There are some conservatives who believe that Donald Trump is taking conservatism in the wrong direction. They would like to get back to the model of conservatism for which Ronald Reagan stood. Is conservatism shaped differently by the realities of 2020, or should we as conservatives be embracing something similar to Reagan’s 1980 platform?
Adam L. Fuller: Hello, Brad. There are some conservatives who believe that Donald Trump is taking conservatism in the wrong direction. They would like to get back to the model of conservatism that Ronald Reagan stood for. A good example of such a person is Marcus Witcher in his recent article in The Washington Post. He argued that conservatism is properly and universally “a belief in the rule of law, free trade, civil society, decentralization and working though international organizations abroad.”
Brad, do you agree with Professor Witcher, or do you think as I do that conservatism is shaped differently by the realities of 2020, or do you think we as conservatives should be embracing something more similar to Reagan’s 1980 platform?
Bradley J. Birzer: Hello again, Adam. It’s great to be talking with you. I think I read Professor Witcher (whom I admire very much) in a more “meta” way. That is, as much as policy is involved, there’s also something critical about character that matters here. When Ronald Reagan spoke, he spoke eloquently and with conviction. As the “great communicator,” especially, he always brought his opponents—whether Tip O’Neill or the Soviet premier—into the conversation. He treated every opponent as a person with some dignity. Mr. Trump, however (and again, without necessarily referring to his policies), seems to revel in divisiveness. And, frankly, many of Mr. Trump’s more extreme critics are disgusting people, in terms of character, intent, and policy. I’m sure that more people like Mr. Trump because of his enemies than they actually like Mr. Trump.
Yet, policy matters as well. Reagan, at least in his rhetoric, always carefully balanced his desire for minimal government at home with his desire for an end of communism (maximum government!) abroad. Reagan openly called himself both a libertarian and an anti-communist. In the late 1960s, in his excellent book, The Creative Society, he tried to meld these positions into something coherent. Recognizing fundamental human and natural rights, Reagan argued that society worked best when the individual genius was unleashed, ready to promote excellence within the common good. Communism, he noted correctly, dampened genius and the human spirit, and thus was extraordinarily unnatural. In a sense, then, Reagan wanted to unleash the human potential here and abroad.
While Mr. Trump has done a number of good things as president—especially in his judicial appointments, his pro-life stance, and his deregulation of certain industries—he has failed to build a coherent community based on hope. Reagan told us it’s always morning in America. While this might be cynically seen as sentimental goop, it did rally people at home and abroad to fight for their dignity and their rights. Mr. Trump, rather, spends so much of his public time denigrating his opponents and bragging about his successes.
I’m also reminded of Reagan’s May 17, 1981 speech at the University of Notre Dame, in which he stated the three most important words for a conservative (for the West) were compassion, endurance, and sacrifice. This is the America, I prefer.
And how about you? Do you think I’m being too utopian and nostalgic regarding Reagan and too pessimistic regarding Mr. Trump? Do you think that Professor Witcher makes a coherent argument, one way or the other?
AF: Respectfully, Brad, I do think you’re being too nostalgic regarding Reagan. There are two particular reasons I have for saying this. And while I do think Professor Witcher’s argument is coherent, it is anachronistic to see Reaganism as a suitable model for us today.
But to first address the problem with the nostalgia for Reagan, I don’t think he was nearly as optimistic about America’s path forward as you’re saying. His “Time for Choosing” speech at the 1964 RNC had a tone and message of dire worry for America’s future. His acceptance speech at the 1980 RNC was equally dire. He said that America was boiling in “economic stew.” And while he certainly believed in universal human dignity, Reagan had no regard for the likes of Tip O’Neill or communists abroad. He certainly did not see the Democrats as partners in the rebuilding of America, but as nefarious enemies to be defeated. When Sam Donaldson asked him if he accepts any blame for the recession, Reagan famously answered, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”
It is true, of course, that despite all of America’s challenges and the progressive ruling elite driving our country into a chasm, Reagan did assert hope and possibility for America’s future if only we do things differently. But I would argue that Mr. Trump does this too. Hope and possibility are indeed implicit in his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I think it’s clear that, like Reagan, Mr. Trump still has enormous faith in the American people.
