ANALYSIS: In First Debate, a Shadow War Between Establishment Reaganism and Insurgent Trumpism

GOP candidates grappled with Ronald Regan’s legacy amidst a shift in the ideological landscape influenced by Donald Trump during Milwaukee debate.
ANALYSIS: In First Debate, a Shadow War Between Establishment Reaganism and Insurgent Trumpism
President Donald Trump at a MAGA rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on March 28, 2019, and President Ronald Reagan in Ottawa, Canada, on July 18, 1981. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times and Georges Bendrihem/AFP/Getty Images)
Nathan Worcester
8/26/2023
Updated:
8/27/2023
0:00

It’s not hard to understand why so many Republicans admire Ronald Reagan.

“The Great Communicator” sparked a conservative revival that fractured the remnants of the left-wing New Deal coalition. As president, he helped end the Soviet Union, winning the Cold War.

Forty-three years after the Reagan Revolution, and eight years after former President Donald J. Trump changed the game again, none of the Republicans who convened for the first presidential primary debate on Aug. 23 repudiated President Reagan. Even President Trump cited a move by President Reagan as precedent for his decision to skip the debate.

Neither Fox News nor the Republican National Committee, cohosts of the media-heavy event, seem to have lost any love for the icon of 1980s America.

Moderator Brett Baier’s final question to the candidates referenced President Reagan’s frequent declaration that the United States is a “shining city on a hill”–an image from the Book of Matthew, first used to evoke American exceptionalism during Puritan times.

The use of a quotation from President Reagan rather than, say, President Trump could signal the GOP’s hopes of achieving a little distance from their last and now embattled standard-bearer.

That’s not all. The second 2023 debate, like the second debate in 2015, will take place at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

The calendar may read “2023,” but for many in the GOP, President Reagan reigns like it’s the 1980s.

The debate’s breakout star, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, didn’t reject President Reagan’s legacy. He claimed that he alone, among the GOP candidates, could “deliver a Reagan 1980 revolution.”

Yet, other exchanges between the Millennial entrepreneur and former Vice President Mike Pence reflected a generation gap in the prudence and effectiveness of Reagan-style rhetoric and policy. As the closest equivalent to President Trump at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Center, Mr. Ramaswamy’s comments underscored the differences between Reaganism and Trumpism.

“The Republican base has moved well beyond Reaganism or political fusionism, which broadly emphasized libertarianism on domestic and economic policy, and neoconservativism on foreign policy, for years,” said Paul Ingrassia, a young Republican lawyer who supports President Trump, in an email interview with The Epoch Times.

“There’s no shame in Republicans proudly claiming Reagan’s successes, but President Reagan was successful because his policies matched the needs of the country in his time,” said Trump administration veteran Theo Wold in an email interview with The Epoch Times.

‘Morning in America’ or ‘American Carnage’?

In one memorable exchange, Mr. Ramaswamy referenced President Reagan’s “Morning in America” 1984 reelection ad in order to criticize Vice President Pence. The former vice president had challenged his opponent’s frequent “national identity crisis” rhetoric, arguing that Americans are “not looking for a new national identity.”

“The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hard-working people the world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people,” Vice President Pence said.

“It is not ‘Morning in America.’ We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal, sort of cold cultural civil war,” Mr. Ramaswamy retorted.

Former Vice President Mike Pence waves after addressing the GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Manchester, N.H., on June 3, 2021. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Mike Pence waves after addressing the GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Manchester, N.H., on June 3, 2021. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

That back-and-forth reflected a deeper conflict between residual Reaganism and Trumpism; Mr. Ramaswamy and, to a lesser extent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis served as proxies for the latter in Milwaukee, with Mr. DeSantis also not shying away from dark rhetoric.

“‘Morning in America’ conjures optimism and a 525 electoral college vote consensus. Conversely, Trump’s ‘American carnage’ makes them wince because it demands a reckoning with American decline and confirms that we are slogging through a divisive and profoundly dark time,” Mr. Wold told The Epoch Times, refering to the much-discussed “American carnage” line in Mr. Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech.

Mr. Ingrassia said that, aside from Mr. Ramaswamy, “the other candidates appeared pigheadedly stuck in the 1980s, particularly Mike Pence, who seems congenitally incapable of coming to terms with the present crisis.”

“Mike Pence saying that we’re coming upon another Reagan-esque era is just totally wrong,” said Angela McArdle, chair of the Libertarian National Committee, in an interview with The Epoch Times.

“I would love to see a return to the optimism and excitement of the ‘80s and economic prosperity. I don’t think we’re there,” she said.

The libertarian politician pointed out some gaps between President Reagan’s anti-big government rhetoric and policy realities during his administration—for example, an increase in executive-branch agencies’ regulations during his presidency and a payroll tax hike in 1983 to preserve Social Security.

“Everybody likes to romanticize Reagan,” she said.

Foreign Policy a Big Differentiator

While Mr. Ramaswamy’s Trump-like rhetoric set him apart from some others at the debate, it was on foreign policy that his departure from Reaganism, if not all of President Reagan’s actual policies, became most apparent.

