Michael Reagan, the son of the late President Ronald Reagan, penned an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader this week, outlining his opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. In his column, Reagan compares his father’s tireless work on behalf of conservatism to what he sees as Trump’s recent insincere and self-serving acceptance of those same values.
“One of my dad’s most important lessons to me was how to uncover a phony. He told me not to judge people by what they say; judge them by what they actually do,” Reagan wrote. “As President, Dad used this ‘trust but verify’ principle on the Soviets and it worked. Voters today should apply Reagan’s verify principle on Trump.”
Following the publication of his op-ed, Michael Reagan chatted with Opportunity Lives about Donald Trump, conservative purity tests, the 2016 field and even Alec Baldwin:
What motivated you to write an op-ed in the Union Leader exposing Donald Trump’s lack of conservative credentials?
The reason I did that, truly, was that I had so many people coming up to me, telling me how Donald Trump reminded them of my father. He’s nothing like my father. When I see Donald Trump equating his change as the same as Ronald Reagan’s, I go “Excuse me? Your change is the same as Ronald Reagan’s change?” It’s so absolutely bogus.
The fact that you have these “Reaganites” rallying around Donald Trump but still saying they love Ronald Reagan, but they’re rallying around a man who never supported Ronald Reagan, who gave money to other candidates running against him! He was on the left until June 16, 2015, when he announced.
And so I thought people need to hear it from a Reagan. This man is not a Reaganite. Republicans have to make a choice: if you want to be a Trump Republican, be a Trump Republican. But don’t put Ronald Reagan in the mix. You’re either a Trump Republican or a Reagan Republican.
And if you’re a Reagan Republican, you don’t tweet out what Trump did about Megyn Kelly being a “bimbo.” The things he’s said about Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, everyone – that wasn’t Ronald Reagan’s style. Ronald Reagan found the good in people.
What do you make of the argument of Trump sympathizers that he, like your father, could attract disaffected Democrats in a general election?
Maybe white Democratic males. Is he going to attract women? Ronald Reagan won the ‘women vote,’ the ‘Hispanic vote’ and the ‘youth vote.’ Where are those votes going to come from for Donald Trump?
He’s building walls. He’s telling people who can come into this country and who can’t. He’s demeaning to women.
You’ve got to build a coalition of many to win. Right now, the Republican Party is the minority party because there are less of us and more of them. We can’t spend our time throwing people under and off the bus to win an election. You’ve got to find a way to bring people on.
Republicans either need a leader or an enemy to gather around. Lacking a leader, they find an enemy. And right now, they lack a leader so the enemy becomes illegal immigration and they can get behind that. Donald Trump, like a magnet, has pulled those people together.
But how big is the group after that? It’s a terrible mistake to believe that he’s going to bring all Reagan Democrats in. They loved Reagan because he had an actual plan to create jobs, while Donald Trump just says he’ll create them. How? You’ll never get an answer.
What do you make of Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s comparison of Trump to your father?
At some point, I say ‘Follow the money.’” What’s going on here? To equate that his father would support Donald Trump over Mike Huckabee, a devout Christian and preacher? There are some other players out here.
What you’re seeing here is people climbing on board with the person they believe is going to win the nomination, and I think Jerry Falwell’s son fell into that group. There’s nothing that Trump believes that would go along with the teachings of Liberty University.
So, follow the money. Is there a huge donation coming [from Trump to Liberty University]? Falwell believes Trump will win the presidency, and he wants to be on the right side of history. His father was on the right side. But, he and Ronald Reagan had an agreement on most every issue known to mankind. So, I was absolutely floored by it, like everyone else was. I don’t think it’s going to help Falwell.
In its symposium condemning Donald Trump, National Review pointed out that your father’s conversion to conservatism spanned decades and that he demonstrated a real commitment to the policies and ideals of the GOP before running for president. Trump, they say, has done none of the intellectual heavy lifting to truly understand and embrace conservatism. Do you agree with this assessment?
Absolutely. Name one person Trump has helped get elected. Name a Republican he’s gone out and given a speech for to help them get elected. You can’t. You can’t find one. Name one Lincoln Dinner, one Reagan dinner, one fundraiser for the Republican Party?
Where has he put his money? With Hillary Clinton. With Rahm Emmanuel. With Jimmy Carter. With Walter Mondale. It’s interesting you don’t see many Republican names on the board of who he donates to. What about the lifting to help the party win? He hasn’t done anything.
Opportunity Lives seeks to put the positives of the Republican Party out there. Has Trump mentioned any positive about the Republican Party, or has he added negatives to it? He’s added negatives to the perceptions people have about our party. The perception is we don’t like the poor or we don’t like Hispanics or we don’t like African Americans. Well, what is the voice of Donald Trump doing? He’s adding to those perceptions. He’s not helping.
