It Didn’t Start With Trump: How Trump Used Messaging From Reagan

I’m going to show you a snippet of a rather well-known political debate. I have blanked out any reference to specific names that might give it away. See if you can guess what debate it’s from:

Fine. These constant suggestions that the basic social security system should be changed does cause concern and consternation among the aged of our country. It’s obvious that we should have a commitment to them, that social security benefits should not be taxed, and that there would be no peremptory change in the standards by which social security payments are made to the retired people. We also need to continue to index the social security payments so that if inflation rises, the social security payments would rise a commensurate degree to let the buying power of the social security check continue intact.

In the past, the relationship between social security and Medicare has been very important to provide some modicum of aid for senior citizens in the retention of health benefits. [My opponent], as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this Nation against [a well known government healthcare program]. Now we have an opportunity to move toward national health insurance, with an emphasis on the prevention of disease; an emphasis on outpatient care, not inpatient care; an emphasis on hospital cost containment to hold down the cost of hospital care for those who are ill; an emphasis on catastrophic health insurance, so that if a family is threatened with being wiped out economically because of a very high medical bill, then the insurance would help pay for it. These are the kind of elements of a national health insurance, important to the American people. [My opponent], again, typically is against such a proposal.

Couldn’t get it? Maybe the response from the other man in the debate will help jog your memory:

There you go again.

This statement is by far the most remembered part of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter’s 10/28/1980 debate. Here is how Will Bunch, in his amazing book Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion Of The Reagan Legacy, describes the camera of that debate as Carter was talking:

The camera cut quickly away from Carter, who stood rigid as he talked, looking almost funeral in a dark suit coat and tie. It showed a long-distance view of Reagan, who laughed broadly, swaying his broad shoulders back and forth as the president continued with his vision of healthcare for Americans.

Then, Carter finishes, and Reagan gets ready for his famous line:

The moderator, Howard K. Smith of ABC News, called out plaintively, “Governor?” and the camera quickly panned back to the loose-limbed Reagan, who threw his head back and grinned from ear to ear, tearing Carter’s wordy, preachy moment apart with the jujitsu of his relaxed body language, and then acted out the scene with the heroic one-liner exactly as he had rehearsed in his mind.

At that moment, it did not matter that Carter’s Universal Healthcare program was incredibly popular among both parties. (In fact, the only reason it wasn’t passed was because Senator Ted Kennedy, who was also running for President in 1980, didn't want Carter to take credit for what could have been his Universal Healthcare program.) Nor did it matter that, as Carter said, Reagan spoke out against the idea of the incredibly popular Medicare program in a 1961 record titled “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.” All that mattered was Reagan, while relaxed and smiling, told Jimmy Carter “there you go again.”

Yet, some of us wonder how a President could win an election campaigning almost entirely through Twitter.

It’s amazing to see how much of Donald Trump’s messaging style can be traced back to Reagan. Even ignoring the fact that they both ran on the message of “Make America Great Again” (Reagan used the slogan in 1980 and Trump used it in 2016), both are much more known for their short bursts than their long speeches. Look at some of Reagan’s most famous quotes and see how many of them could fit into tweets:

  • Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. (1/5/1967) — 63 characters
  • If Fascism Ever Comes to America, It Will Come in the Name of Liberalism. (12/14/1975) — 73 characters
  • There you go again. (10/28/1980) — 19 characters
  • In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. (1/20/1981) — 97 characters
  • [F]reedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history. (6/8/1982) — 81 characters
  • Evil Empire (3/8/1983) — 11 characters
  • I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. (10/21/1984) — 164 characters
  • President Reagan: Prepared for Peace. (1984 campaign ad) — 37 characters
  • Morning in America (1984 campaign ad) — 18 characters
  • Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it. (8/15/1985) — 167 characters
  • The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” (8/12/1986) — 106 characters
  • Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! (6/12/1987) — 35 characters

Almost all of them could, and that is because Reagan knew that most Americans considered politics to be boring, so in order to get supporters, you had to keep the public interested. Both Trump and Reagan ran on “shaking up Washington” with much more talk about both of their personalities as opposed to their actual policy.

It may surprise you to learn, especially considering he won both his terms in landslides and is one of the most beloved presidents in American history, but Reagan’s policies were actually never very popular. Going back to Tear Down This Myth, Bunch makes note that most of Reagan’s support came not from his policies, but from his rainbows and sunshine personality (literally telling you it’s morning in America) that made everything better.

