Trump’s America: A farewell to Reagan’s shining city

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The other day I was feeling nostalgic for a time when the Republican Party stood for principles, so I re-read Ronald Reagan’s farewell address from the Oval Office. It was classic Reagan — heartfelt, full of imagery and anecdotes, optimistic, and unpretentious.

In his typical self-effacing way, he didn’t make the speech just about him. He was called “The Great Communicator” but he humbly saw himself as the messenger, a trusted servant to the people who elected him. The “great things” he accomplished, he said in his speech, “didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation.”

Reagan discussed his accomplishments, namely the economic recovery and that “America is respected again in the world, and looked to for leadership.” But his presidency was so much more than tax cuts and defense budgets. As Reagan saw it, the 1980s were “the Great Rediscovery: a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”

The speech was about 34,000 words in length, but it was one paragraph toward the end — his shining city analogy — that described so vividly his vision for America:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace — a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Reagan borrowed the analogy from John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts who, upon setting sail for New England in 1630, wrote that, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. The phrase has come to signify American exceptionalism, that America should be a moral example for the rest of the world.

After reading that paragraph, I thought to myself, “Is Reagan’s city still shining today? Have Republicans stayed true to his ideals? If you look at the components of Reagan’s shining city, the answer is a resounding no.

“A tall proud city”:  Reagan said one of the things he was most proud of was “the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism.” But he warned that “it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”

Today, the nation is not proud; rather, it is ashamed by the conduct and character of a president who is thoughtless and unknowledgeable. Reagan spoke about the importance of “teaching our children what America is and what she represents.” Do Republicans feel proud to explain Donald Trump to their children?

“Built on rocks stronger than oceans”:  Reagan recounted in his speech that he left the entertainment industry to go into politics because he wanted “to protect something precious: We the People.” He added, “We the People tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us.”

In Donald Trump’s America, the rocks of our constitutional foundation are eroding into sand. There is a crisis of confidence in our government driven by a president who has no respect for the Constitution, government institutions, or the rule of law. Trump is a threat to our Constitution, not a protector.

“Teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace”: Reagan’s message was inclusive, optimistic and kindhearted. He was a role model, especially among younger, more impressionable Americans who saw their president as a moral leader, not just a commander-in-chief.

But today, people are not living in harmony or peace. The current president’s anger and incendiary rhetoric have stoked fear and division in our communities and schools. Worst of all, he sends a message to our children that it is alright to bully, ridicule and treat people like second class citizens.

“A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity”:  Reagan believed that free trade was synonymous with freedom. In his Thanksgiving radio address in 1988, he railed about the dangers of tariffs: “Beware of the demagogues who are ready to declare a trade war with our friends — weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world — all while cynically waving the American flag.”

Because of Trump’s tariffs, our nation’s ports are not free. Trump falsely claims that China will pay for U.S.-imposed tariffs, but the cost of those tariffs falls on American businesses and consumers. Trump’s protectionist policies are the antithesis of Reagan’s economic “vision of a peaceful and prosperous world.”

“If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here”:  Immigration is perhaps the biggest difference between Reagan’s shining city and Trump’s America. On reflecting back on his eight years as president and what they meant to him, Reagan told a story of a boat of refugees in the South China sea who were picked up by a U.S. aircraft carrier. When the refugees got close to the carrier, one of them yelled, “Hello, American sailor — Hello, Freedom Man.”  Reagan said, “That’s what it… was to be an American in the 1980’s; We stood, again, for freedom.”

Conversely, Trump’s immigration policy is one word: wall. He has transformed America from a beacon of hope into a bastion of fearmongers and nativists. Reagan couldn’t get the image of a refugee and a sailor out of his head; today, freedom-loving people can’t get the image of separated children out of theirs. 

In closing out his shining city analogy, Reagan asked a nation: “That’s how I saw it, and see it still. How stands the city?” 

Republicans surrendered the city, and today it has lost its shine, begrimed with the darkness of a demagogue president who exhibits none of the values by which Reagan governed and lived. And without values, what does the Republican Party, and a country, really have?

John Stimpson served as an aide to former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld. He has since worked in senior business development roles in the hedge funds industry. He lives in New York City.

Tags Conservatism in the United States Donald Trump Donald Trump Ronald Reagan Shining city on a hill

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