President Reagan always emphasized the innate goodness of the American people, as well as the stability and endurance of our system of government and way of life. Donald Trump seems to be tapping into an Obama Era “malaise.” Is his approach one of Reaganesque optimism, or is his campaign one of anger and resentment?
Ronald Reagan spoke to us in parables. He told us stories. He gave us heroes. He saluted when he got off Marine One or Air Force One. He showed great respect to everyone. He never took his coat off in the Oval Office. My father was a cheerleader for America – truly a cheerleader for America. And we’re lacking that cheerleader in America right now.
Donald Trump is choosing to use the slogan “Make America Great Again.” What was my father’s slogan back in 1980? “Let’s make America great again.” So, he keeps trying to tie himself to Ronald Reagan, and unfortunately there are too many conservatives falling off the cliff and into that crevice. They’re going to be greatly surprised and disappointed when everything falls about.
You cannot treat people how he treats people. You can’t treat leaders of other countries the way he treats Megyn Kelly or the other people running for the presidency of the United States. How can he expect to get anything done? It’s about respect. You have to gain the respect of other people before you can accomplish anything on the world stage. He’s going around the country not gaining the respect of anyone whose respect he needs to accomplish anything. And he’s certainly not going to kick 11 million people out of here, and he’s certainly not going to stop Muslims from coming in.
And it’s sad to sit and watch that he’s doing this using my father’s name. It’s appalling. For Ronald Reagan, it was real. To Trump, it’s a slogan.
How do you recommend conservatives stop Donald Trump from winning the GOP nomination?
Quit applauding – really. Quit applauding. Really look at who he is!
One of the problems you have is Huckabee, Cruz, Carson, Rubio, Paul – you’ve got a plethora of conservatives running for the nomination. Only one can possibly get it. And you only have one Donald Trump. So, you have everybody splitting votes. Donald Trump’s not splitting the votes with anybody.
So, Trump doesn’t split the votes. This is what happened in 2012 and 2008, where you have conservatives jump in and just one moderate. Then talk radio accuses the Establishment of wanting that moderate. No, when you put eight conservatives and one moderate, the moderate doesn’t have to split the vote with anybody.
When my father ran for the nomination in 1980, he was the lone conservative in this sea of moderates and liberals all trying to get the same nomination. Ronald Reagan was splitting the vote with no one, while the moderates and liberals were splitting their vote with each other.
This is the problem some conservatives have. They can’t find a horse to ride. If they’re in the Kentucky Derby, they’re riding all the horses.
Your father was one of the most instrumental leaders in dismantling dangerous leftist ideologies worldwide, most notably in the Soviet Union. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed socialist, rises in the polls (and Hillary Clinton attempts to out-liberal him), how can conservatives thwart the rising tide of socialist views here at home, in the style of President Reagan?
It really is about leadership and living that leadership, respecting that leadership, respecting America. Don’t speak ill of another candidate. Don’t speak ill of people, generally. With my father, when he spoke about liberals, he’d do so with tongue-in-cheek and a twinkle in his eye.
You can [turn the tide] by going out and getting things accomplished. You have to work with other people. You’re going to have to even work with the other side.
My father looked at politics the way he looked at a football field. If you get 10 yards at a time, you will reach the other end zone. You don’t have to keep throwing Hail Mary passes and if nobody’s there to catch it, you just go home. You’ve got to stand strong in the things you believe in, but you’ve got to be able to work with others.
My father had a plaque that said, “There is no telling what a man can do when he doesn’t care who gets the credit.” We have too many candidates wanting to take the credit instead of sharing the credit.
My father would have never gotten the agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev if he doesn’t let Gorbachev take the credit for the START agreements that were written by my dad’s administration! But he allowed Gorbachev to take the credit. Why? Because he had to build him up in his own country to get done what he needed to get done.
He worked with Pope John Paul II – the Catholics and the Protestants – to support Poland and ultimately bring down the Berlin Wall. He never pat himself on the back. He would be embarrassed today to hear people give him credit for all the things he did.
If you’re not saying “I” and you’re saying “we,” you’re going to accomplish a lot more. Look at his inaugural addresses. It wasn’t “I.” It was “we, we, we.” He almost sounded French! But it was always about us.
It was an amazing time when you didn’t have someone caught up in themselves, but was caught up in the greatness of America. The ‘Shining City on a Hill’ wasn’t just a slogan. He really meant it. He saw it as just polishing the wheels.
Conservatives greatly admire your father’s ability to effectively communicate our principles, our policies and our vision for America. Of the candidates in the 2016 presidential field, who do you believe possesses this same charisma?
