Is Donald Trump the next Ronald Reagan?

There are obvious parallels. In the 1980 primaries, Ronald Reagan was not the candidate of the establishment insiders. In Campaign 2016, Donald Trump isn’t, either. The latter is an actor, but he’s also a reactor. 

Carlos Osorio/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets supporters after addressing a GOP fundraising event, in Birch Run, Mich., on Tuesday.

Is Donald Trump the next Ronald Reagan?

Many of The Donald’s supporters insist that he is. The comparison is flattering to their guy, of course: Mr. Reagan was a two-term president and giant of the Republican Party. Juxtaposing the two is a way of portraying Mr. Trump as serious, as opposed to a rich guy starring in a reality show of his own devising.

And there are obvious parallels. Reagan was an actor. So is Trump, given his television experience. Reagan began his political career as a liberal. So did Trump: He’s given lots of money to Democrats in the past.

In the 1980 primaries, Reagan was not the candidate of the establishment insiders. In this go-round, Trump isn’t either, to put it mildly. They’ve even got marital status in common. Reagan was the first divorced president, points out the right-leaning Newsmax site in its list of Gipper/Donald similarities. Trump’s been divorced twice.

Trump himself brings up the Reagan thing to try to deflect questions about whether he can actually, you know, win.

“He was a Democrat with a liberal bent, and he became a great conservative ... a great president, a great leader.... He had a great heart, and I have a great heart,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News earlier this week.

Well, every Republican hopeful has to evoke Reagan at some point, we suppose. They’re all still standing in his shadow. The era of the Bushes is a difficult one for the candidates to handle, even for an actual Bush, Jeb. Reagan is safer. He’s a symbol of GOP triumph. He remains a hero to just about every faction in the party.

But Trump, the next Reagan? We’re not seeing it, and not just because it’s impossible to imagine Trump cutting brush.

Reagan was way more experienced. Trump has never run for office before. When Reagan ran for president the first time, he’d already been governor of one of the largest states in the nation, California, for two terms.

He lost that first race, to the GOP nominee, incumbent President Gerald Ford, in 1976. But it was close, and he won on his second try.

Of course, some might see Trump’s inexperience here as a plus. “Professional politician," “true outsider," and all that. But Reagan thought deeply about politics for decades before he ran – an interest not apparently Trumpian. The Gipper’s constant chatter about issues bored his first wife, Jane Wyman, and was one reason for their divorce. Did Donald and Ivana Trump split because she grew tired of talking about the future of Medicare?

Trump is a moderate. It’s true that Reagan began as a liberal. But he moved right long before he entered politics. He traveled the nation delivering warning lectures about “socialized medicine," aka “Medicare," long before he entered electoral politics. He became the defining rock of modern conservatism.

Trump, in contrast, still has positions that put him at the moderate end of the Republican spectrum. He’s not opposed to single-payer health care in principle, for instance. He just thinks it probably wouldn’t work in the United States. He won’t sign a pledge to never raise taxes. He’s in favor of an exception to an abortion ban in cases of rape and where the mother’s life is in danger.

“Mr. Trump is anything but ideologically rigid, and he certainly does not equate deal making with surrender,” writes The New York Times’s Josh Barro.

Reagan was a movie star. Trump acts on TV. Reagan’s effectiveness on screen was a huge part of his political appeal. It’s the same today for Trump. The Donald can dominate on TV. But we’d argue that the style and roots of their entertainment skills are very different.

Reagan was a movie star who lasted into the TV age. He was trained to play scripted scene after scripted scene. At this, he was superb. His speech following the Challenger disaster was a classic of the presidential leadership genre. Say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!,” and many Americans know instantly who the speaker was.

Trump’s an actor, but he’s also a reactor. He’s a skilled reality television star. He’s not playing scenes so much as inhabiting a role and dealing with events that the show’s producers throw at him.

“He’s a terrific TV presence, and he seems to be adapting his ‘role’ within the campaign in real time, no less,” writes Todd VanDerWerff on Vox.

Trump is imperious. He’s aloof. He seems unconcerned what others around him think, Mr. VanDerWerff writes. He’s learned that this is what sells on reality TV. In that sense, he’s far more in tune with the era than a transplanted Reagan would be.

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