Foreign Policy Blogs

Trump, Reagan, and American Foreign Policy


Trump’s “Making America Great Again” echoes Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” (Photo credits below)

Part 1 of 2: Can Trump win?

The United States is preparing to introduce a critically important new variable to its foreign policy: a new President. Despite continuing predictions of his campaign fading, Donald Trump remains a viable candidate and therefore important to the global community. President Ronald Reagan’s path to victory in 1980 might serve as a model for Trump’s eventual election. But if elected, will Trump’s foreign policy also echo Reagan’s?

Reagan was elected by reaching voters outside the Republican Party—”Reagan Democrats.” Like Trump, Reagan was already widely known before he ran in 1980. He was a film actor beginning in the late 1930s into the 1950s. He served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Congressional inquiries in Communists in Hollywood. A former radio sportscaster, he bolstered his all-American image as a spokesman for General Electric in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he became a Republican, and gave a popular speech for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan himself ran successfully for California governor in 1966 and 1970, and unsuccessfully for president in 1968 and 1976.

Trump’s large personality, eponymous hotels, 1987 New York Times bestselling book, and popular television program, The Apprentice, have made him widely known. But in 2011, he also had the highest rates of unfavorability of any potential candidates. Trump lacks political experience, compared to Reagan and to most of his current rivals. But the other Republican frontrunners in the race so far have been a neurosurgeon with no political experience and a first-term Senator, while nine sitting or former governors from states like New York, Florida, Texas, and Ohio have been essentially non-factors.

The context in which Reagan ran in 1980 was also central to the election, though. The United States was at the end of two decades of upheaval: the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, President Nixon’s resignation, and economic “stagflation.” The taking of American hostages by Iranian revolutionaries, two oil-price crises, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made the Middle East a complicated and controversial political, economic, and security issue.

In 2016, the United States enters its 16th year of fighting in Afghanistan, and nearly as long in Iraq, while Taliban, ISIS, and other difficulties persist. The long, slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis is threatened by the global stock market plunges of early January 2016. Police shootings, immigration, and health insurance are politically divisive social issues. The rise of China, Russia, and Iran increasingly erodes the hegemony the United States held for the decade after the Cold War ended.

Will the personality of Trump and the context of American and global politics create a dynamic like the one that elected Reagan?

The first step is within his own Republican Party. (Candidates of each party compete during this winter and spring for their party’s nomination, beginning in the rural state of Iowa on February 1. Parties could essentially make their choices by March 1, “Super Tuesday,” when 12 states hold their contests, or continue as late as June.) Trump leads a party that is older, whiter, more Christian, more Southern, and more male than the Democratic Party. His nationalism and brashness—he has made insulting comments recently about women, immigrants, Muslims, his own national party organization, and even American prisoners of war—appeal at least in tone to a plurality of Republicans. Each insult generates punditry on his imminent decline. But unlike the 2012 campaign where several Republicans cycled through the top spot and out of the race, Trump has so far held his lead over several months.

The next step would be in the general election, presumably against Hillary Clinton. She has a strong resume: active First Lady, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of State, in the national spotlight for more than 20 years. She is potentially the first female president, following the first African-American president. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was and remains very popular among Democrats, but the effect of his history with women is a wild card. Like Trump, though, she has high unfavorables, along with an open investigation into her handling of State Department email, and lingering questions about what happened during the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

What does Trump needs to defeat her? Reagan received 26% of the Democratic vote in 1980, compared to 10 and 7% for the Republican candidates in 2008 and 2012. Reagan got 54% of independents, 48% of moderates, and 36% of Hispanics—all much higher than the Republicans in 2008 and 2012. Trump doesn’t just need Republican turnout; Trump needs Democrats.

Turnout numbers are always difficult to predict. Presidential elections get higher relative turnouts among Democrats than during off-years: President Obama’s elections were followed by historic Republican Congressional gains in 2010 and 2014. Will Hillary Clinton be able to get Obama’s supporters to come out a third time?

It is the race to 270 electoral votes, not a popular majority, that ultimately matters. Democrats are seen as holding a big advantage in “safe states” months before any votes are cast. A December 2015 poll by CNN put Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton in the South and the Midwest, and behind in the Northeast and West. It put him ahead in rural areas, behind in urban areas, and tied in suburbia. The key “swing states” of Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado are divided among these categories, not persuasively favoring either candidate. Can Trump win enough of these swing states with the help of Democratic voters? One recent poll offers that Trump could get 20% of the Democratic vote.

U.S. elections are typically close: The last seven presidential elections have been won by an average of 5% of the vote (49-44); the last three by 3.5% (50.6-47.1). Only once since World War II have Americans elected the same political party three times consecutively: Reagan-Reagan-George H.W. Bush, 1980-1988.

History suggests much stands between today and the November 2016 election. In January 2008, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave Hillary Clinton a 15-point lead (47–32) over Senator Obama. Throughout 2007 New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani led the Republicans, until Mike Huckabee and then John McCain took leads in early 2008. For the moment, it looks like Clinton vs. Trump—very different candidates, each with high negative ratings, and in a pattern in American presidential elections where the final popular vote is close. If Trump were to win the nomination, he has a chance at the presidency.

Part 2 will consider what a Trump foreign policy might look like.

Photo credits: Reagan poster , 1980 Republican Convention, Trump in cap.



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks