Pollak: Larry Schweikart’s New Bio Re-evaluates Ronald Reagan in the Trump Era

Ronald Reagan at Trump rally (Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

Historian Larry Schweikart has produced a new Trump-era take on the life of one of the most consequential — and, to many, one of the greatest — American presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In Reagan: The American President, Schweikart re-visits a familiar story through the lens of Donald Trump’s presidency. For Trump seems to have done what no Republican since Reagan could: namely, win the support of the working class, and govern successfully as a conservative.

Reagan “redefine[d] the American brand,” Schweikart argues — adding to it some elements that Trump rejects, such as free trade. He also supported “comprehensive immigration reform”; far from being “a dupe who was bamboozled into singing the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration act that gave amnesty to around three million aliens,” Schweikart says, the Reagan White house put together the “guts” of the bill. These facts, he says, call for a re-assessment of Reagan and his legacy.

Reagan, Schweikart argues, deserves to be seen as a fundamentally American president — one who, despite the claims of earlier (and not always friendly) biographies, was a man fully in control of his agenda, a man with deep intellectual gifts though few academic pretensions, and a man willing to change his mind on fundamental questions when presented with the evidence. In the best tradition of American pragmatism, Reagan saw the nation, and its needs, clearly — and governed accordingly.

Schweikart, author of A Patriot’s History of the United States, uses extensive archival research in the Reagan Library to revisit some of our conventional understandings about the 40th president. He also brings a fresh perspective, informed by recent events. In examining Reagan’s successful re-election campaign in 1984, for example, Schwiekart notes that Reagan could reach the American people because “in the 1980s, the television media still largely reported actual news, not commentary.”

Readers normally inclined to skip the appendix of a historical book or biography should not; that is where Schweikart tackles personal comparisons between Reagan and Trump, asking whether they are “brothers separated by three decades.”

Both were the oldest presidents to take office; both took unconventional paths to the presidency; both had experience in Hollywood and the media. Both were also accused by critics of being controlled by their advisors. There are other uncanny similarities.

In the end, what both share is an indifference to — rather than disdain for — elites. Each disrupted the establishment; each in his own way, made accommodations with it.

What Schweikart sees, which others — even some Trump supporters — have yet to appreciate, is that the 45th president is not as much of an aberration as he appears. As Reagan: The American President suggests, Trump is, as Reagan was, the restoration of a uniquely American ideal of limited, yet responsive, government.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author — with Schweikart — of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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