If I had to choose who had the most charisma, it would be Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio has the most charisma of anybody on that stage. He shows and wears well when many don’t.
In 1984, President Reagan won 49 out of 50 states, despite a hostile media and a combative Democratic Congressional majority. Clearly, he had done an extraordinary job proving to the people that they could believe in the sincerity of his intentions and his resolve to keep America strong. How can Republicans rebuild that trust at a time when distaste for both political parties is at an all-time high?
Susanna Martinez [the Republican governor of New Mexico] is the most like my father in this way. She’s not afraid to go into areas where people disagreed. They’d both go into those areas and sit down and listen to what they have to say, what their problems were.
As my mother used to say, “You’ll never learn anything with your mouth open.” My dad understood that, also. He wasn’t afraid to sit down with people who disagreed with him. He had two of his own children disagree with him! And they still had Thanksgiving dinner with us.
People vote for people they like and who they relate to. If we want to start winning again, we have to start nominating and electing people who are likeable and relatable. Most people don’t know about the bolts and nuts, but right now, they want to feel safe. Republicans should ask how they can relate to people and show they’re strong.
If we don’t do that, then we’re going to have a lot of trouble. When Barack Obama won in 2008, he was relatable and likable, more so than John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2012.
When you saw pictures of my father at the ranch, he was cutting wood. He was a builder. If we Republicans want to get ahead, we need to be builders. Be likeable and relatable. We can’t make our relationship with the public every 2 or 4 years. We need to make it every day of every year.
Don’t be afraid to go to NAACP gatherings. Don’t be afraid to go to Hispanic gatherings. Be there.
A popular quote attributed to your father is “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally – not a 20 percent traitor.” Now, we live in a time when some conservative pundits insist on portraying candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has a 94 percent rating from Heritage Action, as an Establishment RINO (Republican In Name Only). How do Republicans stop arbitrary purity tests from mischaracterizing and disqualifying solid conservatives?
Turn off talk radio. That’s where it comes from. When I go out and speak, I say that if Ronald Reagan were to run for president today, he’d be referred to as a RINO. He would be Establishment. He might not even get the nomination of his own party. When I say this to Republican groups, I get standing ovations. People get it.
We’ve given too much power to talk radio. The Republican Party has allowed talk radio to define us. The Republican Party needs to itself, not rely upon talk radio to define it. They might find out talk radio isn’t always their friend.
Ronald Reagan didn’t allow the media to define him. Ronald Reagan defined himself. And that’s what we have to do.
Finally, your father spoke of his generation’s moral obligation to keep the light of that “Shining City on a Hill” burning brightly. Our nation’s present circumstances seem even more dire than they were then. What lessons should we take from President Reagan’s approach to correct the course of this country and return it to the prosperity of generations before us and for future generations?
In international matters, president Reagan stood up to communism. He didn’t let communism rule the day. I remember asking my father when he lost in 1976, “Why do you want to be president?” This is a question that needs to be asked of anybody that wants to run for office.
He replied, “For so long, I’ve watched the American president sit down with Secretaries-General of the Soviet Union. Every time they sit down with them, the Soviets ask us to give up something to get along with them. I want to win the nomination and the presidency so I can be the first to sit down with the Secretary-General of the Soviet Union, who when they told us what we’d have to give up for them, I could get up, walk around my chair and whisper in his ear, ‘Niet.’”
He told me that in 1976. He told me that not knowing he was going to run again in 1980. Just around a decade later, in October 1986, he’s in Reykjavik, Iceland with Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev says he will not sign the agreements unless my father would give up SDI or Star Wars. And my father walked away. Sometimes you have to walk away.
He gained a lot of respect from Gorbachev and around the globe when he didn’t cave. We have a president today who caves – whether it’s Syria or anywhere. What’s he going to do when Guantanamo Bay no longer has people to trade? Are American citizens going to be held hostage forever because now we don’t have anyone to trade for?
The only way you gain respect in the world is taking these strong stands and when you say something, you’ve got to live by it on an international basis. People have to know where you’re coming from. Your word is your bond, whether that’s to the world or to the American people. And we don’t have that at the presidential level. We need to bring back respect to the Oval Office because there’s none right now.
I ran into Alec Baldwin recently, who is a left-winger, coming out of the gym. I told him my mother is Jane Wyman, and I didn’t tell him who my father was because I was worried he’d deck me. He said, “You know something, I miss your father.” I responded, “You voted against him. You campaigned against him any chance you could. Why do you miss my father?” Baldwin responded, “I was talking to some friends at my house recently, and we said we missed your father because he had a good soul. What the world is missing right now is a good soul.” I think he puts it better than anybody.
Ellen Carmichael is a senior writer for Opportunity Lives. Follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.