Reagan Country in the Era of Donald Trump

Barry Goldwater Campaign Pamphlet 1965 courtesy William A Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.


Fifty years ago this coming November, Ronald Reagan emerged victorious over incumbent Governor Pat Brown in the 1966 California Gubernatorial race. Reagan trounced Brown by nearly one million votes, securing large majorities in Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California. Some 400,000 Democrats defected from their party to cast votes for Reagan, and he carried his fellow Republican candidates to office. “Virtually every GOP candidate for state and local office rode to power on his coattails,” wrote one of his most controversial biographers, Edmund Morris.[1] The 1966 gubernatorial victory set into motion what would be one of the most influential political movements of the twentieth century: The New Right.

Barry Goldwater Campaign Pamphlet 1965 courtesy William A Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Barry Goldwater Campaign Pamphlet 1965 courtesy William A Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Sure, Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated 1964 campaign serves as the marker for the New Right’s ascent, but there too Reagan played a crucial role. On October 27, 1964, a flagging Goldwater campaign appealed to Reagan for some rhetorical help, and the aging former film actor delivered what would become known as “The Speech” among “party historians (also more formally known as “A Time for Choosing”) … the Urtext of his subsequent political career,” wrote Morris.[2] The nationally televised speech reinvigorated Goldwater and his followers; money poured into the campaign afterwards, though far too late to save the Arizona Senator’s presidential fortunes.

Barry Goldwater Bumpersticker 1964 Campaign courtesy of William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Barry Goldwater Bumpersticker 1964 Campaign courtesy of William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

To be fair, other political leaders in different parts of the Sunbelt contributed to the spread of New Right ideals. For example in the just published Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, Edward Miller adds a new chapter to the story of the Republican Party’s mid-to-late 20th century rise. Nonetheless, for obvious reasons Reagan remains a towering figure in this discussion. With his 1964 speech, the future California governor had established himself as New Right standard-bearer with true political potential while also setting up a cultural and political showdown between the nation’s conservative and liberal elements.

Unsurprisingly, this development pervaded network television. Two years later, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal faced off on ABC News for a series of 10 debates spanning the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Vidal repeatedly referenced Reagan and Buckley’s relationship, mocking both for their comments regarding welfare and poverty. The debates started out testily and more or less escalated with each skirmish. Eventually, Vidal goaded Buckley into famously losing his cool when, after he called Buckley a “crypto-fascist”, the National Review founder exploded, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your god damned face and you’ll stay plastered.”

As demonstrated in the recent documentary, The Best of Enemies, the battle between the two East Coast intellectuals more or less created modern punditry, particularly of the left-right variety, and previewed the next four decades of societal skirmishes. “The arguments about sex, war, race and culture have hardly quieted since 1968,” wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott in a largely positive review of the film. “Buckley and Vidal may rest in peace, but the rest of us have stayed plastered.”

Today, the culture wars, like Star Wars in The Force Awakens, persist in new vehicles, most notably with Trumpian (and to a lesser extent Cruzian) Tea Party proponents. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, David Frum summarized and then diagnosed the recent split within the Republican Party that has contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. “The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans,” writes Frum. “Middle class and middle aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.”

As Frum explains and has been pointed out by news outlets like the New York Times, whites lacking a college diploma have seen rising and troubling rates of “suicide and substance abuse” among their middle aged cohort. One might add the wave of heroin addiction that has swept across middle America and the fact it was once seen as a problem afflicting only urban populations; the epidemic adds to their collective worries and goes further to convince older lower middle class whites that truly, “the sky has fallen.”

Traditional party politics doesn’t answer the why; Trump’s supporters cannot be explained by ideology. “They aren’t necessarily super conservative,” argues Frum. Only 13 percent identify as conservative; 19 percent see themselves as moderate. According to Frum, neither are they very religious by GOP standards. “They often don’t think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them – and they want that older country back.” Instead they are motivated by economic insecurity and “the intensity of their economic nationalism.”

This brings us back to Reagan. In 1967, just after Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial victory, Harvard political scientist and SoCal native James Q. Wilson penned “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” for Commentary. The parallels to Frum’s argument today and between the political climate then and now provide a useful opportunity to consider the arc of America’s political development over the past fifty years—how much things have changed and stayed the same.


Ronald Reagan in 1968 with Lyn Nofziger his communications director courtesy of
Ronald Reagan in 1968 with Lyn Nofziger his communications director courtesy of

Wilson in the Rearview Mirror

“Let two Birchite loudmouths pop off anywhere else in the country and we rush to our sociological texts to see whether it is alienation or the decline of the small entrepreneur that is the cause,” Wilson wrote with a touch of bemusement. “If two from Los Angeles say it we just smile knowingly and murmur, ‘it figures.’” In the first days of 1967, observers struggled to explain the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the office of California governor. Many tried to explain Reagan’s resounding victory as a quirk of Southern California rather than a symbol of any sort of trend, but Wilson presciently knew better. “We will not take it seriously by trying to explain it away as if it were something sold at one of those orange juice stands [off the highway] or preached from the pulpit of some cult of Christ,” he warned.