The second reason I think the nostalgia is misplaced is that 1980 is not 2020. With the rise of identity politics and the stronghold the Left has on almost every institution that matters in this country including the corporate sector, the U.S. is afflicted with even greater dangers than Reagan dealt with in his era. And this brings me to the main problem I have with Professor Witcher. While “the rule of law, free trade, civil society, decentralization and working though international organizations abroad” are things that in normal times should be embraced by conservatives, almost all of them are working against all the things that conservatives hold sacred, namely American sovereignty, protection of American interests, family values, law and order, and a rejection of statism.
BB: Adam, excellent response.
Let me, for a moment though, speak in mythic terms. If we look at the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980, America was a disaster. The Soviets or their proxies had expanded into Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Cambodia, etc. Our policy in Vietnam ended not just in loss, but in monumental inhumanity. Containment, as a policy, was not just failed, but actually quite miserable.
Domestically, we had scandals galore, not least of which was Watergate. Economically, we had high unemployment rates and high inflation.
Yet, throughout all of this, ordinary Americans persevered in their faith that America meant something exceptional. I remember very well the summer of 1976. In my little hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, we kids painted all the fire hydrants in town as our favorite American Revolutionaries, neighbors read out loud copies of the Declaration of Independence, and we celebrated the bicentennial with absolute gusto. That year, Reagan came so close to getting the Republican presidential nomination. Yet, when he lost, he did so with dignity.
Four years later, Reagan—representing all that was grand in the American experiment—came to power. His hope—his optimism—became American hope and American optimism. After two years of brutal struggle, he got the economy back on track, and, even more importantly, he—along with some very important allies—defeated the Soviet empire.
If you and I had been around to speak our minds in 1967, 1977, or early 1980, we might very well have thought that America had run its course. The Reagan years, 1981-1989, not only proved otherwise, but they proved that America had the ability to dare to be excellent. Our economy, our foreign policy, our very soul became right again.
Then, of course, we blew it. Becoming the only superpower, we prided ourselves too much on our empire and thought we could remake the world in our own image. Growing economically, we forgot the source of that growth and became titillated by our own wealth. Then, 2008.
In other words, Reagan embodied the American spirit and gave us hope.
AF: Thank you for your thoughtful insight, Brad.
There is absolutely no disagreement between us that Reagan was one of the greatest presidents and quite clearly the best that we as conservatives have ever had, or probably ever will have. And if I might even give a rare nod to his acting career, I have to confess that I enjoy Bedtime for Bonzo. But his absolutely best serious movie was Storm Warning, in which he plays an FBI agent battling white supremacists. Whereas I don’t know why anyone in his right mind would waste time watching The Apprentice. Even as a showman, Reagan did vastly superior work.
But turning back to politics, I admire that he put his country above all else. He embodied all that was great about America. His hope and optimism shined through. And most of all, he was the best public spokesman for conservatism that we have ever had in America.
My point, however, is that we are comparing apples and oranges. These are frightening times. The Left is routinely pitting people against each other, with their Critical Race Theory, their “Defund the Police” movement, the chaos in the streets that their own leaders won’t even criticize, the rising number broken families and a chronic dependence on government, and their blather about “privilege” and “toxic masculinity.” Almost all institutions—even much of the corporate and religious sectors—are under the spell of the Left’s powerful and enticing narratives that are destroying our country. Do you really think that if we had Reagan here today, even he would be capable of uniting us? These problems are not comparable to the political scandals of the 1970s or the threat of communism. Both of those helped our country unite.
And even if he could unite us, he isn’t here. As William Rusher once said, “Reagans don’t grow on trees.” The choice is not Mr. Trump or Reagan resurrected. Rather, the choice is between milquetoast accommodationists who refuse to stray outside the guardrails that the Left sets, or a man who despite having a very flawed character at least understands what is at stake. He responds to the voice of quiet desperation that millions of Americans have been feeling for a long time. You and I both live in the Rust Belt—you, Michigan and me, Ohio—so we both see the hope Mr. Trump is bringing to so many Americans who are tired of our country being ruled by the Left and the Republicans who accommodate them.
To conclude, I want to thank you for a spirited discussion.
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