Henry Olsen, author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, discussed the similarities between the Reagan and Trump coalitions with SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Breitbart News Daily.
Marlow asked how Reagan came to be seen as a libertarian icon, “basically the type of guy that just wants to cut taxes on the nine smartest people in the country so that they can save us from ourselves with the lack of government,” when in truth he “fought for the dignity of working people and had a huge appeal to blue-collar Americans.”
“Ronald Reagan talked a lot about freedom. What happened, I think, was that libertarian Koch sort of people, as you put it, latched onto this guy who interpreted them for the masses in their own light,” Olsen replied.
“We tend to forget that one of the Koch brothers ran against Ronald Reagan in 1980 because David Koch was a libertarian. Ronald Reagan wasn’t,” he pointed out. “Because Ronald Reagan was so staunchly in favor of freedom, they have interpreted him in a way that took out all the nuance and all the detail. The fact is that Ronald Reagan was somebody who raised taxes to support working people in the dignified pursuit of their own lives.”
Olsen recalled his own history with the Republican Party beginning with volunteer work when he was just twelve years old. “I was so diehard I went in on the day that Nixon resigned. I worked my way through the party, was a candidate at one point, and I got into Reagan because that was what you breathed in California in the 1970s,” he said.
“But after 2008, I looked and I saw a Republican Party that was worse off than at any time in my adult lifetime,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Reagan turned it around. How did he do it?’ I started studying him, and that’s when I learned that everything I knew about Reagan was wrong, that Reagan turned it around precisely because he wasn’t the archetypal Ayn Rand libertarian that I had been told he was.”
“Ronald Reagan first and foremost was somebody who put people first,” Olsen said. “He loved the American people. His epitaph says it all. You’ll go to Thomas Jefferson’s grave and you’ll see ‘Author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights’ and ‘Creator of the University of Virginia.’ Well, Ronald Reagan’s says on his last words, is that he knows man is good, that right will eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every human life. That is the heart of Reaganism.”
“He believed that freedom was important and essential to that, but he also believed that government support was essential to that. That’s why he supported Social Security, it’s why he supported federal aid to help the poor pay medical bills, and it’s why he always supported a social safety net – and immigration and trade restrictions, when doing that would help the American worker,” Olsen noted.
He was critical of modern politicians attempting to appropriate Reagan’s memory for their own purposes, including Senator Ted Cruz. “Nobody quotes Reagan more and understands him less,” Olsen said.
“Regan said that the Republican platform should be ‘no pale pastels, only bold colors.’ Then you read what he actually proposed in that same speech, and it had an energetic support for environmental protection, an energetic support for a real safety net, a very limited attempt to restrict federal spending, no discussion of entitlements. Ronald Reagan’s bold colors would be called pale pastels by Ted Cruz,” he charged.
“Reagan was so far ahead of the curve that people only turned around the curve decades after he had already laid it out,” Olsen said.
“The thing to remember about Reagan is that you know, Sylvester Stallone was an out-of-work actor who wrote his vehicle to stardom. He wrote ‘Rocky.’ Ronald Reagan is the political version of that,” he explained. “He wrote his own speeches all the way up until really the presidency, and then he still had a big hand in his speeches. He thought through his principles. He created all the words that made him governor and then president. He was somebody who created the working class Republican-libertarian alliance that was the Reagan coalition, and that Donald Trump is recreating today.”
Olsen said Reagan had no difficulty reconciling his famed “Eleventh Commandment” – “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican” – with vigorous primary challenges, such as those seen in the 2018 election cycle.
“He criticized Gerald Ford, but he criticized his policies. He didn’t criticize his person. He didn’t make personal attacks,” he recalled. “That was what Reagan was really talking about, was that you don’t want to drag your opponents through the mud because after the primary you’re going to have more in common than you do with the Democrat. So don’t drag somebody’s character through the mud, but make clear that there are real principled differences between you, and let that be the method of decision for Republicans and people who want to participate in the Republican primary.”
“One thing also about Reagan is that he never, throughout his career, only limited his appeal to Republicans. When his career was on the line against Gerald Ford in March 1976, he goes on national TV as a candidate for the Republican primary and says, ‘I want Democrats and independents to listen too because you’re part of my coalition,’” Olsen said.
Olsen saw the Reagan and Trump coalitions as “mirror images of each other.”
