Opinion

Trump and Reagan: Walking a Different Walk

President-elect also provokes and upsets, but perhaps with purpose

Both President-elect Donald Trump and former President Ronald Reagan upset the establishment’s apple cart, defied its conventions, and broke its protocols, Matt Lewis writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

I normally scoff when people compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. Reagan (unlike Trump) was at least a two-term governor of California before being elected president. However, I do concede that both men were effective negotiators and already successful before winning the presidency.

Both were underestimated. Just as Democrats seemed to be rooting for Trump to win the Republican nomination, Jimmy Carter’s team naively assumed Reagan would be a weak opponent.

And — more to the point — upon winning the presidency, both men promptly managed to upset the establishment’s apple cart, defy its conventions, and break its protocols.

Let’s take, for example, President-elect Trump’s recent phone call with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen. Despite some worries that he simply didn’t realize the magnitude of this call, The Washington Post reported that it “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.” 

“Some critics portrayed the move as the thoughtless blundering of a foreign policy novice, but other experts said it appeared calculated to signal a new, robust approach to relations with China,” the Post continued.

Channeling Reagan

This was, I daresay, Reaganesque.

James Strock, author of “Reagan on Leadership,” had this to say: “Like Reagan, Trump was elected in large part to change the way Washington works. Reagan constantly challenged the status quo through his communications, formal and informal. In their introductory meeting, the new president asked the legendary chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, why a Fed was needed at all. This sent shockwaves across official Washington — even as it appeared eminently reasonable to many ordinary Americans who are accustomed to justifying their value in the workplace.”

“It indicated several things about the new president,” Strock said. “He was not going to be a captive of the political establishment, including the permanent bureaucracy and mainstream media. And he had confidence in his own judgment and instincts.”

Regarding Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s president, Strock said: “By the one phone call with the president of Taiwan, President-elect Trump is asserting a similar independence of action and thought. It will likely be greeted as bracingly refreshing to many ordinary Americans — while shaking up a lot of the Washington establishment.”

Thirty-five years ago, dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was snubbed by Gerald Ford (per Henry Kissinger’s advice) for fear of upsetting the Soviets, before Reagan came along and embraced him.

In the same vein as Reagan, Trump doesn’t seem keen on snubbing a sympathetic ally — or to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting a powerful adversary.

Yes, Trump is acting (like Reagan, let’s admit) as a bit of a loose cannon. A cowboy. And I agree that it can be perceived as saber-rattling. We live in a complex world where diplomacy matters and the smallest (seemingly insignificant) thing can have far-reaching consequences.

But this is America. We shouldn’t be walking around, afraid of our own shadow.

The prudent scholar in the latter half of the 20th century might have suggested detente and containment. Instead, Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” vowed to “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,” joked on a hot mic about “bombing [Russia] in five minutes,” and told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

And guess what? It was the right thing to do, even if few of the so-called experts at the time would have advised it. But Reagan’s moral clarity about the Soviets was a risky, if calculated, gambit that upset the establishment.

Crazy like a fox?

So let’s put this in perspective.

Worried about Trump’s pointed tweets? Remember that Reagan’s joke about bombing Russia (considered a gaffe, but who knows?) might have had serious ramifications. According to UPI, “In October 1984, the independent U.S. military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes, quoting Japan’s Yomiuri Shinbun [sic] newspaper, claimed the Soviet Union’s army in the Far East was briefly placed on alert after Reagan’s remarks were made public.”

Concerned that Trump might not be utilizing the advice and counsel of career foreign policy experts? As was noted in The New York Times about Reagan’s famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, “When Mr. Reagan’s speech was first drafted, senior officials at the State Department and National Security Council tried repeatedly to get the words out. They believed the statement might jeopardize Mr. Reagan’s developing relationship with the Soviet leader.”

Trump has frequently said he wants to be unpredictable, and it occurs to me that the appearance of unpredictability might just come in handy when it comes to handling tyrants around the globe.

There’s a great scene in the movie “Bull Durham” in which baseball catcher “Crash” Davis (played by Kevin Costner) tells dangerously wild pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) to intentionally hit the team’s mascot with a pitch. (This, of course, serves to make opposing hitters believe that LaLoosh is either crazy — or that he cannot control his lightning-fast pitches.) Costner then looks at the batter and says: “I wouldn’t dig in if I was you. Next one might be at your head. I don’t know where it’s gonna go. Swear to God.”

From breaking protocol to eschewing the conventional wisdom of governmental bureaucrats, Donald Trump (like Reagan) is seen as a cowboy. And he may likewise benefit from being underestimated and feared. Could it be that there is a method to his madness? Could Trump be crazy like a fox?

Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis.

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