Is The Donald the New Ronald?

Reagan’s candidacy was a punchline until it wasn’t.

Joel Bleifuss

Donald Trump, GOP presidential frontrunner (CPAC 2011 / Flickr)

On June 16, Donald Trump cannonballed into the cesspool of Republican presidential contenders and drowned out the competition. Heeding a past demagogue’s advice to use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few,” he said, When Mexico sends its people [to the U.S.], they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Appalled, members of the intelligentsia clutched their pearls and late-night comedians yukked it up. Yet in national polls of Republican voters, Trump currently holds a double-digit lead over each of his closest rivals, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush.

Whoever wins the nomination, they will be a candidate who has traversed—and been tainted by—the xenophobic, white nationalist swamp that polite Georgetown Republicans had hoped to drain.

Thirty-six years ago, on November 13, 1979, Ronald Reagan announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for president. Fat chance,” sane people thought. This is the man who, as governor of California, opposed the expansion of Redwood National Park, telling the Western Wood Products Association in March 1966, A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?”; who, during his first campaign for president, in 1976, told Time magazine, Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal. It was Mussolini’s success in Italy, with his government-directed economy, that led the early New Dealers to say, But Mussolini keeps the trains running on time’ ”; who, as a candidate in 1979, told voters of a suppressed” (and fictitious) EPA study revealing air pollution comes not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees.”

If the 1980 Republican presidential primary is any guide, and if Trump is serious about following his vanity project through to the end, The Donald could easily become the GOP nominee. Whoever wins the nomination, they will be a candidate who has traversed — and been tainted by — the xenophobic, white nationalist swamp that polite Georgetown Republicans had hoped to drain.

Electoral politics set the contours of the national discursive landscape for years to come. For example, following the 12 years of Reagan/​Bush, in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton ran a campaign that moved the Democratic Party so far to the neoliberal, corporate center that today, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Democrat, sounds like a left-wing radical.

This is why Bernie Sanders’ campaign is so significant. His candidacy could be the antidote to the neoliberal, technocratic politics that elite Democrats embraced in the 1990s. Sanders may just herald the return of old-fashioned politics centered on such quaintly ideological notions as liberty, equality and solidarity. Imagine that! Win or lose, he has already succeeded in introducing millions of Americans to a social democratic critique of 21st-century corporate capitalism that was absent in the liberal insurgency of Howard Dean — or of Barack Obama.

Just as importantly, the Sanders campaign is amassing a huge database of small donors, leftist sympathizers and activists — data that will be priceless in coordinating future political campaigns. Bernie’s army will play a central role, both in defeating whatever toad the Republicans nominate at their witches’ sabbath next year, and in fighting for social democracy within the Democratic Party. 

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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