“Ronald Reagan was the first blue-collar Republican. He was somebody that took places that were traditionally Democrat and turned them 40 percent on the margin – they voted for him by 20 points when they had voted for the Democrat by 20 points. It was exactly the blue-collar person without a college degree, the person who’s not a traditional Republican, who doesn’t like slash-and-burn economics and doesn’t think their boss is the second coming of Jesus,” he said.
“Ronald Reagan convinced that person that he was on their side, that he had the balance of freedom and support that American workers wanted, and they flocked to him. They stayed with him throughout his life. That’s what Donald Trump was able to do. He was the first person since Ronald Reagan to have that sort of effect on exactly that sort of person. That’s why he’s president,” Olsen contended.
Marlow asked if Olsen saw these similarities before the election and therefore knew Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton.
“Yeah, I did,” he replied. “I was always writing about that, particularly on National Review. Every two years I figure I need to go out and tell people what I think is going to happen, and I don’t paint in pastels, I paint in bold colors with clear predictions. I had the most accurate prediction in the country, beating Nate Silver and every other prognosticator.”
“The question was always going to be the reverse, which not will Donald Trump get this constituency – he had this one sewed up from the minute he walked down the elevator in Trump Tower. The question was whether he was going to be able to keep enough loyal Republicans in line, and that by Election Night it was clear he was going to do,” he said.
Olsen observed that some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the Trump presidency.
“They don’t want populism in their party,” he explained. “I think that they seize on the president’s personality to make a critique of policy that they would disagree with equally as much if you had somebody who never tweeted and was the politest man on Earth.”
“Those people are just wrong on policy,” he declared. “There’s a global economic slowdown that’s hurting low-skilled workers throughout the world. We need to address that, and it needs to be something that takes precedence over free-market ideology. Ronald Reagan would have done exactly the same thing, and he did exactly the same thing when he was president. Every time you see a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, you should thank Ronald Reagan, because that company stayed in business because he slapped tariffs on Japanese motorcycle imports. He was so proud of it he devoted a whole page of his autobiography to it.”
Olsen said one key to Regan’s reconciliation of conservatism with libertarianism is that “he always made the American person, not the deified entrepreneur, the focus of his appeal.”
“Anyone who listened to Ronald Reagan’s speeches knew that he cared about their lives as they were lived, not that they were important against some abstract theory,” he elaborated. “He had credibility on a personal level.”
“The second thing is, as he was talking against government, he always made clear what type of government he was against,” Olsen continued. “He was against a government that planned our lives. He was against a government that controlled our lives. He was against a government that tried to make us live according to unelected bureaucrats. And he always talked about he was for certain things like a good education, like a basic safety net, like helping people in need.”
“In fact, even when he endorsed Barry Goldwater, in the central part of his speech he said what he was for, and he was for telling senior citizens that no one in America should go without medical care because of a lack of funds. When he endorsed Barry Goldwater, he endorsed an expansion of government that wasn’t even in place in 1964. That was the sort of twin message that always let people know, ‘Hey, he’s against government but he’s also for me, and being for me is more important to him than being against government,’” Olsen said.
“Ronald Reagan believed that every person was capable of dignity and deserved respect and self-government,” he said. “He really believed that if you gave the information to the American people, they would make wise decisions. You look throughout the libertarian movement and they believe exactly the opposite. They believe that the average person is a taker, not a maker; that the average person is somebody who is basically a grifter; and the only reason they’re productive at all is because of the elite few, you know, the Randian super-mensches who come around and create these things that get all of these unruly people into line.”
“That’s the exact opposite worldview, and you can see it in libertarian-like policies where when you ask about, ‘oh, what’s the impact on real people, won’t that throw people out of jobs?’ they just don’t care about the answer,” he said.
Olsen charted the course of Reagan’s bold political evolution by noting he began as a Democrat, and “not just a garden-variety Democrat – this is a guy who was a partisan liberal Democrat who worshipped Franklin Roosevelt.” In fact, Reagan was passed over by the Los Angeles County Democrats for his first possible political run because he was seen as too far to the left.
“He loved the Democratic Party and Roosevelt because he loved the American people,” Olsen said of the young Reagan. “When he became convinced that the Democratic Party was more interested in perpetuating power than helping people, he switched sides. And what he did was, he took that sensibility that made him a Democrat, the love of people’s dignity, and grafted onto a conservative movement and a business-oriented Republican Party whose fatal defects were caring more about power, or more about money, or more about ideology than they cared about people. He turned it into a whole that we now know as conservatism.”
