Paul Kengor: Trump, Reagan & liberals
I was recently contacted by a young journalist picking my brain as a Reagan scholar. She hadn't witnessed the 1980s and was confused by comparisons between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. Her questions were of a, well, mental nature: Did Trump's behavior in office seem more bizarre than Reagan's? Are journalists today acting in a more partisan way than in the '80s?
The truth, of course, is that liberals in the 1980s were nasty toward Reagan. They questioned his mental abilities. Anyone who lived through those years remembers.
That said, most liberals didn't charge Reagan with being deranged, mentally imbalanced or temperamentally unfit for office. They did, however, deride him as a dummy, or, as LBJ adviser Clark Clifford infamously characterized Reagan, an “amiable dunce.”
What's different with Trump is that liberals (and many non-liberals) question whether he is psychologically fit for the office. They question his behavior, character, ego and genuinely shocking obsession with how people view him. He continues to invite these concerns when he does things that leave us all speechless, such as firing off childish early-morning tweets extolling his “very stable genius” nature.
This was something Reagan would have never done. He was probably one of the most emotionally well-balanced presidents ever. He didn't seek the White House to satisfy some inner longing. I recall George F. Will observing that Reagan was “free of the need for applause” because he had succeeded in life in so many ways before being elected. Reagan's closest adviser, Bill Clark, told me (I was Clark's biographer) that in Reagan's case “there was no pride there at all,” “no ego there whatsoever.”
Reagan's sense of self-security was such that liberals cruelly calling him a “moron,” “warmonger,” “fascist,” “Nazi” and everything else didn't bother him. To the contrary, not only does Trump care about such charges, he's obsessed with them, and can't control his impulse to lash out in response.
But what about liberals' behavior in all of this? They cannot be let off the hook.
A friend who reads my Trib columns asked my opinion of comments from her brother and his liberal friends that Trump is a racist and “fascist.” The reality is that liberals shamelessly denounce every Republican president as a racist and fascist. They did it to Reagan, and even to George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
“I believe George (H. W.) Bush is a racist,” snarled Congresswoman Maxine Waters to a shocked July 1992 audience. She called him “a mean-spirited man who has no care or concern about what happens to the African-American community” and said he had “polarized the races.” In 2018, Waters is being trotted out by Democrats to level the same charges at Trump.
Republicans have heard this litany for years. Thus, liberals shouldn't be surprised when Trump supporters don't take these charges seriously. Many assume it's the same old same old.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include “A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.”