Tourists posed for photos beside the presidential seal, peered inside the cockpit, studied the nuclear football and gazed at a desk where a “Ronald Reagan” jacket slung over the chair, page of handwritten notes and jelly bean jar made it appear as if the 40th US president could saunter back at any moment.
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Air Force One is the star attraction at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. But on Wednesday it is competing for attention with a curving Starship Enterprise-style stage set featuring seven lecterns and microphones for the second Republican presidential primary debate.
The Reagan library describes this as “the Super Bowl” of Republican debates, against the dramatic backdrop of the Boeing 707 that flew seven presidents and close to the granite gravesite where Reagan was buried in 2004, looking across a majestic valley towards the Pacific Ocean.
“As a new field of Republicans make their case to be the next President, the legacy of Ronald Reagan looms larger than ever,” the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which sustains the library, said in an email statement that will be put to the test at 9pm ET on Wednesday. For there are some who argue that Reagan would no longer recognise a Republican party that now belongs to Donald Trump.
There are no more Reagan Republicans … These people are frauds, clowns and sycophants
Jason Johnson of Morgan State University
“There are no more Reagan Republicans,” said Jason Johnson, a political analyst and professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “Having this debate at the Reagan Library is almost a troll of the legacy of actual Republicans in the party because they are no more. The last real Republicans in the party were probably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The rest of these people are frauds, clowns and sycophants.”
Reagan and Donald Trump are the two best US presidents of the past 40 years, according to Republicans surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center (41% said Reagan, who held the office from 1981 to 1989, did the best job while 37% said Trump did). Neither man will be at the two-hour debate – frontrunner Trump is skipping it again – yet both will help to frame it.
Several candidates have been straining to drape themselves in Reagan’s political finery. Former vice-president Mike Pence often talks of how he “joined the Reagan revolution and never looked back”, and took his oath with his hand on the Reagan family Bible. This week Pence received the endorsement of five senior Reagan administration officials who praised his stances on limited government, lower taxes, individual freedom, strong defence and abortion restrictions.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has fondly recalled Reagan’s “optimistic, positive revolution” while also approvingly recalling his decision to fire more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981: “He said, you strike, you’re fired.” Scott’s campaign has promoted a quotation from Senator Mike Rounds: “Tim Scott is the closest to Ronald Reagan that you’re going to see.”
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has asserted that it is this generation’s “time for choosing”, a nod to Reagan’s 1964 speech that made him a breakout conservative leader and paved the way for his election as governor of California. In the first debate, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called himself “the only candidate in this race, young or old, black or white, to bring all of those voters along to deliver a Reagan 1980 revolution”.
Even Trump has recently begun referencing Reagan as he seeks to navigate the electorally awkward territory of abortion restrictions after the fall of Roe v Wade, stating that “like President Ronald Reagan before me, I support the three exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother”.
The Reagan Library and Museum, unabashedly laudatory with little discussion of the former president’s record on race relations or Aids, leaves no doubt as to his status as a political touchstone. It chronicles his rise from small-town Illinois (“Almost everybody knew one another”) to General Electric to Hollywood, where his role as football player George Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American earned him the nickname “the Gipper” – and the myth-making was under way.
A bumper sticker that says “Win it for the Gipper” features in a display on the 1980 presidential election, as does a campaign poster with the pre-Trump slogan: “Let’s make America great again.” The Reagan revolution was assured when he beat President Jimmy Carter by 10 percentage points in the popular vote and took 44 of the 50 states – unthinkable in today’s polarised politics.
Visitors see a replica of Reagan’s Oval Office, a display of first lady Nancy Reagan’s fashion and a paean to the trickle-down economics now rejected by Joe Biden as a failed economic philosophy, accompanied by the celebrated Morning in America campaign ad and a piano version of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA – now familiar as Trump’s walk-on song at rallies.
There is a gallery devoted to Reagan’s “peace through strength” approach to the cold war and “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, including a replica of the Berlin Wall and statues of Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Among his quotations: “We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.”
Unlike Trump, where it’s all about him, where it’s a cult of personality, with Reagan it was heavily ideological
Jonathan Alter, an author of presidential biographies, said: “Unlike Trump, where it’s all about him, where it’s a cult of personality, with Reagan it was heavily ideological. It was all about trying to restore limited government with a strongly anti-communist foreign policy. So it was cut spending, cut taxes, increase defence. That was their agenda and that became the animating idea of the Republican party.”
After he left the presidency, Reagan told the Republican National Convention: “Whatever else history may say about me … I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.”
There has, many would argue, been a significant shift in tone in the Republican party since then. At last month’s first Republican debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pence insisted: “We’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hard-working people the world has ever known.” Ramaswamy retorted: “It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment. And we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”
This once unthinkable repudiation of Reagan implied that the 40th president’s “shining city on a hill” has given way to the 45th president’s “American carnage”. Bill Kristol, a founding director of Defending Democracy Together political group and former Reagan administration official, said: “I talked with someone 10 years ago. He was a prominent person who said, ‘I wonder if the mood of America is changing.’ I said something conventional about Reagan Republicans.”
Kristol went on: “He said, ‘I don’t think that stuff would work any more. The country’s getting more and more pessimistic.’ I said, ‘Well, the voters still want to have hope and an upbeat message.’ He said, ‘I’m not so sure about that.’ Trump, in the way he’s a good demagogue, saw that. You wouldn’t be penalised for being down. Quite the opposite.”
Perhaps the area in which Reaganism is closest to being nothing more than a museum piece is foreign policy. Trump has embraced the old foe, Russia, and called President Vladimir Putin a “genius”. He has dragged the party towards “America first” isolationism and anti-interventionism. Ramaswamy has vowed to cut off financial support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman, said: “Reagan believed we were an example for the rest of the world and charged out to help spread freedom around the rest of the world. The fact that the Republican party has become pro-Putin under Trump – Ronnie just wouldn’t understand it. It goes against everything he believes.”
Reagan signed a law granting legal status to nearly 3 million immigrants. Walsh added: “This is very much a-build-a-wall-around-America, keep-everybody-out kind of Republican party. Reagan had a lot of flaws … [but] we were the city on the hill and we welcome all who want to come here.”
David Prosperi, an assistant press secretary to Reagan, said: “When Ronald Reagan was running for president he said, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic party. The Democratic party left me.’ I think today he might just say, ‘This Republican party has left me’.”
But there is a school of thought that former film star Reagan and former TV star Trump have more in common than their devotees would like to admit.
Reagan’s critics say he cut taxes for the rich and sowed distrust in government. He spun exaggerated yarns about a “Chicago welfare queen” and a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to “buy a T-bone steak”. In a call with President Richard Nixon he referred to African UN delegates as “monkeys”.
Reagan launched his 1980 election campaign with a speech lauding “states’ rights” near the site of the notorious Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights workers – seen by many as a nod to southern states that resented the federal government enforcing civil rights. Once in office, Reagan opposed affirmative action and busing programmes.
Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University, said: “While it’s right to be alarmed by the way in which Trump has move things into an unprecedented realm, we’d be mistaken to believe this is somehow entirely brand new. I know that the ‘never Trump’ crowd in the Republican party have created this kind of fictitious version of Reagan that was wholly different from Trump. But there are elements of this here.”
Reagan arguably tapped into the same populist forces that Trump would later fully unleash. Kruse added: “Reagan, before the presidency, ran for governor of California, where he was very much seen as a backlash candidate, the voice of white resentment. As president, it was much more of a dog whistle approach. Trump is loudly screaming what Reagan said softly with a smile.”