past is prologue

Trump Didn’t Hijack Reagan’s GOP; It Was Never Fully His

Reagan said good-bye long before the myth surrounding him died. Photo: Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty Images

Anti-Trump Republicans insist that Donald Trump has hijacked a party whose soul still belongs to the old-school conservatism of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But the esteemed New York Times number cruncher Nate Cohn challenged that assertion this week. Cohn said that a recent New York Times–Siena College poll shows rank-and-file Republican have left key tenets of traditional conservatism behind. In other words, it’s not just Trump veering into heresy:

For more than 30 years, the Republican Party was defined by Ronald Reagan’s famous three-legged stool: a coalition of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and national security hawks.

It’s not Mr. Reagan’s party anymore.

Today, a majority of Republicans oppose many of the positions that defined the party as recently as a decade ago, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released last week.

Only around one-third of Republican voters takes the traditionally conservative side on each of same-sex marriage, entitlements and America’s role in the world — three issues that defined George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and correspond with each leg of Mr. Reagan’s stool.

It’s a bit disingenuous to take yesterday’s salient issues and define them as characteristic of “conservatism” writ large; Republicans, for example, are no longer fighting same-sex marriage because they understand they’ve lost that battle (one that for a while George W. Bush seemed to be winning). That doesn’t mean they aren’t still fighting LGBTQ rights on many other fronts. And the anti-communism that animated Reagan’s view of America’s role in the world naturally declined in significance along with communism itself (though fear of quasi-communist China may bring some of it back). There are also some continuing ideological mainstays of conservatism that haven’t changed that much, including anti-feminism and anti-anti-racism.

But Cohn is right that Republicans are showing no interest in going back to a distinctive Reagan-Bush conservative agenda defined by the famous “three-legged stool” of free-market economics, religion-based cultural views, and anti-communist internationalism. I’d disagree, however, with the idea that Trump wrestled Republicans away from their traditional creed and has kept them there. In many respects, the MAGA movement is returning Republicans to an older but still rock-ribbed conservatism that was long ignored but never went away.

Probably the most decisive breaks Republicans under Trump’s influence have made from Reagan-Bush conservatism were on trade, immigration, and a foreign policy rooted in universal values and global alliances. But much older GOP traditions on all these issues are really just returning.

Yes, Reagan mostly favored free trade. He launched a “round” of multilateral trade-expansion negotiations and began the talks with Canada and Mexico that culminated in NAFTA. But it’s Reagan who represented a new GOP tradition on trade. Economic nationalism and protectionism all but defined the Republican Party (and its predecessor party, the Whigs) throughout the 19th century; the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 signed by Herbert Hoover arguably represented the high-water mark of American protectionism, likely deepening the Great Depression. Recurrences of GOP protectionism broke out more recently, notably under Richard Nixon (whose southern supporters led by Strom Thurmond regularly secured textile import quotas). There was always an economic nationalist rump faction in the GOP even in Reagan and Bush’s days; as with so many paleo-conservative causes given new relevance by Trump, Pat Buchanan kept the flag waving for protectionism.

Reagan also championed the libertarian–Wall Street cause of expanded immigration and immigration “amnesty.” By the time George W. Bush embraced the same cause, it had spurred a large and angry conservative backlash, which killed W.’s push for “comprehensive immigration reform” and paved the way for MAGA neo-nativism. This, too, was a very old Republican tradition, expressed most thoroughly by the blatantly racist Immigration Act of 1924, signed by Calvin Coolidge. This law, which stayed in force until 1965, imposed strict immigration quotas by national origin, with a big thumb on the scales in favor of Northern Europeans. Nothing Trump has proposed breaks particularly new ground.

And yes, Reagan was the preeminent Cold Warrior who not only favored sharply higher defense spending and a worldwide network of anti-communist (albeit often racist or authoritarian) allies, but anticipated George W. Bush in proclaiming a universal global mission to which America (the “shining city on the hill”) was uniquely called. But Reagan also hailed from a conservative wing of the GOP that had long rejected “entangling alliances,” attacked “no-win wars” (a favorite target of Barry Goldwater), and insisted that national interests (“America First,” the term first deployed by heartland isolationists between the two World Wars) had to be elevated over international principles, institutions, or alliances. The death of communism as a threatening global network naturally brought the older tradition back into fashion, particularly when it became obvious that the “forever wars” launched by Bush after 9/11 weren’t brief and lethal enough to satisfy the urge for righteous vengeance.

Reagan became an enduring icon for Republicans mostly because he led his party to a cathartic victory in 1980 (restoring a majority that Nixon’s corruption ruined) and a historic landslide in 1984 while embracing a conservative movement that had never been fully welcome in a Republican White House. He also helped that movement burst out of its southern and midwestern homeland to achieve respectability everywhere: Reagan swept the northeastern and Pacific Coast states twice, and though Republicans lost the Senate during his second term and the White House after his successor’s first term, his name was synonymous with happy Election Nights for grassroots conservatives and a milder but still palpable sense of “owning the libs” (who couldn’t stop describing Reagan as a “B-movie actor” and his followers as rubes).

Now, Trump is the only winning Republican presidential candidate since W.’s narrow, 9/11-influenced reelection 20 years ago, and his views on trade, immigration, and national security are very popular among Republican voters, as Nate Cohn demonstrates. Today, it’s Republican elites who are trying to impose Reagan-Bush ideology on an unwilling party. Even if Trump loses in 2024 and/or goes to prison, old-school conservatism of the Reagan-Bush variety is not going to return; it left shallow roots in a party whose older conservative tradition is the mythical America Trump is promising to restore.

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Trump Didn’t Hijack Reagan’s GOP; It Was Never Fully His