Recently I wrote an essay for TIME magazine arguing that the party Ronald Reagan took such care in shaping is in danger of passing into history. The reason for this, I argued, was “the rise of Donald Trump, a man who is the antithesis of so much that Ronald Reagan stood for: intellectual depth and philosophical consistency, respect for ideas and elevated rhetoric, civility and personal grace.” The fact that Trump is the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, I pointed out, shows how far the GOP has drifted from the animating spirit of the most consequential and revered Republican since Abraham Lincoln.
Now along comes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Craig Shirley to offer a rejoinder to my essay. But among the main takeaways from Messrs. Gingrich and Shirley’s piece is that you should not claim to rebut an article you could not have possibly read.
If that claim seems unfair, consider that Gingrich and Shirley write, “It may be lamentable to Wehner, but Reaganism is not dead.” Yet if they had read my essay, they would know that what is lamentable to me is precisely the passing of Reaganism and what I call a “hostile takeover” of Reagan’s party by Mr. Trump. The core argument of my TIME magazine piece was the need for Republicans to reclaim the party of Reagan from Trumpism, meaning
Recapturing the spirit of Reagan – making our Republican Party a welcoming party once again, inclusive and open, united in its commitment to American ideals, hopeful about the future and attractive to working-class Americans. The kind of party, in other words, that Ronald and Nancy Reagan would be proud of.
If that wasn’t clear enough, this, presumably, should have been:
If Trump wins the nomination, he will go some distance toward undoing the influence of Reagan on the modern Republican Party – on policies like trade and immigration, in its commitment to limited government and cultural renewal, and in its concern for justice. Just as significant would be the dramatic change in tone, countenance and ethos… The party of Lincoln and Reagan would be led by a man who embraces, at least in part, the ethics of Nietzsche.
So Gingrich and Shirley, for reasons only they know, assert I hold a premise that is the opposite of what I believe and what I wrote.
But Gingrich and Shirley’s sloppiness is the least interesting part of their piece. What is far more entertaining is to see them try to reconcile their adoration for Ronald Reagan with their obvious, deepening attachment to Donald Trump; to assert, as they do, that Trump might well be the heir of Reagan. That is where the intellectual train wreck occurs.
Gingrich in particular has been lavishing praise on Trump, saying, “On balance, you need somebody who is going to kick over the table — who has the energy, the drive, the nerve to insist we rethink everything from the ground up.” Gingrich added that in his boldness and appeal to nontraditional constituencies, Trump “is a little bit like Jack Kemp, but so much bigger a figure.” Many others of us who worked with Jack beg to differ.
To be clear on what Gingrich and Shirley believe, they write, “the Trump-Cruz outsiders are far more likely than the comfortable Washington establishment in achieving Reagan’s vision of a freer, stronger and more prosperous America.” Earlier in their article they assert, “We understand the frustration some members of the GOP establishment must be feeling over the rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s success (compounded by Ted Cruz’s success) is putting the old order on trial.”
By confounding Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump, who are altogether different and particularly so when it comes to the argument I raised about the future of the GOP and its connection to its past, they have again avoided the core argument of my piece. But since Mr. Trump is, at the moment, the front-runner and was the focus of my argument, let’s consider their notion that Mr. Trump could be the man most likely to achieve “Reagan’s vision.”
This claim is ludicrous.
Start with the obvious contrast between Reagan’s grace and dignity and Trump’s non-stop crudity — his talk of anal sex with Howard Stern, his creepy reference to dating his daughter (“she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”), his celebration of his infidelity and the long list of degrading things he’s said about women, and his almost clinically obsessive attacks on (to name just one person) Megyn Kelly.
Think about this juxtaposition: Ronald Reagan would not spell out even the mildest curse word. (In his own diary, he spelled “hell” this way: “H–l!”) Yet Trump gives speeches in which he has repeatedly used the foulest curse words. Add to that Trump’s mockery of people with physical disabilities and POWs, comparing one of his challengers to a child molester, calling on his supporters to engage in violence against protesters at his rallies, his praise for the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and his slandering of America.
