It is dangerous to make too much of historical parallels. At first glance, however, the similarities between the 70-year-old Donald Trump, as he accepts the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and the 69-year-old Ronald Reagan back in July 1980 appear uncanny.
That year, with America racked by socio-economic unrest at home and diminished credibility abroad, the Reagan campaign theme was “Let’s Make America Great Again”. Sound familiar?
A younger Donald meets Ronald.
Both conventions were held in rust-belt towns: Detroit in 1980, Cleveland in 2016. Both party platforms reached out to white working-class folks who fell out with Democratic elites.
But the striking similarities go beyond conventions. Political outsiders, Reagan and Trump had striking hair and left-liberal baggage. Indeed, both had been Democrats. (The Donald says: “I’ve evolved”; whereas The Gipper said: “I did not leave the Democratic party; the party left me.”)
In early 1980, the Republican primaries opened with a bang when George H.W. Bush upset Reagan in the Iowa Caucuses – just as Ted Cruz shocked Trump 36 years later. Midway through the campaign, Reagan sacked his campaign manager John Sears in a disagreement over strategy – just as Trump fired his right-hand man Corey Lewandowski in a disagreement over strategy.
The derogatory things many people, including Republicans, say about Trump are uncannily similar to what many people back in the late ’70s and early ’80s said about Reagan. He’s stupid, ignorant, polarising, incompetent, vacuous, he has too narrow a base to win a general election, and he proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems – all these barbs have been hurled at both Republican leaders.
According to the conventional media wisdom, neither Reagan nor Trump could win the Republican nomination, much less defeat the Democrat candidate in November. In March 1980 former Republican President Gerard Ford warned: “Every place I go and everything I hear, there is growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election.”
You can just imagine other Republican nominees George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney making the same point about Trump.
But the similarities between the two Republican presidential candidates end there.
Take political experience. Although Trump flirted with running for the White House in 1988, 2000 and 2012, he has never held elective office. Reagan served two full terms as California governor, was a union president for seven terms and led a political movement for more than a decade before winning the nomination.
Trump is also a far different man, philosophically and stylistically, from Reagan. Trump is a populist who represents an angry backlash against Washington and Wall Street; Reagan was a conservative who held a sunny, optimistic view of America’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks.
Far from denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, Reagan proudly embraced immigration. He would never bag the war-hero credentials of someone like John McCain, who had spent six years in a Vietcong prison. Nor would he threaten to “spill the beans” on another candidate or deride his wife’s looks. Nor would he ridicule a disabled reporter or impugn a female journalist’s motives.
Instead of calling his opponents “crooked” or “liars”, Reagan would use a joke to disarm them. (My favourite was his response to left-wing critics who dismissed Reaganomics, even though it led to the longest economic expansion in peace at the time: “A friend of mine was asked to a costume ball a short time ago. He slapped some egg on his face and went as a liberal economist.”)
If Reagan wasn’t laughing at his rivals, he would poke fun at himself. (Another popular Gipper joke was his view about hard work: “It’s true it never killed anyone, but I figure, why take the chance?”) Trump is incapable of being funny, except in unintended ways.
Trump and Reagan are different in other ways. Take their worldviews. Reagan was a passionate advocate of America’s special mission to promote democracy around the world. He liked to quote Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”, which has prompted some commentators to hail Reagan as a neoconservative.
Trump, though, is not interested in any grand project to spread “freedom” around the globe. He just wants America to win again. “America, First” is his motto. And his fiercest critics are the neoconservative intellectuals, who say his foreign-policy views amount to “nativism” and “neo-isolationism”.
But the most evident difference is political. Trumpism repudiates many issues the Republican Party has represented since Reagan’s ascendancy four decades ago: low taxes, free trade, social conservatism and an activist and engaged foreign policy.
Trump has said he might raise taxes on the wealthy and hedge funds and increase the minimum wage. He opposes reforms to welfare entitlements. He wants to increase infrastructure spending. He parts company with chamber of commerce types on trade deals and commercial banking.
All this is why many American conservatives, as Ed Luce of the Financial Times has commented, think Trump is an “impostor” and why some journalists think he is “running to the left of Hillary Clinton”. But Trump is no ideologue. He reflects the kind of populist nationalist insurgencies that are threatening major political parties all over Europe.
One final difference: Reagan led a united Republican Party into the November election and won the first of two big presidential election victories. Reagan’s main primary challenger, Bush, ran as his loyal running mate and went on to serve two terms as vice-president.
Trump, on the other hand, leads a bitterly divided party that is splintering into several cantankerous factions. His main primary challenger, Ted Cruz, refused to even endorse him.
Which is one more reason why the reality TV star and casino and real estate tycoon is not like Reagan: Trump will lose in November and his campaign will be left on the ash heap of history.
Tom Switzer is a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and presenter of ABC Radio National’s Between the Lines. This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.