Wilson’s naked observation sounds eerily similar to Trump’s campaign.   Like the Donald, Reagan’s Hollywood past didn’t hurt – Trump rose to fame in the Reagan ‘80s via shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and more recently, of course, with the Apprentice – but the real meat of Reagan’s support came from Wilson’s native Angeleno, lower-middle-class suburbs. Does this sound familiar?

Property rights served as the clarion call of communities like South Gate and Lakewood, and Reagan delivered. Critics contended Californians were alienated, lacking public spaces and community, and newcomers without real ethnic identities like those in Eastern cities endorsed Reagan’s anti-government, pro-property mantra because of desperation and unquenched desire to belong to something.   Wilson suggested otherwise: “[r]evolutions are never made by the last man to get off the train; they are made by those who got off a long time ago and having put down roots and formed their own assessment of matters, have the confidence, the long nurtured discontent and the knowledge of how to get things done sufficient to support political action.” Likewise, Tea Party members spent the last ten years building alternate political networks fueled by the discontent of what they believed was being lost, culturally and economically. These are not the most financially desperate but rather the barely secure middle class worried about reversed social mobility in a country once defined, much like Reagan’s Southern California, by the upward variety.

In Southern California, parties and formal political structures seemed less important than “personality,” argued Wilson. Liberals like Earl Warren and then Senator Thomas Kutchel built electoral bases outside of traditional institutions. Politics were largely “non-partisan, free swinging, slightly populistic – a direct appeal to the people was to be made on all issues,” observed the Harvard professor. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he has personality, no matter how noxious one might find it. Moreover, Frum and others argue that politics today actually serves as identity.

The Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse at 411 West Fourth Street in Santa Ana, California is an eleven-story courts courthouse facility on 3.94 acres (15,900 m2) that includes courtrooms, judges chambers, offices and courtroom galleries of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Renamed for former President and California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1992, the building is owned by the General Services Administration and is 176 ft (54 m) tall.
Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse at 411 West Fourth Street, Santa Ana, California by Carol M. Highsmith courtesy of the Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

For example, certain activities like hunting are automatically associated with party affiliation. “In 1960, I wouldn’t have learned much about your politics if you told me you hunted. Today, that hobby strongly suggests Republican loyalty.” Even one’s marital status can betray political leanings, argues Frum. “Unmarried? In 1960, that indicated little. Today, it predicts that you’re a Democrat, especially if you’re also a woman.” How much of this is due to an organic drifting of interests to specific parties or decades of political campaign techniques derived from the advertising industry, such as market segmentation, remains a fair question. Still, now a decade or two outside the height of identity politics, the intersection of the two seems more predetermined than ever.

Though we act as if polarization between parties has emerged as a recent phenomena, Wilson noted Southern California cloaked waning political differences. In the aggregate, wrote Wilson, SoCal seemed to exhibit political balance with liberals and conservatives alike securing elected office. Yet, when one dug deeper one found that many elected Democrats leaned as far left as possible; the same could be said of Republicans to the right. Even referenda demonstrated this polarity: “the returns and the polls suggest the Southern California has both the most intense proponents and the most intense opponents.” Admittedly, Wilson used the Proposition 14 referendum on open-occupancy housing as his reference point, one of the most divisive issues of the era, but it still demonstrated the divide.

Much as Frum and others have gone to increasing lengths to explain the complexities of Tea Party and Trump support, explanations for Reagan’s political base did not fall along simplistic lines of rural/urban or hick/sophisticate. California had grown wealthy amidst war and postwar boom. Military and the defense industries, as writers such as Lisa McGirr, Ann Markusen, and Roger Lotchin have noted, spurred incredible growth and wealth. The Golden State’s population boomed as Midwestern migrants, with some Southern exceptions, found their way to Los Angeles; in eastern cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston white ethnics proliferated.   Southern California benefitted especially people who had been “fighting for survival on … dust swept farm[s]” only a few years before relocating to West Coast environs. If before their economic support came from their own hardscrabble agricultural efforts and “relief checks form the Farm Security Administration,” they could now lay claim to “overtime checks from Lockheed,” wrote Wilson.

President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Treasury Donald T. Regan circa 1981 courtesy of Donald T. Regan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Treasury Donald T. Regan circa June 1981 courtesy of Donald T. Regan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

McGirr has explored this dynamic in greater detail, noting like Wilson these were not country bumpkins. Sure, Wilson acknowledged, many hailed from smaller towns across the Middle West, but they had left for “jobs in big defense plants and large office buildings.” McGirr’s influential work Suburban Warriors described a community of Americans hardly stuck in the past but rather who embraced technology, particularly in regard to national defense, falling back on the contentious comfort of anti-communism and the warmer fires of evangelical Protestantism. Orange County conservatives, McGirr argued, wanted a return to normative traditions steeped in evangelical Christianity, “but also called for a new one based on a highly modern technocratic defense of ethos, as assertion of an invigoration of the nuclear family unit as the locus of moral authority.”[3] Wilson too pointed to the importance of religion, arguing that while many attribute storefront proselytism to African American culture, white migrants too embraced non-mainline Protestantism.

