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What Ronald Reagan Teaches Us About Donald Trump

Demagogues are only a joke until they win.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In 1940, the world's greatest movie clown, Charlie Chaplin, starred in The Great Dictator, a film about a funny little man with a toothbrush mustache named Adenoid Hynkel. In one memorably madcap scene, Hynkel, hanging from the curtains, orders a lackey, Greta Garbo-style, "Leave me. I want to be alone." He slides down the curtain like a fireman, spies a giant globe in the middle of the room, and, imagining himself emperor of the world, does a mincing Fred Astaire-style dance with the giant globe, bopping it around like a giant beach ball. The globe pops. Hynkel collapses in tears. It's hilarious. Everyone loved the movie, including then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, after learning years earlier that the studio was trying to scrap the project, sent a representative to Chaplin to encourage him to persist.


The president's judgment was poor, however. As the writer Ron Rosenbaum has pointed out, Chaplin "did nothing but help Hitler because he made him seem like an unthreatening clown just at a time, 1940, when the world needed to take Hitler's threat seriously." Chaplin agreed, saying that had he know about the horrors Hitler was responsible for at the time, "[I] could not made have fun of their homicidal insanity."

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Obviously, Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler—his insanity is not of the homicidal sort. But this essay is not about Donald Trump. It is about us, and our longing to dismiss politicians who scare us as unthreatening clowns—or to pretend the threat does not exist at all.

Back in July, the Huffington Post ran an editorial titled, "A Note About Our Coverage of Donald Trump's'Campaign.'" In it, the editors wrote:

"After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won't report on Trump's campaign as part of the Huffington Post's political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette ."

Since then, of course, the sideshow has become the main event. And mainstream political media, despite its surface devotion to squabbling conflict, deep down continues to resemble an abused spouse: Since the conflicts dividing Americans are so fundamental, so deep-seated, so scary, it's easier to explain them away than be honest about the pain.


This goes way back. The historian Nina Silber points out that in the decades after the Civil War those who dared to observe that the war had not ended America's racial ordeal, but simply changed its form, were chastized "for not learning how to forget." As the New York Times editorialized about abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison at the time: "Does he really imagine that outside of small and suspicious circles any real interest attaches to the old forms of the Southern question?"

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One way the media denies the crackling tensions dividing Americans is by shrugging off extremism as a temporary aberration. This can be seen in the weeks of almost blind dismissal of Trump. The Donald was supposed to have finished himself off with his announcement speech claiming Mexico was sending America all its rapists. Then, he declared that John McCain wasn't a war hero. As the summer of Trump drew to a close, The New Yorker's John Cassidy acknowledged that while each of these in fact had no effect on Trump's ever-ascending poll numbers—but insisted that calling Carly Fiorina ugly surely would. It did not, but not to fear, Cassidy's New Yorker colleague Ryan Lizza reassured us last week, writing that the second Republican debate had done the trick, having demonstrated that Trump "hasn't a clue how to move beyond the bluster and bromides that initially seized our attention."


Another method, of course, is to dismiss it all as a joke. That was the Huffington Post's strategy. But every week since the site's editors made their announcement, Trump has surged in national polls. Sure, his numbers have fallen off slightly since the CNN debate, but he's still in the lead at 24 percent, which is 14 points more than Jeb Bush is getting. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, two more oft-dismissed "outsiders," fall somewhere in between, coming in second and third place among the 14 Republican candidates still left in the race.

Beyond the polls, Trump has clearly grabbed our attention. Twenty million Americans watched the second Republican debate last Wednesday, compared to the roughly 3 million who've tuned in for past primary debates. It's hard to see that as anything other than yet another sign of Trump's not-so-funny dominance of the presidential race. Not to mention the fact that, in question after question, the focus immediately turned to Donald Trump.

It's a neat trick that that debate took place at the Ronald Reagan Library, in front of Reagan's decommissioned Air Force One. The setting should have served as a reminder: Like Trump, Reagan, the 800-pound gorilla of Republican politics, was once dismissed as a joke as well. This was, after all, the guy who starred in a movie with a chimpanzee. And we all know how that story ends.

In January of 1965, when Reagan, a conservative Hollywood actor, began exploring a run for governor of California, the incumbent, Democrat Pat Brown , sent out a young aide on a scouting trip. The scout reported back that Reagan would "fall apart when he gets attacked from the floor….His attacks on [Lyndon B. Johnson] and Governor Brown won't make it with those who don't think the President is a dictator." Nevertheless the lightweight announced he would run, and a columnist in the Washington Star recorded an "air of furtive jubilation down at Lassie for Governor headquarters."


Reagan's 1966 Republican primary opponent was judged a political superstar by the New York Times, easily "matching oratorical skill" with the former actor. When Reagan visited Redwoods National Park, and reporters quoted his immortal words, "a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?", the San Francisco Chronicle reported his campaign would soon "bottom out."

"The Republican Party isn't bankrupt, or isn't that bankrupt that it has to turn to Liberace for leadership," Esquire observed at the time. "'Bring him on' is our motto," a Brown aide said—and Reagan was brought, winning the nomination in a landslide, and eventually winning the general election.

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But the jokes only continued. When Reagan entered the 1968 presidential race, the TV comedy revue Laugh-In made "Ronald Reagan is running for president," an unadorned punchline—that was the whole gag. He ran again in 1976, challenging an incumbent president in his own party, and taking for the nominating contest all the way to the convention, an almost unheard of feat in modern American politics. That this was a historic accomplishment largely escaped the media, however; it didn't matter, for instance, to the author of the syndicated comic strip Dunagin's People, who depicted a TV announcer explaining, "Now that the conventions are over, we can get back to our regular program—old Ronald Reagan movies."


As preparations began for the 1980 race, Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's late advisor, noted that Team Reagan didn't discourage the belittlement. In fact, they came to rely on it as part of their campaign strategy: being underestimated only made their man stronger. Liberals fell right into the trap: in the week running up to the election against Jimmy Carter, Doonesbury ran a series where the strip's indefatigable TV reporter, nature documentary-style, took "a fantastic voyage through…the brain of Ronald Reagan."

"Unhappily, the brain stops growing at age 20, and thereafter, neurons die off by the millions every year," the comic reported. "What this means is that the brain of Ronald Reagan's has been shrinking ever since 1931."

This was a fairly accurate portrayal of how Carter's aides saw their opponent. Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg has related that the campaign's strategists were confident that if they only could get Reagan side by side on the debate stage with the incumbent, the public would finally realize that the Republican candidate and former star of Bedtime for Bonzo was just stupid.

Well, they got their wish: A debate between Reagan and Carter took place the weekend before the voting. Reagan wiped the floor with the president, and a race that had been virtually tied turned into a Reagan landslide.

Trump is a very different figure from Reagan, who had governed America's most populous state, and rather successfully, before he ever ran for president. They are similar, however, in that they both top-rated TV stars for years before they ever sought office, Reagan as host of G.E. Theater anthology programs, and Trump as the billionaire host on 14 seasons of The Apprentice. Because of this, both men had a profound head start over their opponents, having already imprinted themselves in voters' minds exactly as they wished to be seen—Reagan as the genial curator of stories that always had happy endings, Trump as the omni-competent boardroom warrior before whom weaker mortals can only grovel.

But more than that, Reagan, and now Trump, reveal our own tendency to repress our fear of demagogues by dismissing them. And ultimately, it's all about us. Follow the bouncing beach ball. Take demagogues seriously. Voters love them. And they're only a joke until they win.

Rick Perlstein is a historian and journalist, and the author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.