This is the inheritor of the Reagan vision? Has any Republican presidential candidate been more contrary than Reagan in this regard than Trump?
But that’s hardly the whole of it. On his stands on the issues, Mr. Trump is, in the words of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, “the least conservative Republican presidential aspirant in living memory.”
Mr. Trump is the least inclined to limit government. He repeatedly tells us he’s against any reform of entitlement programs and even attacks those who are. In our time you can’t be for limited government and express concern for the debt and be against reforming entitlements.
Messrs. Gingrich and Shirley write, “The GOP establishment argues over how fast or slowly to grow government, rather than how fast or slowly to grow personal freedom, which is the view of Reaganism.” Yet Mr. Trump almost never talks about freedom, liberty or constitutional government. They are certainly not foundational to him or evident in his approach to politics, which helps explain why Trump has supported so many Democrats over the years. A hyper-protectionist who has talked about slapping a 45 percent tariff on China, Trump is exactly the opposite of Reagan, who was a great champion of free trade. That’s also the case on illegal immigration. (Here’s a clip of Reagan defending amnesty under the right circumstances.)
In this campaign Mr. Trump has spoken favorably of a single-payer health care system, an idea would have been an anathema to Reagan, and praised the Obamacare mandate. In addition, Mr. Trump was praising President Obama’s stimulus package when the rest of the Republican Party and the conservative movement were fighting it.
Like on so many issues, when Trump talks about his judicial philosophy, it’s a hash. (As George Will pointed out the other day, he thinks judges “sign” what he calls “bills,” when of course they do no such thing.) Ronald Reagan wrote a marvelous pro-life essay in 1983, as a sitting president, whereas Trump repeatedly defends the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. Ronald Reagan was a great friend of the state of Israel; Mr. Trump promises to be “neutral” between the Israelis and Palestinians. Reagan was an internationalist who wanted America to lead in the world; Trump’s sympathies are far more isolationist, harkening back to the days of Robert Taft and even “Come home America.” The list goes on.
Nor was Reagan heaping praise on and financially supporting George McGovern eight few years before he ran for president, whereas Trump in 2008 was doing that for Hillary Clinton. And it doesn’t help Gingrich and Shirley’s case that Trump, in his book The Art of the Deal, referred to Reagan as someone who could “con people” but “couldn’t deliver the goods.”
A final difference between Trump and Reagan is that Reagan was a person who cared about ideas, who had thought carefully about the great issues of his day. (Do yourself a favor and watch this 1967 debate between Reagan and Robert Kennedy on Vietnam. Even as a governor, Reagan showed a tremendous grasp of national security issues.) Reagan was also a man deeply immersed in conservative philosophy. One gets the sense from Donald Trump that he doesn’t know the difference between von Mises and the von Trapps.
I should add that I’m rather amused to hear Mr. Gingrich in particular constantly rail against “the establishment.” If there is anyone who better embodies “the establishment” than Gingrich – a former Speaker of the House, a constant presence on television, incredibly well connected, certainly comfortable, a man who has lived inside-the-beltway for decades, I have yet to meet that individual. For his part, Mr. Shirley is founder, chairman and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, the public relations, marketing, and government affairs firm he originally founded in 1984 and located in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It seems awfully establishment to me, and perhaps to you. I don’t begrudge either man his success; I just think they should recognize that they are in large part establishment successes.
Newt Gingrich and Craig Shirley, both of whom have made great contributions to conservatism over the years, are entitled to cheerlead on behalf of Donald Trump. They are free to argue that Reagan-style conservatism should be replaced by the authoritarianism and angry populism of Donald Trump. But to argue that “Trump echoes Reagan”, as Shirley has said and Gingrich evidently believes, is stunning, contrary to the facts, and ultimately indefensible.
They really should give up on this effort. It’s intellectually discrediting and a profound disservice to one of America’s greatest presidents.