometimes said harsh things. But voters knew Reagan was not going to start a war or throw old people out in the snow. With conservatives like Gingrich or Ted Cruz, they can’t be sure. No one has ever called Donald Trump a “nice guy.”

The message of the 2022 Republican primaries is that it is possible for Republican candidates to distance themselves from Trump and survive. An NBC News poll taken just before the 2020 election asked Republicans, “Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican party?” By 54 to 38 percent, Republicans in 2020 said they identified primarily with Trump. Those numbers have now reversed. When NBC News asked the question again this month, 58 percent of Republicans said their primary allegiance is to the party, and only 34 percent to Trump.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Alt-right autocrats Donald Trump Franklin D. Roosevelt Georgia primary election Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden Liz Cheney Loyalty Michael Dukakis Mitch McConnell President Ronald Reagan Public opinion QAnon Radical Right Rand Paul Republican Party right-wing extremism Right-wing populism Ronald Reagan Ted Cruz trumpism Tucker Carlson vendetta

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