Donald Trump And Ronald Reagan: They Said The Same Things About The Gipper

Faith Whittlesey Former Ambassador to Switzerland
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I knew the real Ronald Reagan. In 1976, I was a single mother and young politician who risked everything  to support him against Gerald Ford, a sitting Republican president. Four years later I helped deliver the key state of Pennsylvania to President Reagan, then I served beside him in the White House and as one of his ambassadors. He was not the avuncular, subdued great man worn down by age and illness that the media present to us today through a rosy filter of nostalgia. That Ronald Reagan is someone whom Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama like to invoke, when it suits them.

I knew Ronald Reagan when TV pundits presented him as a cold-hearted extremist who was itching to take away food and shelter from America’s poor and risk a thermonuclear cataclysm. I was with him when the Rockefeller-establishment Republicans wanted to write him off as a crackpot warmonger, whose supporters they tarred as uninformed rubes and religious fanatics. Reagan was a man, who bucked the GOP “wise men” over and over again, until he won. Then he restored America’s elan, our economy and brought down the Berlin Wall.  

Ronald Reagan could get angry, although he rarely did. When the party regulars at an early debate in New Hampshire tried to silence him by threatening to turn off his microphone, he confronted them. “I paid for this microphone,” he said, and they backed away. They weren’t used to politicians with mettle, with a spine, with the self-confidence to actually stand up to the party elite, which were losing across the country and surrendering on every issue—from détente with the Soviet Union to legalized abortion to the unsustainable expansion of the welfare state. Similarly, the Republican party of Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford was in the business of managing America’s decline a little more slowly and prudently than the Democrats. Ronald Reagan saw another way, and it frightened some people. But it also mobilized others, and resulted in avalanche-sized victories for Republicans. Reagan cleared the way for Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II to blow up the Communist empire at its foundations, and he realigned American politics for the rest of the century.

Today, the two parties no longer share much common ground about what America even is, much less how she ought to be governed. In the past seven years of political and social upheaval, we have seen grave threats rise to religious liberty, the wild abuse of Constitutional guarantees and authority by activist judges and the Executive Branch. In the process, America’s influence has been significantly diminished. The leading candidate of the Democratic party declares that Americans who belong to the Republican party are her “enemies,” while the president issues lawless amnesties for illegal aliens, and rewards leftist mayors of “sanctuary” cities who flout the very immigration laws which he once swore to uphold. This is not a time for leaders who take direction from the backroom elites who are rich enough to insulate themselves from the consequences of cultural chaos.

America needs another man in the no-nonsense Jacksonian mold; a Patton, a bold and adventurous fighter. We need a man who can, as Reagan did, electrify the room when he walks in, a man toward whom all heads turn. A man who played contact sports and won, who makes money and builds companies that create American jobs. We need someone with charisma, quick wit, and determination—who doesn’t care what the powerful think of him, because he has wielded power himself and knows its limits. Like a star veteran NFL quarterback, Trump is a man who has been tested in the stadium. He has been schooled by both failure and success to keep his eyes focused on objectives and put together a successful plan to achieve victory. These are the qualities of a natural leader.

We need a candidate who believes, like Reagan believed, in our country’s inherent capacity for greatness, but who doesn’t take its power and prosperity for granted. Who knows that American greatness rests on a delicate balance of order and liberty, of social mobility and meritocracy, of abstract ideas and concrete culture. We need a leader who is unwilling to risk our country’s future on the social experiment of effectively open borders—not even to please the ivory towered priests of anti-Western multiculturalism, or  corporate CEOs who profit from cheap labor in a shadow economy. A man who wants to protect Americans at every economic level, not merely his fellow high-dollar investors with offshore bank accounts and getaway homes on foreign shores. A compelling but likeable public speaker who seemingly effortlessly outshines the very able but lesser men who join him on any stage, and who understands the arena and can use for advantage the tools of today’s pop culture and rapidly changing media; a leader of superior mental agility who doesn’t apologize — even if that means sharply elbowing aside the well-mannered and well-meaning opponents who are standing in his way.

I know there are many objections to Mr. Trump. There were comparable objections to Ronald Reagan, the ex-movie star who voted for Roosevelt and Truman.

There are also many differences between the two men in deportment, background, and experience, but we should not overlook similarities. Reagan was once pro-choice, before experience and reflection changed his mind. He once favored excessively high immigration, until he saw what it was doing to our country. He was accused of being overly simplistic. Ronald Reagan’s stated plan to win the Cold War was certainly stark: We win, they lose. He made his share of enemies among the powerful – the fiercest being in his own party. In the media, there were legions of critics, full of mockery and vitriol. But, he was a brilliant choice for president. Like President Reagan, Mr. Trump is an ex-Democrat. (We do still believe in conversions, don’t we?)  

Yes, he has contributed to some Democratic politicians over the years and even said nice things about some of them. It is my observation that most big businessmen today contribute to both sides as a kind of insurance against being singled out by the regulators and enforcers of the big tax and regulatory bureaucracies who tend to be men and women of the left. For these very big businessmen and women, such contributions and compliments are regarded as normal costs of doing business.  

Donald Trump succeeded in New York City, the most liberal, secular city in the United States.  He has already been punished by the New York City elites for daring to run as a Republican, speaking out on politically incorrect topics. It would be hard to name a really successful big businessman in New York City and elsewhere who has not voiced admiration for and given money to Democratic officials and their operatives, for example, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and the like.

As an ex-Democrat myself, I think that the same criteria that led me to reject Gerald Ford for Ronald Reagan in 1976 may lead thousands of other voters today to join the growing plurality who are clearly and quickly coalescing around our plain-spoken next president, Donald J. Trump.

Faith Ryan Whittlesey was President Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Switzerland twice and also a Member of the Reagan White House Senior Staff.