This brings us back to Trump. Wilson’s arguments nearly fifty years ago appear to hold a powerful resonance, even if some places we can point to real differences. In his conclusion, Wilson noted that while “morality” remained important, if it became too central to debates it threatened to upturn the whole affair, leaving our system and the nation to be “torn apart by the effort.” To be clear, Wilson could have more clarity on this issue since on one hand morality could be interpreted as the religious sort related to the evangelical Christianity discussed by the author, but it could also be the more civic oriented type that opposed corruption and dishonesty in hailing the people’s voices through elections. Both can devolve into purity tests that can harm democracy, a form of government based as much on compromise as dedication to principles.

Granted, religious morality, at least outside of perhaps Iowa, where evangelicals occupy a particularly important place in GOP primaries, does not play quite the central role one might think among Trump/Cruz proponents, Frum notes. Class—“Wall Street” vs “Main Street,” as the symbolism goes—does a great deal to animate the battle within the Republican Party. However, civic morality does play a role. Take entitlements, for example. “Tea partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients. The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology,” sociologist Theda Skocpol recently argued.

In his 1967 inaugural speech Reagan expanded upon this very line of thinking. “We are a humane and generous people and we accept without reservation our obligation to help the aged, disabled, and those unfortunates who, through no fault of their own, must depend on their fellow men,” he told the audience. “But we are not going to perpetuate poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a pay check. There is not humanity or charity in destroying self reliance, dignity and self respect, the very substance of moral fiber.”[4]

Revolutions, Wilson wrote, are led by those with the most to lose; Tea Partiers, Trump and Cruz’s most vociferous advocates, believe that they will be subject to loss and that their voices are being drowned out by less deserving newcomers and Americans. “We’ve got Social Security that’s going to be destroyed if somebody like me doesn’t bring money into the country,” Trump tells audiences. “All these other people want to cut the hell out of it. I’m not going to cut it at all; I’m going to bring money in, and we’re going to save it.” In contrast, in 1966-67, Reagan seemed to be pulling back on the same issue, urging caution; California and the nation, he argued, could not afford “politicians who demand that Social Security be tripled without coming up with any plans as to how this impossibility could be accomplished.”[5]

Reagan’s 1966 supporters, argued Wilson, promoted “business values”—“a desire for expansion and growth, a high rate of increase in property values, finding and developing mass markets, and keeping capital moving and labor productive”—but not “business control.” When Sam Yorty ran for and became mayor, he did so in part on a platform opposing the business-friendly Los Angeles Times and other sundry “downtown interests.” Open up new land for investment, give out easy credit to aid growth, make sure the defense plants are rolling: that was government’s role. Generous benefits and strangling regulations were unacceptable. Considering the anger at big business that Trump supporters articulate, while throwing their hopes behind a man who touts his financial bonafides suggests, a similar dynamic at play.

Keep in mind however, in 1966 California hummed with economic growth. Reagan could avoid class issues by at once demanding a more regulation-free California as defense contracts provided wealth to the Southland but also slap down elites by critiquing university radicals and professors. “The state of California has no business subsidizing intellectual curiosity,” he told Californians.[6] He demanded radicals abide by university and societal norms: “Those who do attend should accept and obey the presumed rules or pack up and get out.” For those unwilling to do so? “I have just one message for the dissidents outside the gate … Grow up.”[7] He would famously deploy the California Highway Patrol and National Guard to quell protest. At the same time, Californians enjoyed almost unparalleled access to education via the University of California system; thus, he made the rank-and-file happy by both criticizing what they saw as unnecessary and privileged protest while facilitating access to college.

Today, GOP battles unfold in a climate of economic retrenchment as sequestration drained funding to numerous government entities but especially the military and defense.   In this way, Trump and Cruz today are almost the flipside of Wilson’s Reagan. Since the Great Recession, the jobs that disappeared (and had been for decades) did not reemerge. When GOP establishment leaders called for staying the course, Tea Party members believed no one was listening to them; politics had been corrupted. “I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people,” Trump has argued. “When they call I give. And you know what? When I need something from them … I call them.” Reagan promised to protect growth by limiting government and reforming Social Security. Trump supporters want government reined in, but also expanded to ensure the right kind of entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, and investment in military defense.

The larger, perhaps belabored point here is that Trump’s campaign or more accurately the dynamics and impulses that drive it, have been around for decades. Fifty years ago, in much different economic circumstances, Reagan appealed to a similar cohort and eventually carried to national prominence a political movement once confined to what would be nebulously referred to today as the Sunbelt. Trump is by no means Reagan, but who is to say what might be crafted in a new era of cultural, political, and social fragmentation?


[1] Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 343.

[2] Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 310.

[3] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 95.

[4] H.W. Brands, Reagan: The Life, New York: Doubleday, 2015, 166-167.

[5] Brands, Reagan, 166.

[6] Morris, Dutch, 438.

[7] Morris, Dutch, 344, 362.