Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

What Does “Conservative” Mean Now?

This is a test. Who said this?

We lead the world because unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world … Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge; always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost … And that’s why the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp to welcome them to the golden door. It is bold men and women, yearning for freedom and opportunity, who leave their homelands and come to a new country to start their lives over. They believe in the American dream. And over and over, they make it come true for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give more than they receive. They labor and succeed, and often they are entrepreneurs. But their greatest contribution is more than economic, because they understand in a special way how glorious it is to be an American. They renew our pride and gratitude in the United States of America, the greatest, freest nation in the world. The last, best hope of man on Earth.

The answer, it may surprise you to learn, is Ronald Reagan. It was from his final speech as President.

I didn’t know that, but it was only one revelation among many in a paper delivered at a conference I attended on American Political History–a paper by Marcus Witcher that traced the “conservatism” of Donald Trump back to that of Pat Buchanan, and drew a strong distinction between what he dubbed Buchanan’s “paleoconservatism” and the more optimistic and libertarian approach of Reagan.

Trump, it appears, did not come out of nowhere, much as we might wish to believe that. There has long been a “Trumpian” faction in the GOP.

As I read the paper, which the author was kind enough to share, I was struck by the numerous parallels between Buchanan and Trump:  the culture war rhetoric; the need to “save” America from “barbarians”–feminists, homosexuals, immigrants and foreigners; opposition to free trade and NAFTA; opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal.

And of course, the appeal to bigotry.

Some of us remember the very different speeches made by Buchanan and Reagan at the 1992 GOP convention. Buchanan’s speech (which Molly Ivins memorably quipped “sounded better in the original German”) was all about culture war and protecting the “Judeo-Christian heritage” of America; Reagan’s was about “working together for a brighter tomorrow.” Reagan concluded his speech by saying that, whatever history ultimately concluded about him and his Presidency, “I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.”

Not a Trumpian sentiment.

We can agree or disagree with Reagan’s policies, but there is no disputing the vast difference between his version of conservatism and the much darker version peddled by Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan eventually left the GOP for the Reform Party, and he defeated Donald Trump for that party’s nomination in 2000. (If I ever knew that, I’d forgotten it.)  Trump left the Reform party after that defeat, but as the paper pointed out, the 2016 messaging that won Trump  the GOP nomination is an eerie, virtually identical replica of Buchanan’s Reform Party message in 2000. Even the slogan “America First” was Buchanan’s. Politico later concluded that Buchanan’s legacy “was being Trump before Trump was Trump.”

For good or ill, the GOP is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. (Nor is it the party of Barry Goldwater, or Nelson Rockerfeller, or Dwight Eisenhower, or ….) Reagan’s children have been vocal about the differences between the Gipper and Trump; they insist their father would be horrified by Trump and by what the current GOP has become.

Unfortunately, with its full-throated endorsement of Trump and Trumpism, the GOP is now   the party of Pat Buchanan–bitter, hateful and backward.