Consider the actual narration of his famous “Morning In America” ad:

It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

If you could sum up this ad in three words, it would be “Keep America Great,” which was Donald Trump’s slogan running into 2020. Ironically, it was most likely not Trump’s failure to do simple and snappy messages, but his overall tone that killed his chances of re-election. Reagan was always happy, and, although many argue about just how good the Reagan economy was, Reagan was always able to keep enough people’s heads above water for them to feel like the prosperity was his doing. Meanwhile, Trump not only always came off angry and mean, but also had to deal with a pandemic and recession the likes of which America had not seen in a century.

And, just like Donald Trump, Reagan had little interest in the truth. According to The Washington Post, Donald Trump told over 30,000 lies during his four years in office, and his hatred of the truth did not come from nowhere. In 1983, Mark Green and Gail MacColl released There He Goes Again, chronicling Reagan’s false statements, this was updated and re-released as Reagan’s Reign Of Error in 1987.

The most infamous of his lies are easily his denial that his administration sold weapons to Iran, which Reagan himself signed an embargo on, and that the money from said weapons went to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, which Congress had banned Reagan from funding. (In Reagan’s Reign Of Error, Mark Green writes that “[Reagan] probably uttered more documented false statements at his initial 11/19/1986 press conference on the arms-for-hostages scandal than all the documented false statements of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter in their combined fifteen years in office.”) Reagan was actually forced to admit he had lied to the American public about this detail, and on 3/4/1987 he did so in the most bizarre way possible:

A few months ago I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

However, while Iran-Contra remains his most infamous lie, that does not mean those were the only lies Reagan told. Green and MacCoil report that Reagan lied about many issues, on everything from foreign policy to taxes, in order to mislead the American public for the sake of a point.

And, as Green documents in his introduction to Reagan’s Reign Of Error, when pointed out that what they were saying was false, the Reagan administration really didn't care:

When shown that Reagan had “cited” a nonexistent British law in order to disparage gun control, for example, press secretary Larry Speakes responded, “It made the point, didn’t it?” George Bush’s press secretary laughed off misstatements made during televised debates, because “if reporters document that a candidate spoke untruthfully, so what? Maybe two hundred people read it.” Then-chief-of-staff Donald Regan referred to himself with bravado [in 1986] as the “shovel brigade,” i.e., cleaning up after the President’s elephantine blunderings of Bitburg, Reykjavik, and the Libyan disinformation campaign.

The “citing” of a nonexistence British law is in reference to an incident on 4/15/1982, where Reagan said the following:

In England, if a criminal with a gun even if he was arrested for burglary, or theft, or whatever he was doing, was tried for first-degree murder and hung if he was found guilty.

The comment from Press Secretary Speakes is quite possibly the most important comment for understanding how Reagan and his friends operated. Reagan was fond of telling stories, repeating them over and over again, no matter how many times they were proven false. Take his most famous topic, “big government,” here are some of the oddest lies Reagan told:

Today, no one denies that the American people would resist the nationalization of industry. But in defiance of this attitude, the federal government owns and operates more than 19,000 businesses. — 1/3/1962

At the time Reagan made this statement, as was the case when Green and MacCoil fact-checked this a quarter-century later, the number of government businesses was no more than a few hundred.

I bet everyone in this room has, at one time or another, climbed a ladder. How we did it without [OSHA’s] 144 rules and regulations about ladder-climbing I’ll never know. — 2/10/1978

OSHA had two regulations on ladder climbing when Reagan said this.

[The Department of Education] is planning all manner of things to limit and restrict institutions of this kind [St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia] because their faith is totally in public education. — 9/29/1980

To this day, nobody has any idea what Reagan was talking about.

However, the most infamous example of him lying to demonize government programs still remains his dreaded “welfare queen,” a story that originated during his 1976 Presidential campaign. Here’s The New York Times reporting on Reagan using the story on 2/15/1976:

“There’s a woman in Chicago,” the Republican candidate said recently to an audience in Gilford, N.H., during his freeswinging attack on welfare abuses. “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” He added:

“And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax‐free cash income alone is over $150,000.”

