Does Trump Measure Up to Reagan? What You Must Know
A noted historian bluntly and thoroughly assesses the strengths, issues and eras of these two key conservative presidents
“I’ve said over and over again that Trump is the most effective anti-liberal president in my lifetime.”
These words weren’t said by some millennial supporter of President Donald Trump, but from one of the most important and impactful conservative leaders in recent history, not to mention a very savvy politician: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
With a career spanning over four decades, the former representative of Georgia’s 6th District believes that Trump “is [pushing conservatism] with regulations, he’s doing it with his tax policies; the tax cuts are working. And so the Left is right on the edge of seeing their entire lifetime of effort to make this a left-wing country just go down the drain.”
Gingrich is no blind disciple of Trump. When there are disagreements between the two, Gingrich makes his opposition public.
Some of Trump’s antics have simply left him sighing and shaking his head in disbelief. However, as a historian and conservative legate who served at the vanguard of the Reagan era, Gingrich should realize how premature such a statement is.
There are two issues here to address: 1) Trump as the “most effective,” and 2) Trump as the most “anti-liberal president.”
Both of those honors belong to Ronald Wilson Reagan.
In the 1980 election, at the worst of America’s bad economy, foreign policy, and at the worst of its inflation and negative GDP, came Ronald Reagan. He bested incumbent Jimmy Carter, winning 44 of 50 states. He won 50.7 percent of the vote, and won, in total, 489 electoral votes versus Carter’s meager 49 votes. It was a landslide in every definition of the word. In the 1984 election, Reagan beat Walter Mondale in all but one state: Minnesota.
And even that state was close, with Reagan trailing less than 4,000 votes of over 2 million cast. Reagan won the youth vote — gaining 67 percent! Astonishing for a Republican, but Reagan was not like any other Republican before him.
Compare that to Trump’s sole election: It’s been repeated, to the Democrats’ chagrin, that Trump won the electoral vote, and lost, by historical margins, the popular vote. While no one will argue the merits of the electoral college here, it’s hard to say Trump’s winning one and not the other is an endorsement of the man.
Since then, Trump’s approval rating has only gone down, averaging around 40 percent and never reaching above 50.
Throughout the eight years of Reagan’s career, his approval reached no higher than 71 percent (in 1986) and his disapproval reached no higher than 53 percent, with an overall approval average of 52 percent.
Trump cannot even reach that average. Full stop. Hardly a vote of confidence for the 45th president.
Further, Reagan never had complete control of both chambers of Congress; he was forced to work with legislators like committed leftist Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Yet Reagan managed to pass economic reform; he managed to pass treaties and laws to further a conservative agenda.
The Senate was controlled by Republicans for all but two years, but the House was always squarely in the hands of Democrats and liberals.
Trump, on the other hand, has both in his party’s control. In fact, he has the largest Republican margin in the House since 1928. Yet he couldn’t get the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) repealed. His tax cut was minuscule compared to Reagan’s. His appointments to the Supreme Court are rife with controversy and high stakes, so it’s unsurprising when the nuclear option had to be invoked to confirm Gorsuch with a 54-45 vote.
The confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh will depend entirely on whether it can get done before or after the midterms and if he survives accusations that date back more than 35 years.
Reagan, on the other hand, successfully nominated and the Senate confirmed Sandra Day O’Connor (the court’s first woman) with a vote of 99-0.
He nominated, and the Senate confirmed, William Renquist to be the chief justice, with a vote of 65-33.
He nominated, and the Senate confirmed, with a unanimous vote, Antonin Scalia.
Imagine that: a vote by all senators, liberal and conservative, to appoint a very Reaganesque judge — pro-life, anti-affirmative action, originalist — and the Democrats supported him. The only failure for Reagan was the nomination of Robert Bork, through smears and lies, but that failure was quickly remedied with the nomination and successful appointment of Anthony Kennedy.
Lest we forget what Reagan said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
Four “yeses” and one “no” is hardly a failure of appointments.
Reagan’s eight years saw the economy boom, from a negative 0.3 percent GDP in 1980 to an incredible 4.1 percent, with an annual average of 3.5 percent. Inflation was originally a crippling 13.5 percent and dropped an incredible 10 points eight years later. Unemployment, which in 1982 was double digits (10.8 percent), dropped by the end of his presidency to 5.4 percent. Black unemployment went from 21.2 percent to 11.8 percent.
Twenty-one million more jobs went on the market during the eight years. Median income of the family increased $4,000. All of this happened through conservative means, with a liberally controlled Congress. Reagan restored American morale, which Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon had turned to dust.
Along the way, Reagan brought down the Soviet Union, one of the most significant events in the 20th century.
Reagan changed history. Reagan bent history.
President Donald Trump has done some good. Throughout all the controversy, he has gotten some good, conservative laws and appointments passed.
But he has betrayed some conservative causes. The trade and tariff war, for instance, flies in the face of conservatives’ call for a free market. His recent $6 billion bailout of American farmers screams socialism or, at the very least, “the government is here to help you.”
And lest we forget what Reagan said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
President Trump is a man who infuriates both liberals and conservatives, a man who is more of a showman and entertainer than politician. He’s a man who, undoubtedly, wants to be better — but he cannot even begin to touch that legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.”