Donald Trump scored his first big win of the primary season with a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary. Despite leading in the national polls by huge margins for the better part of six months, it was still unclear whether his supporters would actually turn out to vote. When Iowa delivered him a second place finish rather than the predicted first, its caucuses appeared to suggest that the Trump bubble would soon burst. Although New Hampshire netted him only ten delegates, its election nonetheless drove home the point that regardless of how this wild campaign turns out, Trump has indeed captured the imagination of a movement. And as the political order still grapples with what Trump’s unexpected rise means for the rest of the campaign, it is equally important to consider what his supporters’ underlying views mean for our politics. As written here last month, the first half of Trump’s success is a warning shot to the national party’s extreme anti-government policies. But undoubtedly, the greatest part of his ascension has been fueled by nationalistic fervor. It’s written right there on his hat, after all — “Make America Great Again.” And in this respect, Trump is actually following a path to Republican resurgence initially paved by the party’s last highly successful national leader—Ronald Wilson Reagan—while fueling the same fear of decline and humiliation as his newfound favorite country.
In 1976, four years before he would eventually capture the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency, Reagan launched a long-shot challenge to the unelected incumbent, Gerald R. Ford. Ford had assumed the presidency just two years earlier without receiving a single vote for national office. President Richard Nixon appointed Ford, then a Congressman from Michigan, as Vice-President after the previous occupant of the office, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign following his indictment on federal corruption and bribery charges. Then just as suddenly, Ford was the leader of the free world. In August 1974, Nixon was forced to resign to avoid his impending impeachment for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. The amiable but bumbling new president was thus thrust into a position of power far outpacing anything he had previously experienced, at just the moment that the country was licking the wounds from two of the biggest traumas in its history—the resignation of a deceitful president and the ignominious entry into and exit from the Vietnam War. After an initial burst of popularity, Ford appeared overmatched in the job and shocked the nation by pardoning Nixon. His approval ratings tanked.
And so, after two terms as Governor of California, Reagan burst upon the national scene in ’76 to take on his own party’s president. He did so not by rejecting the party’s failings under Nixon (by tying the new president to the one who appointed him), but instead by doubling down on America’s greatness and blaming the country’s recent humiliations on betrayals by the left and established Republican Party institutions. As exhaustively documented by Rick Perlstein in his book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Reagan continued to waive away Watergate’s seriousness long after the rest of the party had abandoned Nixon, and he incredibly blamed America’s defeat in Vietnam on a lack of political will rather than the military and moral failing it clearly was.
Much has been made of the not-so-subtle appeals to racist impulses inherent in both Reagan’s political messaging and the nascent Trump campaign. Certainly there is truth there; nationalist appeals by their very nature involve elevating a nation’s supposedly true character from outside contamination. Yet, racist classifications are more a consequence of America’s fearful mood and apprehension of decline rather than the cause. One of Reagan’s most powerful issues in the 1976 campaign, for instance, was his demagoguery regarding the potential Panama Canal transfer of power. Treaty negotiations between the U.S. and Panamanian governments were ongoing at the time, a consequence of recent tensions in the Canal Zone. The U.S. had taken control of the area at the turn of the century through negotiations with Colombia, which then controlled what later became Panama. The 1904 Colombian treaty gave the U.S. control, but not sovereignty, over the territory just as Panama was in the process of seceding from Colombia. The negotiations to extend American access to the canal while returning control to the Panamanians was a simple exercise in international diplomacy amid a changing world. Despite the Canal’s declining economic and military importance, Reagan plucked the issue from relative obscurity and gave it a prominent position in his platform as an example of America’s betrayal by its own leaders. As Rachel Maddow noted her book Drift, Reagan’s applause line about the Canal — “We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it!” — and his contention that the Canal was sovereign U.S. territory, were factually inaccurate but powerful: “Voters might not know a damn thing about the tangled history of Panama and the canal…[b]ut they sure liked a politician who stood up and said, They’re not gonna take it away from us.”
To Reagan and his supporters, the canal issue was simply a microcosm of America’s many self-inflicted wounds. As Perlstein wrote in The Invisible Bridge, in a speech on Memorial Day 1976,
[Reagan] tied “our seeming willingness to give away the Panama Canal” to the same liberal fecklessness that produced Truman’s stalemate in Korea, Kennedy’s betrayal at the Bay of Pigs, and now our humiliating retreat in Vietnam. He asked, “Have we stopped to think that young Americans have seldom if ever in their lives seen America act as a great nation?”
Reagan used this message to appeal not only to Republicans but also conservative Democrats partial to Alabama Governor George Wallace. Voters in the Texas Republican primary, which was “open” that year to all voters regardless of party affiliation, responded fervently to the Panama issue, pushing Reagan to victory. These working-class, white, conservative Wallace supporters were the same voters later dubbed “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s during his two successful runs for the presidency. This group now appears to have permanently defected to the GOP, despite a brief flirtation with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, based on these social and nationalistic impulses, despite their continuing partiality to portions of the Democratic economic agenda.
