Why Reagan would have supported a primary challenge to Trump
Even before President Trump’s shocking abuse of power in pressuring Ukraine – and urging communist China – to dig up political dirt on his rivals, there was a fledgling effort in the Republican Party to find someone who could mount a credible challenge to Trump’s quest for re-nomination. Now that the president faces the very real possibility of impeachment, there is a new urgency to the cause.
Admittedly, it is not in most Republicans’ DNA to attempt to unseat a president of their party. But sometimes we must. The greatest Republican president of modern times – perhaps in history – taught us so 44 years ago. Here’s what he said:
“…our nation needs to embark on a new, constructive course. I believe my candidacy will be healthy for the nation and my party. I am running because I have grown increasingly concerned about the course of events in the United States and in the world.”
With those words, Ronald Reagan did what many considered unthinkable: He ran against an incumbent president for his party’s nomination.
In some ways, it was an agonizing decision for Reagan. A party loyalist, he believed that one should not speak ill of a fellow Republican. In other ways, it was a pretty easy call. Reagan thought Gerald Ford’s policies were bad for the country and felt he had no choice but to offer Republican voters an alternative.
In recalling Reagan’s courage in opposing his party’s president, one is tempted to wonder whether Reagan, were he alive, would encourage a primary challenge to Donald Trump. I worked for him for many years and knew him well, and my guess is that he would, because Reagan cared about America.
Trump’s attack on Hispanics would be particularly troubling to Reagan. Perhaps because he was from California, Reagan viewed America’s relationship with Mexico to be among our most important. Mexico was the first country Reagan visited after his election in 1980, even before he was sworn in as president. Reagan wanted to stress how much he valued the relationship with our neighbor to the south.
Reagan would also be troubled to see how Trump kowtows to some of the world’s most evil dictators. Reagan would be horrified by how willing Trump is to accept Russian president Vladimir Putin’s word on everything, how shamelessly Trump cozies up to brutal North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un and how easily Trump turns a blind eye to the murderous ways of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
A staunch human rights advocate, Reagan was not afraid to call out any oppressive leader or regime. He labeled the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” said Libyan despot Muammar Gadhafi was a tyrant who made his country “a synonym for barbarism” and publicly condemned Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and his ruling party for perpetrating “widespread fraud and violence” in Marcos’ campaign for re-election.
Has Trump ever had the courage to speak that way about a foreign foe? Hardly. On the contrary, his sharpest criticisms have been aimed at American allies.
Reagan thought a president’s most important mission was to inspire. He was guided by a compelling vision of what our country could and should be, calling it “a shining city upon a hill.” In sharp contrast, Donald Trump rarely, if ever, articulates an uplifting vision of America. Indeed in his very first speech as president he spoke of an American “carnage,” and just a few months ago, called Baltimore a “disgusting rodent-infested mess.”
Beyond all of that, Trump’s behavior would disturb Reagan most. Specifically, Reagan would disapprove of how Trump stokes fear and division in a cynical effort to boost his status and diminish anyone who dares oppose him. Trump’s name-calling, personal insults, credit-taking, blaming and willingness to sling mud and take the low road might amuse some Republican voters and energize “the base.” But it is hardly the stuff of greatness, and is certainly beneath the dignity of the office of president of the United States. And it would appall Ronald Reagan.
Reagan viewed the presidency as a sacred institution belonging to the American people, of which presidents are merely given temporary custody.
It would sadden and anger Reagan that parents have to mute the television news when their kids are in the room for fear that they may hear what Trump said, or block Twitter so they cannot see the obscenities he types in all capital letters.
Many presidential elections end up being captured in a single question:
When Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter, it was “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
In 2016 it was: “Do we want more of the same or someone who will really shake things up?”
Perhaps 2020’s should be: “Is this the president you want as a role model for your kids?”
If that is the overriding question, what Reagan said and did 44 years ago might very well be thinkable again. In fact, if history somehow allowed, he might be tempted to do so himself.
Mark Weinberg is a communications consultant and executive speechwriter who served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in the Reagan White House and director of public affairs in the office of former President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of the best-selling memoir, “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster).
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