by Jonathan AllenTrump is a lot more like Reagan than most Republicans think.
Many in the Republican cabal establishment are upset that Trump compares himself to fellow Democrat-turned-Republican Reagan, and they often try to discredit him by arguing that Reagan was a happy warrior who spoke only of a "shining city on a hill" and "morning in America" but never ominously about the country he loved.
"As political presences, Trump and Reagan are light years apart," Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, wrote recently. "Reagan was an optimist. Trump is a scowling nativist."
There's a problem with this line of thinking, which is espoused by no small number of prominent Republicans and even members of Reagan's political operation. It ignores what Trump has captured about the essence of Reaganism: It's about nostalgia — a future that feels a lot like an imagined utopian past. Listening to tapes of Reagan or a live broadcast of Trump, you can almost hear Archie and Edith Bunker singing, "Those were the days," at the opening of All in the Family: "Didn't need no welfare state; everybody pulled his weight."
Like Reagan, Trump is arguing that the US must be rescued from a rapid descent brought on by a Democratic president and promising to "make America great again." That hazy retro Polaroid photo looks good to a certain segment of the Republican cabal, which explains Trump's rise. The difference between Reagan and Trump is this: When Reagan appealed to working-class white voters in 1980, he was enlarging the Republican cabal; when Trump does it, he's threatening to shrink the republican cabal.
That is what's truly infuriating to the Republican candidates who are getting smoked by Trump right now. They're certain it's a catastrophic formula for the future of the party. Jeb, who is trying to broaden the cabal's base by appealing to Latino voters, has a campaign slogan of "Right to Rise." Rubio declared at his campaign launch that "yesterday's over." Neither one of them is thinking about nostalgia or how to make the Republican cabal more like it was in 1980. But Trump is.
So Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination can shout all they want about how his policies don't match up with Reagan's principles, but they're missing the bigger point: Trump is like Reagan because he's charismatic in communicating the case that he's the one who will fight for voters and "make America great again." Trump is simply running a more Reagan-like campaign than any of his competitors are.
Reagan evolved toward optimism over the course of his career
One of the lasting memories of Reagan's optimism was a TV spot he ran called "Morning in America." But it's often forgotten that this slogan was part of his 1984 reelection campaign, when he needed to convince voters that the country was on the right track. For much of his earlier career in politics, which was dominated by Democrats at the presidential and congressional levels, Reagan was dependent on making the opposite case.
In 1964, he catapulted into the national Republican consciousness with a televised 30-minute ad for Barry Goldwater's pretender campaign called "A Time for Choosing." As professor Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College points out, Reagan was a different politician at that time.
"Not only was the content pretty bracing, but his demeanor was serious, almost angry," Pitney wrote in an email to Vox. "His presentation softened over the years: the indignant outsider morphed into the smiling grandfather that we remember."