Responding to Mr. Ramaswamy’s opposition to continued support for Ukraine, a view in line with President Trump’s stance, Mr. Pence declared that “the Reagan Doctrine made it clear—we said, if you’re willing to fight the communists on your soil, we'll give you the means to fight them.”

“Vice President Pence, I have a newsflash: the USSR does not exist anymore,” Mr. Ramaswamy shot back.

Mr. Ramaswamy also sparred with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley regarding America’s place in the world.

“You have no foreign policy experience,” said Ms. Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under President Trump.

Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee /Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee /Getty Images)

She said Mr. Ramaswamy “wants to hand Ukraine to Russia,” “wants to let China eat Taiwan,” and “wants to go and stop funding Israel.”

“It’s not that Israel needs America, America needs Israel,” she said.

Mr. Ramaswamy said he'd work with Israel to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“You know what I love about Israel? I love their border policies. I love their tough-on-crime policies. I love that they have a national identity and an Iron Dome to protect their homeland,” he told the former Trump administration official.

Libertarian Ms. McArdle said Israel “is a country that seems to be doing just fine.”

“I don’t know why they need foreign aid,” she added.

She also questioned why the United States might have a stake in the current Ukraine conflict. Advocates of continued intervention say it threatens European allies and implicates other key American interests.

“To the extent that we do have any interest over there, it’s probably something along the lines of covering up some embarrassing gaffes that happened there over the last 10 years,” Ms. McArdle added, noting the Bidens’ Burisma connections, alleged money laundering, and an alleged biological weapons programs run by the United States.

“The Maidan Revolution and regime change—I think we’re going to find the United States’ fingerprints all over a lot of it,” she added.

She contrasted Mr. Ramaswamy with the more hawkish Vice President Pence and Ms. Haley: “These guys seem like they’re running for global dictator, not President of the United States.”

“Vivek stood out most of all on foreign policy: a zero-tolerance stance on further aiding the Ukraine, which is but the latest installment in the Globalist American Empire’s ‘perpetual wars for perpetual peace’ credo that it has been marching along to ever since the advent of the national security state and creation of the modern intelligence agencies in the late 1940s,” Mr. Ingrassia said.

Mr. Ingrassia claimed that Vice President Pence imagines “the world can be bi-partitioned between a United States that stands for good and a communist Russia that embodies evil.”

“The fact that Pence—and several others on the stage, like Nikki Haley—retains this infantilized worldview is extraordinarily dangerous, and it is the reason why, in large part, the Washington establishment has driven this country closer to World War III—or, at the very least, nuclear warfare—than any time since the start of the Cold War,” he added.

In contrast to Vice President Pence and his other rivals, Mr. Ramaswamy has sought to link himself with a GOP president from California that Republicans seem less eager to embrace, particularly now—Richard Nixon.

Former President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) gives the thumbs up as he addresses the White House staff upon his resignation as 37th President of the United States, Washington, Aug. 9, 1974. His son-in-law, David Eisenhower, is with him on the left. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Former President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) gives the thumbs up as he addresses the White House staff upon his resignation as 37th President of the United States, Washington, Aug. 9, 1974. His son-in-law, David Eisenhower, is with him on the left. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
He outlined his foreign policy vision during a recent speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. He said President Nixon’s diplomacy with China to break up its relationship with the USSR is a model for his own proposed outreach to Russia to sever its alliance with China.

President Nixon resigned with the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over his head. When his former vice president, Gerald Ford, ascended to the Oval Office, he granted President Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon” for any offenses he may have committed as president. President Nixon was neither impeached nor found guilty of any crimes.

In Milwaukee, Mr. Ramaswamy called upon his competitors to “mak[e] a commitment that on day one, you would pardon Donald Trump.”

“That’s the difference between you and me. I’ve actually given pardons,” Vice President Pence responded, saying that “it usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted.”

“If I’m president of the United States, we'll give fair consideration to any pardon request,” President Trump’s former vice president continued before meandering back down to less challenging terrain–another Reagan reference.

“I put my left hand on Ronald Reagan’s Bible, I raised my right hand, and I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he said.

‘Zombie Reaganism’ in Milwaukee

The spectacle of Republicans, even after President Trump, “wabbling back“ to the winning formulas of decades past even has a name: ”zombie Reaganism.”
While conservative writers such as Rod Dreher have frequently invoked the term in recent years, it may have first gained popularity through a satirical video from The Onion in 2009, “Zombie Reagan Raised from Grave to Lead GOP.”

“A regurgitation of Reaganism is no better than any number of the 80s cover bands that frequent dive bars: it satisfies a certain nostalgic yearning[,] but there’s something static about the sound and pathetically artificial about the presentation,” Mr. Wold said.

“Today’s candidates need to offer policies for today’s challenges. Part of doing that is accepting the mistakes of the Reagan Revolution in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.,” he added.