Olsen challenged the conventional view of Reagan as a “supply-sider,” noting that Reagan rejected the term consistently in his letters and books.
“He was talking about tax cuts and deregulation when supply-siders were in high school,” he said. “He was always doing it from what helped the average person. He never was focusing on ‘freeing the entrepreneur’ or making the businessperson’s bottom line the bottom line for him. The bottom line for him is what he said to National Review in 1964 in dissecting Barry Goldwater’s defeat. He said conservatism represents the forgotten American, the person who goes to work, pays his mortgage, bucks for a raise, and knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s his constituency, and that’s the constituency that a business-oriented Republican or a libertarian just doesn’t really care about.”
Looking back at the last few presidential contests, Olsen said Reagan would have loyally backed each Republican nominee but would have seen Mitt Romney as “too aloof from the average person.”
“I think that Romney’s comments about the ‘47 Percent’ are the sort of thing that Ronald Reagan would never have thought about,” he said. “There’s one point after the election where Romney is caught on tape talking about, he loses because Obama promises free stuff. Ronald Reagan was in politics for 30 years, and he never once uttered a phrase or sentiment like that. It’s just not the way he thought.”
“John McCain and he were actually close,” he continued, moving back to Romney’s predecessor as Republican presidential nominee. “He admired McCain’s bravery. He admired McCain’s service to the country. McCain gets his start in Congress in part because of his closeness to Reagan. But I don’t think he would have supported a lot of John McCain’s domestic policy initiatives.”
“I think he would have thought privately that John McCain’s foreign policy, by the time of 2008, was much more aggressive,” he added. “Reagan is somebody who believed in having a strong military, but not in using it a whole lot – just in being there to use in case we needed it, rather than using it at every drop of a hat. So they were personally close, he admired McCain, but I think he would have disagreed with McCain’s policies from a different perspective in 2008.”
“Reagan always believed in peace through strength, but he did it against the backdrop of a communist power that sought and was acting towards world domination,” Olsen said, elaborating on Reagan’s foreign policy difference with today’s hawkish Republicans. “Would Ronald Reagan have seen Islamic terrorism as something that demanded putting American troops in the way of every bullet? Ronald Reagan didn’t do that when the communists were our threat. I don’t think he would have done it when Islamofascism was our threat.”
“He would have been for a strong military, but a prudent use of it,” Olsen asserted. “And he always built up allies and encouraged allies to take the fight. That’s what Contra and the Afghan mujahadeen were about, which was funding people who had enough of a stake in the conflict to do it themselves with our backing, rather than putting ourselves on the front line and saying ‘we’ll do it for you.’”
Olsen agreed with Marlow’s comparison of President Trump’s critique of allies who don’t pull their weight on military spending with President Reagan’s desire for “allies, not protectorates.”
“I do work in the belly of the beast, the Swamp, and so I talk a lot to embassies,” Olsen said. “One of the things I’ve learned over the last couple of years is when people in embassies express concern to me over the decline of U.S. leadership, I’ve come to understand that what they mean by that is U.S. do-ership. They’ve become infantilized, and expect America to do everything.”
“Ronald Reagan would not have done that. He wanted allies. He would overlook some faults in our allies as long as they were genuinely helping us. But he wanted allies. He didn’t want, as you call it, protectorates, and he didn’t want infants who just stood around and cried to get the attention of Mom with the military,” Olsen told Marlow.
Olsen also offered his thoughts on how Reagan would have learned from, and adapted to, the tactics of successful Democratic opponents like Barack Obama.
“Ronald Reagan, when he was running for governor, talked about that all this talk about left and right is dividing us down the center,” he recalled. “He campaigned as somebody who was trying to get beyond left and right to express American values. President Reagan would have strongly opposed Obamacare, he would have strongly opposed most of the policies, but Obama learned from Reagan. He learned that Americans want to be unified around a set of goals that have the dignity of the American person at its center. I think a lot of the dismay at people about Obama was that he didn’t govern the way he campaigned, but the way he campaigned was a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan.”
Marlow put forward the key issue of immigration.
