If it’s any consolation to Donald Trump, this is not the first time that the election of a president has led to protests across America. Ronald Reagan’s victory was greeted with precisely the type of snooty horror, by an establishment who felt that the barbarians had broken down the gate and had plonked an idiot on the throne. A despairing media derided him as “the candidate from Disneyland”, a wisecracking actor who had been miscast as president by a celebrity-obsessed America. And, indeed, a fanatic who, armed with the nuclear codes, might just bring about the end of the world.
Reagan, like Trump, was accused of coming to power thanks to an army of “the fed-up and grudging aged white Christian children of America” — one of the more polite phrases from Harper’s magazine. The then British ambassador in Washington, Oliver Wright, wrote a confidential memo saying the new president was a cowboy “on the lookout for baddies — and the Soviet Union is Baddie No 1.” So his election posed a bit of a problem for the Foreign Office. “We have self-evidently a president - how shall I put it? - whom it is difficult to engage in a serious discussion on any subject of contemporary politics.”
Similar memos will be typed up now in every embassy in Washington. How to assess the political consequences of a figure as absurd as Donald Trump? The paradox the world faces now is precisely the same as the terrified Wright outlined to the Margaret Thatcher government. The new chap in the White House may specialise in “innocent-wise simplicities” but it would be a grave error to “mock these simplicities” because they are evidently “shared by a very great number of Americans”.
And they were reshaping the face of politics. Reagan’s simplicities, as it turned out, were transformative. Until he arrived, the Cold War had been treated as a complicated game of multi-dimensional chess: one piece in Vietnam, another in Rhodesia; a smile here, a menace there. Reagan saw it differently. He spoke bluntly about the USSR ending up on “the ash heap of history”. He started an arms race intended to bankrupt the Soviet Union, a race which the KGB told the Kremlin would be futile because no democracy would tolerate so expensive a venture.
Reagan was right and the Soviets wrong. Within a decade, the USSR was on the ash heap. His approach to economics was also simple: cut taxes, cut regulation, take government out of the way and let the people do the rest. And if his low taxes meant a soaring deficit? So be it. As he put it, “the deficit is big enough to look after itself”. This cavalier approach to public finances was attacked as being staggeringly irresponsible, but it worked. Supply-side economic reform, it turns out, hauled the American economy out of its deep decline and heralded a new era of wealth and dominance. This might be why so many Americans are relaxed about electing someone so roundly denounced by the media: they have seen this happen before. Man comes along, is hounded by the media for unsophisticated speeches, then goes on to transform the country in a way no one thought possible.
And who can deny, at least on some issues, that Trump is pointing to some basic truths? He accuses China of unfairly devaluing its currency to undercut American companies. He dismisses Nato as a scam whereby European nations claim America’s protection so they can slash their own defence budgets. On these issues and more, he is quite right. When Trump revived the slogan of Reagan’s 1980 campaign, Make America Great Again, it was seen by some as an act of homage. But his behaviour and ideas — the bromance with Vladimir Putin and his neo-Keynesian plans for an infrastructure splurge — show that he has little interest in being a conservative, let alone a Reaganite. Reagan’s pitch to American voters was not just his charm and his optimism. He had governed California for eight years, running the largest state in the union, whereas Trump will enter the White House without having done a day in public service. Reagan thought his way into the Republican party, after starting off as a Democrat and being battle-tested as president of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood. He spent his pre-White House years writing powerful, coherent and radical essays for magazines and radio, honing his Jeffersonian view of limited government. Trump has shown almost no interest in political ideas, and instead restricted himself to adventures in real estate and reality television.
His genius for self-promotion allowed him to pose as the second-worst option in the worst American election of modern times and be elected for who he wasn’t, not who he was. Reagan may have been denounced as an ideologue, but no one doubted his political integrity. His famously direct language stemmed from a clarity of thought that can be found nowhere in Trump’s rambling fusion of shock-jockery and stand-up comedy. Many of the wrong people hate Trump, just as they hated Reagan.
But that doesn’t make him right. Perhaps his lack of ideology will make him a successful dealmaker in Washington, able to stop the gridlock that dogged the Obama years. And perhaps he might be good at picking a team — which was the secret to Reagan’s success. He was no control freak and instead governed by choosing brilliant people for his Cabinet and leaving them to it (Boris Johnson has the same technique).
A great merit can be made of presidential inactivity, if you can make the right hires. As Reagan once put it: “It’s true that hard work never hurt anyone. But I figure: why take the chance?” The hope, now, is that Trump doesn’t take the risk either. That he will, like Reagan, try to find the most able people who would agree to serve under him — then step back and govern in the style of his unexpectedly gracious acceptance speech, rather than the style of his campaign.
Reagan proved that you don’t need to be a political obsessive to be a presidential triumph. The Donald is not, and never will be, a patch on the Gipper. But if he wants to make a success of the next four years, there are worse people for him to aspire to.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Fraser Nelson is the editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.