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“Acting as President”. Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan

July 23, 2017

It’s easy to forget, these days, that Ronald Reagan – now touted by moderately conservative US republicans as the acme of presidential dignity and authority – was regarded in his own time by many around the world as a delusional feeble minded old man who might destroy the planet in a fit of absence of mind.

Here’s a typical piece, though, from a nostalgic Reaganite who argues that Trump will never rise to Reagan’s level of greatness.

(Significantly, this article talks in terms of “moments”.  It’s the big speeches that Elmet thinks that history remembers.  Reagan was an actor.)

As someone who actually remembers the early 1980s, there seemed nothing “safe” about Ronald Reagan when he was elected (and before the Soviet Union produced a leader young enough to want to avert Armageddon).  It did not seem certain that Reagan knew what was going on around him.  He did not seem like a real politician.  His impulse control seemed, well, questionable…

Hence the 1981 “I believe song” from Not the Nine o’ Clock News.

So what was Ronald Reagan, with hindsight, now that he is posthumously lauded to the skies and has a medium-sized airport named after him?

Well, he was an ignorant and an indolent man who really didn’t care enough about the USA or the world in general to do the job he was elected (twice) to do.  Those who worked in the 1980s White House report Reagan’s inability to read anything longer than a page or two.  If his favourite old movie was on television on any given night, then Reagan would arrive completely unbriefed to a critical clock-ticking international crisis meeting the following morning.   Things sort of drifted under Reagan, with the result that many of the disasters that afflict the world in the 2010s can be traced back to his time in office.   The deregulation of the banking system, for example.  Also in the 1980s, the USA accelerated the policy of funding and training religious lunatics across the world on the basis that nobody should care what any group “really believes in” so long as they’re anti-Soviet.  As for the Iran-Contra scandal – let’s just say that if Rule of Law were a meaningful concept in the modern world, then Reagan would have stood trial for High Treason and Mass Murder – although his defense team would have offered a plausible and probably successful excuse based on obvious mental incompetence.

Reagan did not really know what was going on in the world, and did not want to?

What makes Trump even worse than Reagan?  Well, Trump is not “lazy” in quite the same way.  Trump does not work in a detailed or focused way.  He doesn’t read anything, or labour to understand anything, but he is hyper-active.  He likes shouting at people.  He likes exercising power.

Reagan was a better actor than Trump.  Indeed, the phrase “act as president” has never been more literally true of Ronald Reagan.  He wasn’t really a president, but he played one on TV – and by the 1980s, that had become a big chunk of what really mattered.  Reagan was a reliable Hollywood player who knew how to deliver scripted comments efficiently.   He would cadence a sentence plausibly.  He knew when to pause, when to slow down and when to speed up.

Reagan’s speeches, if unmemorable in the great scheme of things, evoke a sort of memory of someone being presidential.  Reagan was too lazy to want to ad lib for much of the time and if someone like Peggy Noonan gave him some good words to say, he would do those words some credit.

Trump, on the other hand, refuses to stay on script.  If some personal grievance is nagging at him, it will be expressed.  And for Trump, all grievances are personal just as all loyalties are personal.  He is a feudalist who despises all versions of constitutional loyalty and cannot think beyond the interests of his immediate family.  Many Trump speeches can never be anthologised as prose because he cannot express his gut reflexes as anything resembling sequential sentences.  A paragraph is an intellectual concept too far for Trump.  It’s not that Trump is stupid as such, it’s that he has always despised others too much to exhibit the patience required to evolve into a literate adult.

Oddly enough, Trump in Poland proved that he can benefit from setting the rhetorical bar so low for himself.  In Poland he actually read from a script in a relatively normal way.  This speech, which you’d hardly bother to applaud if delivered by a moderately intelligent eleven year old, was hailed by his supporters as a rhetorical feat to rival Lincoln and Cicero.

This scares me.  Trump has lowered the bar of presidential behaviour so far that he can now be the beneficiary of unbelievably low expectations.  Every time Trump appears in public for ten minutes at a time without soiling himself in public or punching a child will be regarded as evidence of his growing maturity and authority.

Trump is simply not laid back enough just to let things drift, lacking Reagan’s appearance of calm and impression of authority.  Trump is too lazy (or rather egocentric) to actually learn enough to govern in an informed way, but not lazy enough to permit informed people to govern.  This scares me.

If only he really did spend the rest of his Presidency just playing golf.



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