How Reagan Handled Attempts to Tie Him to Hate

Trump can learn something about how to heal racial division from the last populist GOP president

Long before President Donald Trump was accused of catering to racists, showing racial insensitivity, and other moral crimes, Ronald Reagan faced similar accusations as a governor, as a candidate, and as a president.

Former President Reagan was often the subject of invective accusing him of the worst sort of motives, including racism and hatred — incendiary accusations much like those Trump has endured since he declared his candidacy in 2015.

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Trump has struggled to shrug off the attacks and reinvigorated a media firestorm Tuesday afternoon over his willingness to condemn white nationalists with a meandering and poorly advised press conference.

Perhaps the president can learn a lesson in how to deal with the explosive issue of race from his most recent, populist predecessor.

For Reagan, when his hand was forced, he would forcefully rebut the charges, according to Craig Shirley, a top Reagan biographer and author of the recent biography, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative.”

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Reagan also did not hesitate to denounce racism and its practitioners, Shirley told LifeZette on Tuesday.

The 1980 Campaign Kickoff
On Aug. 3, 1980, Reagan attended the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Some at the time — and still, to this day — call this the campaign kickoff.

It wasn’t, says Shirley. Reagan had already kicked off his campaign in Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

The proximity of the fair to Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 — was used by The New York Times and others to bash Reagan. Reagan attended the fair and spoke of states’ rights as a sort of dog whistle to racists in the South, the hostile media narrative went.

The slur still lingers in liberal echo chambers, such as the op-ed pages of The Times. But Shirley notes the fair is one of the biggest political events in Mississippi. Reagan’s opponent, Democratic President Jimmy Carter, had won Mississippi in 1976, and it made sense for Reagan to go there.

To this day, there is almost no explanation in screeds against Reagan that the fair is a big political draw. Indeed, the fair’s website notes that the fair got a reputation as a must-attend political event when the governor spoke there in 1896. Over the years, the fair drew “Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Sen. John Glenn [the Ohio Democrat].” Shirley notes that liberal Democrat Mike Dukakis, of Massachusetts, also went there in 1988.

Reagan handled the whole controversy by focusing campaign attention on winning over black voters and speaking at the Urban League, Shirley said. Reagan easily defeated President Jimmy Carter on Nov. 4, 1980.

The Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Reagan for re-election in 1984. As usual, the endorsement was used against Reagan in much the same way a Klan endorsement was used against Trump in 2016.

Reagan responded by “ripping them apart,”said Shirley. Reagan wrote to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and denounced the Klan.

”Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse,” Reagan wrote. “The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.”

Reagan went on to resoundingly defeat former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat.

By the time he left office in 1989, Reagan had an approval rating of above 40 percent among black voters, according to Shirley, “which is astonishing for a post-Eisenhower Republican.”

Reagan was also the subject of many cheap shots throughout his political career, some of which he wisely ignored.

In 1966, Reagan first ran for California governor. Incumbent Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, a Democrat and the father of current California Gov. Jerry Brown, compared Reagan, then a retired actor, to John Wilkes Booth, the actor who killed President Abraham Lincoln. The Brown campaign never recovered. Reagan unseated Brown by a 15-point margin.

Trump Can Look to Reagan
Trump can and should look to Reagan’s numerous examples on racial healing — there are many — as he tries to handle the fallout from violence at the Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist rally on Saturday that led to the death of three Americans.

“He’s got to embrace the police investigation, and he ought to meet with African-American leaders,” said Shirley. “He ought to give a national speech on race relations. He’s got to reach out.”

Trump made several promises to black voters, such as rebuilding inner cities and bringing job opportunities to poor areas. He needs to begin making that happen, Shirley advised.

On Tuesday, after Shirley spoke to LifeZette, Trump gave a press conference in Trump Tower in which he appeared to, again, blame “both sides” for the Charlottesville, Virginia, tragedy. It did not go over well with pundits.

“He’s taking on water,” said Shirley. “That all needs to change.”

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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