Since Reagan, a greatly underappreciated core value of Republican identity is not ideology but victimhood. Fox News has built an empire on this concept, assuring its viewers that their failures are not their own responsibility but the fault of liberals, feminists, and the politically correct. They’ve spent countless broadcast hours hyping a nonexistent “War on Christmas,” decrying the divisiveness of political correctness, and blaming the all-powerful liberal media for our national decline. That is the very philosophy Reagan brought into the Republican coalition, and it is the sentiment that Trump is currently stoking.
This is a philosophy and national outlook shared by Trump’s favorite foreign foil. At every public appearance and in every interview, Trump repeatedly hammers home that the United States is “losing” in trade and other economic matters to China. China, he intones, has “smart” leaders that understand how to negotiate deals, while America has “stupid” ones that are repeatedly outfoxed. This is exactly the nationalistic fable, only in reverse, at the heart of Chinese identity. In contrast to the ethos of “American exceptionalism,” China’s unifying character is one of anger toward, and a rise against, other world powers due to their historical ransacking of the Chinese people.
As scholars Orvell Schell and John Delury recount, Chinese national consciousness begins with their degradation by, and capitulation to, the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars: “It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.” In order to unite disparate groups across thousands of miles, and to maintain order while imposing an undemocratic, authoritarian regime, the Chinese Communist Party that rose to power after World War II simultaneously lauded the Chinese character while stoking fear and anger among its populace toward perceived national humiliations at the hands of the United States and Japan.
Reviewing Jing Tsu’s book Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937, Louise Edwards wrote in the Chicago Journals that Tsu identified:
the manner in which China has claimed the position of victim in the international arena and has fashioned victimhood into a moral position. Being a victim, we learn, is not merely a response to injury or humiliation, but also a modality of cultural identity. From this underlying premise Tsu examines the ways that victimhood functions as a cultural experience, ranging from the benign to the dangerous—including nationalism and racism. Victimhood is an immensely flexible identity since it need not relate to actual humiliation or victimization. The narration of victimhood has been a consistent theme in both Chinese political thought and popular culture for over a century, yet until now no scholars have explored the impact and consequences of this persistent identity on China’s evolution. While nationalism has been the focus of many studies, Tsu shows that a key ingredient in Chinese nationalism has been the mobilization and articulation of China’s position as an international victim.
China’s rise, therefore, was built in large part on pointing the political outlook of its citizens outward rather than inward. This political and historical framing was Reagan’s brilliant maneuver, and it is now the destructive tactic of choice for Mr. Trump.
Besides Trump’s more moderate and working class-centered economic agenda, his campaign’s focus on American decline is striking and pervasive. Trump asserts that “the state of our union is a mess.” He offers that “the country is going to hell.” “Crippled America,” Trump’s new book published during the campaign, asserts that our leaders have left the world in shambles. During an interview with Megyn Kelly he went even further, declaring that “America is a hellhole and we’re going down fast.”
According to Trump, the consequences of this American decline appear first in the form of international mockery. “The infrastructure of our country is a laughingstock all over the world,” he has proclaimed. According to a recent collection by the Washington Post of one hundred instances where Trump identified foreign amusement at America’s follies, Trump has argued that “[t]he world is laughing at us. We’re like a bunch of patsies,” and that the Chinese president “is laughing all the way back to China.” “Mexico,” he insists, “is killing us.”
Trump’s solutions assure his supporters that he will not only restore the country’s promise—to “make America great again”—but also that we will end our national humiliation. He promises that he will make the military so powerful, that “no one will ever mess with us.” Instead of being bamboozled by Mexico, we’ll build a wall along the southern border and make them pay for it.
Trump’s message, then, borrows Reagan’s emphasis on liberal betrayal but without the Gipper’s balanced rhetoric of optimism and renewal. Trump, even more than Reagan, carefully blends this internal treachery with an outward focus on foreign invasion and exploitation. This is classic rhetoric from the current national Chinese identity (as opposed to its much older cultural and familial underpinnings). Just as the Chinese government encourages anger from its citizens at British imperialism, American intervention, Japanese militarism, and unpatriotic internal ethnic groups in Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere, Trump lashes out at Mexicans “flooding” across the border and radicalized Muslims immigrants. His strategy succeeds, just as it does for China, by creating a unifying identity for those who embrace it. And it is dangerous in precisely the same way as practiced in China, as well. It allows Trump to isolate his followers from not only the “others” he denigrates but also from the rest of America, and it fuels the disassociated virulence and violence against minority groups that have become standard at Trump rallies. More importantly, it acts as justification and cover for the authoritarian aura that Trump would no doubt bring to the White House. Deflection and distraction are the basic tools of dictators, used to hide their own destructive actions and to blame the pain they cause on others. Trump is remarkably facile at these techniques and clearly admires their deployment by others (as evidenced by his fawning praise for Putin). Republican leaders, then, must understand that Trump’s rise directly derives from their own rhetoric since Reagan, and that the consequences of their playing with voters’ sense of resentment and victimization are truly frightening.