Over the course of 230 years, citizens of the United States have elected only two professional entertainers to the presidency: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Both possessed an actor’s gifts: good looks; physical presence; a communicative face, in one man an infectious grin, in the other a much-photographed glower.
True, they took very different paths to the office. Reagan began as film actor, union president, and pitchman for General Electric Co. He turned to professional politician in his fifties, winning two terms as governor of California. Trump, a real estate developer and marketer, became a television personality in his fifties. Beginning in 2004, he played a puffed-up, airbrushed version of himself for 14 seasons on The Apprentice.
True, too, Reagan and Trump have left very different marks on the office. Reagan started out shakily, with Alexander Haig, Donald Regan, James Watts, and Ann Gorsuch, and wound up surrounded by good men, including Nichols Brady, James Baker and George Shultz. After being forced to fire National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn, Trump started out with some good men around him, Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, and Gary Cohn surrounded by the likes of John Bolton and William Barr.
But the most important attribute they have in common is often overlooked. Their success as entertainers in an age of new media made them shrewd judges of what their respective audiences expected of them.(Reagan was host of a popular weekly drama series, General Electric Theater, from 1954 until 1962, and honed his speaking skills visiting company installations.) Reagan proved able to expand his base dramatically and became a transformational president (Barack Obama agrees.) Trump himself is apt to catastrophically fade, once deprived of his props. But the legacy of the campaign he ran in 2016 is likely to dominate politics for another 20 years.
I count three major issues in 2016 (leaving aside the hate-mongering of lock her her up): immigration, trade and foreign wars. Forging a new consensus on those issues will be an issue for several presidential cycles. For a sensible survey of the often irreconcilable rights and responsibilities of the three basic constituencies – the would-be migrants, the polity they seek to join and those who are being left behind – see Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (Oxford. 2013), by Paul Collier, a distinguished development economist. (I haven’t read Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World [Oxford, 2017].) Earlier Collier wrote the best-seller The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It (Oxford, 2008).
For a somewhat sterner view, read The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton, 2013), by Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics. Or wait for The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in September. Then ask yourself if you think the U.S. is substantially different from Canada and Australia, where so-called “merit systems” prevail for allocating immigrant positions. Trump proposed something of the sort last week, a plan prepared by his son-in-law and a principal adviser, Jared Kushner.
Similarly, global trade will resume, but the contest with China for dominance won’t go away. The bad feelings on both sides from having come to the brink of a long-lasting trade war will take many years to subside. No one, not even William Overholt, author of a series of prescient books about the sleeping giant, most recently China’s Crisis of Success, can confidently predict the path relations will take. They’ll develop against the backdrop of whatever U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizser and his Chinese counterpart manage to achieve.
As for foreign wars, Trump’s relative caution with respect to North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran gives the lie to his habitual braggadocio. Don’t expect future presidents to be any more willing to intervene abroad militarily. Read America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House, 2017), by Andrew Bacevich, if you doubt it. Perhaps all will campaign on promises to repair America’s seriously damaged diplomatic and intelligence services.]
Ronald Reagan’s presidency offered a genuine buoyancy. Trump offers mainly jingoism, chicanery and abuse. But both men sensed that voters were nearing a turning point in the zig-zag of American history. Sooner or later, legitimate Republican conservatives will turn on their usurper and his enablers. But for the present, Trump’s GOP is the party of innovation, even if it means trying to recapture the past.
Whether or not Trump is re-elected depends mainly on whom the Democrats nominate to run against him, and how that candidate chooses to run. Never mind the evangelicals. He or she can win with only a small portion of Trump voters in a Democratic coalition. In contrast, Reagan won a second term by a landslide, 525 to 13 electoral votes.
David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based economicprincipals.com, where this essay first appeared.