Mr. Reagan never mentions the woman by name. But the effect is the same wherver he goes. During his second campaign swing through the state last month, for example, he startled people in Dublin and Jaffrey and Peterborough and Salem and in all the other little towns where he appeared. They were angry at “welfare chislers.” Mr. Reagan had hit a nerve.

Sometimes the woman had 12 names, 30 social security numbers, and a nice car, but no matter what she was finding every way she could to defraud the federal government.

The closest anyone has ever found to what Reagan was talking about was a woman named Linda Taylor, who was charged by authorities in 1974 with defrauding the federal government out of about $8,000 by using four different names. The New York Times actually did some investigating when Reagan first made his famous claim, and totally debunked it:

The problem is that the story does not quite check out.

According to the welfare authorities in Illinois, Mr. Reagan has based his anecdotes on newspaper accounts of [Linda] Taylor. who became known in the headlines as the “welfare queen” after sensational disclosures about her case were made by state Senator Don A. Moore, chairman of a committee that has been investigating alleged welfare abuses.

A spokesman for the committee said the story was not quite as exciting as Mr. Reagan put it. “We figure she [Miss Taylor] probably made between $100,000 and $150,000 during the year we checked,” he said, “but we could never be sure because the Welfare Department wouldn’t cooperate with us.”

And, according to James Piper, the assistant state’s attorney who is prosecuting Miss Taylor, the story is not even as exciting as that.

After a series of indictments each one of which was replaced by another indictment, winnowing down the number of charges, Miss Taylor is now charged with using not 80 aliases but four. The amount the state is charging that she received from her alleged fraud is not $150,000 but $3,000.

“You have to go with what you can prove,” Mr. Piper said. And so far, nobody has proven anything, he added, because Miss Taylor is still awaiting trial.

And the quote above was not the only time Reagan and his buddies admitted they were willing to stretch the truth. Here’s a quote from Reagan on 10/19/1980:

One day, I publically declared that this is a depression and [Carter] before the day was out went to the press to say, “That shows how little he knows. This is a recession.”

That never happened, and when Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger was forced to defend Reagan’s comment, he said the following:

I think it was [Vice-President] Mondale who said that, and he didn’t say it the same day. I think it was the day after, but it’s good enough for us.

The refusal to care about facts is certainly considered Trumpian these days, but why should it be? Yes, Donald Trump did that, oh boy did he do that, but the only reason he was able to get popular while doing such a thing is because our 40th president groomed us into accepting it.

It should be noted that, with how many things Reagan said wrong, many aren’t even sure if he knew what was true. Especially after his Alzheimers diagnosis was announced in 1994, many of his critics came to believe he was simply repeating what his higher-ups told him. As Noam Chomsky wrote in his 2002 book Understanding Power:

In all of the books that have come out about the administration, it’s been extremely difficult to hide the fact that Reagan didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on. Whenever he wasn’t properly programmed, the things that would come out of his mouth were like — they weren’t lies, really, they were just kind of the babbling of a child. If a child babbles, it’s not lies, it’s just sort of on another plane. To be able to lie, you have to have a certain degree of competence, you have to know what truth is. And there didn’t seem to be any indication that that was the case here.

It was a constant joke around Washington that Reagan defected to the USSR, only to be sent back because he didn’t have any information. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs once called him “the most influential non-thinker” of conservativism. And, yes, as Ralph Nader once put it, he was likely the first President to own more horses than books.

All of this caused a massive cultural shift, no longer was politics to be dominated by “experts,” instead, it was to be dominated by politicians, who we were then supposed to believe knew better anyway. The late standup comedian Bill Hicks, in opening a bit about being harassed for reading at a Waffle House (“Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader.”), noted that he had been seeing a rise in anti-intellectualism since 1980. In case you couldn’t connect the dots, Hicks even adds a beautifully sarcastic “coincidentally enough.”

All of this, the focus on short quips instead of substantive policy, the endless desire to paint a pretty picture of your country, the disdain for truth, and the hatred of experts, are all things that have come to define Donald Trump’s America. All of them can be traced back to the 40th President, a man beloved by even many Democrats, the president who Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi quotes the most, and the man who had the biggest Electoral Landslide in United States history. The fact that our most recent one-term President shares so much with a man many Americans have wanted to see on Mount Rushmore makes one thing clear, the issue with the Republican Party did not start with Trump, nor will it stop now that he’s gone.