Among President Reagan’s “mistakes,” he cited the amnesty bill for several million immigrants he signed in 1986. He also characterized President Reagan’s choice of Sandra Day O'Connor as Supreme Court Justice—the first female to wear the robe—as reflective of his “emphasis on identity politics” in crucial appointments.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the Seneca Women Global Leadership Forum at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington on April 15, 2015. (Kevin Wolf/Seneca Women via AP)
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the Seneca Women Global Leadership Forum at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington on April 15, 2015. (Kevin Wolf/Seneca Women via AP)

“2016 should have been the death knell for the Reagan school, which enjoyed a nearly four-decade reign over the conservative movement. However, as we have seen in last night’s debate, this is an ideology that won’t go down easily,” Mr. Ingrassia said.

While many on the right, particularly in its younger ranks, have come to oppose “zombie Reaganism,” the idea has no shortage of adherents on the left.

Unsurprisingly, their characterizations of President Reagan are uncharitable.

In 2009, for example, education professor Henry R. Giroux wrote that the “zombie doctrine of Reaganism,” a line he attributed to economist Paul Krugman, amounted to “the notion that any action by government is bad, except when it benefits corporations and the rich.”

While the libertarian Ms. McArdle is no fan of American adventurism (or, to some, appropriate vigor and engagement) on the international stage, often justified through appeals to President Reagan’s actions against the Soviet Union, she sounded amused by the cartoonish version of Reaganomics presented by some of President Reagan’s most dogged ideological foes.

“To the extent that it’s this leftist bogeyman, that zombie Reaganism is a libertarian paradise, I want that to be as true as possible,” Ms. McArdle said.

Reagan, Trump, and ‘Reversing Our Decline’

Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley were perhaps the strongest proponents of GOP-friendly Reaganism as against Mr. Ramaswamy’s libertarian Trumpism—yet they were far from alone in likening themselves to the 1980s president.

In response to Mr. Baier’s question referencing President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” line, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson also linked himself to that president, saying that he, like that president, would “bring out the best of our people.”

Mr. Christie made a similar comparison, drawing a parallel between his first gubernatorial victory against Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine and President Reagan’s triumph over another Democratic incumbent, then-President Jimmy Carter.

“He [Carter] was defeated by a conservative governor from a blue state,” Mr. Christie said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, Ga., on Aug. 19, 2023. (Justin Kase/The Epoch Times)
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, Ga., on Aug. 19, 2023. (Justin Kase/The Epoch Times)

Yet, Mr. Christie’s remark doesn’t match the truth of California’s demographic and political trajectory.

While California is currently deep blue territory, in 1980, the Golden State had gone Republican in every presidential election since 1952, except Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.

California also went from two-thirds non-Hispanic white in 1980 to a little over one-third non-Hispanic white in 2020.

Even as some conservatives call for a pivot from “zombie Reaganism,” it’s hard to argue with his continued popularity, including with its traditional base.

A survey from Pew Research Center conducted in July of this year found that 41 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents think President Reagan was the best president of the last four decades.

Yet, President Trump came in a close second, getting that nod from 37 percent of those who answered the survey.

The libertarian Ms. McArdle hopes that what she calls “positive eighties Reaganism,” with an emphasis on economics rather than Cold War foreign policy, will prevail in the primary.

“I hope that Vivek or whoever else potentially gets the nomination [continues] to move in that direction—that they threaten to deregulate as many regulations as possible, that they want to abolish as many agencies as possible. I hope that they feel really provoked to do that throughout this election and that they try to one-up each other,” she said.

Mr. Ingrassia predicted that the Trump-less event “was effectively the death knell for many campaigns on that stage, who are being swept away by the insurgent populism, which best typifies the ideology of MAGA that has been waging war on the etiolated Reaganisms of the party establishment.”

“Many people, myself included, proclaim that ‘MAGA is inevitable’—in part because our situation right now is so dire, that as a matter of survival, we must get stronger in our politics and rhetoric—and Donald Trump provided a roadmap of how to accomplish that in 2016—if we are to continue this experiment in constitutional republicanism for another generation,” Mr. Ingrassia added.

President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Mr. Wold worries that the GOP’s upcoming debate at the Reagan library will be too comfortable for them at a critical juncture for the right and for America as a whole.

“Simi Valley, despite the obvious cultural and political rot all around it in SoCal, is safe: that’s why the generic Republican candidates on stage in Milwaukee hew so closely to a Cold War foreign policy or supply-side platitudes. It’s safe. And in clinging to ’safe' ideas, there’s no greater rejection of the dynamism and disruption that Reagan himself brought to the GOP,” he said.

“Now is the time for ‘unsafe’ ideas—real policies reversing our decline,” said the former Californian, who came from a Golden State that could and did elevate two 20th-century conservative icons to the White House.

“Voters are not going to turn out for anything less,” he added.

Nathan Worcester covers national politics for The Epoch Times and has also focused on energy and the environment. Nathan has written about everything from fusion energy and ESG to Biden's classified documents and international conservative politics. He lives and works in Chicago. Nathan can be reached at [email protected].
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