“Reagan loved immigrants, but he placed border control first. That’s something that his allies and his advocates or acolytes now often forget,” Olsen replied. “When you take a look at why he said he was signing Simpson-Mazzoli, the last landmark immigration reform bill, it was because we needed to get control of our borders. He wrote in one letter that while he loved refugees, economic migrants, we couldn’t take everybody who wanted to come here because even a country as rich as America couldn’t have the bounty to support them all.”
“I think Ronald Reagan today would be for what he thinks he got in 1986, which was: ‘Let’s close the border to people beyond the number that we can reasonably support, and let’s have real sanctions to make sure that that’s done.’ I mean, he would be for immigration, but not immigration that placed the safety and dignity of the American worker at risk,” he proposed.
Olsen said that Reagan loved free trade, another hot-button issue in the Trump era, “but he loved fair trade.”
“When Ronald Reagan was president, he pushed for CAFTA. He created the idea that eventually became NAFTA. But when he found countries like Japan, a major trading threat in the 1980s, were manipulating trade deals – either by denying access or doing things to give them unfair competitiveness at America – he slapped sanctions on all the time,” he said.
“He created the idea of voluntary auto restraint exports that forced Japanese manufacturers of cars to share the wealth with the American workers by building them here,” Olsen pointed out. “He put sanctions on Japanese semiconductors. He put sanctions on Japanese computers. He put sanctions on Japanese motorcycles, saving Harley-Davidson.”
“So he would have been for fair trade. Free trade, but he would have been really aggressive at protecting American interests when people were competing unfairly. He would have had no problem labeling China a currency manipulator,” he said.
Olsen provided a Reaganesque analysis of the North Korean nuclear crisis by noting that Reagan “would not want a threat to the American people developing.”
“He also was somebody who very carefully thought about our alliances. He was very careful not to spill blood unnecessarily,” he noted. “My guess is if Reagan were around today, he would be going to China and really playing hardball – say, ‘You’re the access of this regime to hard currency, to the West, to travel and everything. You either put up or shut up, and we’re going to make you responsible for this small country, or you’re not going to like the consequences.’”
On the eve of a new Republican tax reform bill’s debut, Olsen firmly stated that “Ronald Reagan always believed in cutting everyone’s taxes.”
“Ronald Reagan did not believe in the supply-side theory of ‘trickle-down,’” he added. “In fact, he disciplined David Stockman, his budget director, who got in hot water in 1981 for saying ‘yeah, it was all a smokescreen to lower the top rate, we believe in trickle-down economics.’ Ronald Reagan never believed in trickle-down economics. In fact, as governor, he would increase taxes on the rich to cut taxes on the middle and working classes.”
“If Ronald Reagan were looking at this bill tomorrow, he would look and say, ‘Does it help American competitiveness?’ He’d be for corporate tax cuts. But does it help everybody? Is there a tax cut so everybody is a winner, especially people on moderate or low-to-moderate income? He would be pushing down the tax relief, rather than focusing it all for the top,” he said.
“So I suspect that if Ronald Reagan’s ghost were to speak to us today, he would look at the tax bill tomorrow and kind of shake his head and say, ‘Supply-siders, there you go again,’” Olsen said.
Marlow concluded the interview by asking what Reagan, “the epitome of dignity and class,” would think of “the crass nature of Donald Trump.”
“He would not like that,” Olsen said plainly. “Ronald Reagan was somebody who believed in making friends. He believed in building alliances. He was somebody who let a lot of criticism roll off his back.”
He recalled how President Reagan was routinely subjected to criticism as vicious as what President Trump endures, “and he just took it with a smile.”
“I think if Ronald Reagan were in the age of Twitter, he would have used it for humor, to defuse his critics with one-liners and jokes, which he was excellent at. I think if Ronald Reagan’s ghost could visit Donald Trump today, he’d put his arm around him and say, ‘You can make so many more friends if you smile than if you growl,’” he said.
Olsen offered a parting observation that he was surprised to learn how frequently Reagan quoted Franklin Roosevelt.
“We remember Ronald Reagan in 1980 closing his debate by saying, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ That whole section is a direct paraphrase of Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth Fireside Chat,” he noted. “When the chips were down throughout his career, Reagan would use lines or use sentiments that he had heard on the radio fifty years before. This is a man deeply steeped in his idol, who never left him behind.”
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