Chris Bond: Trump would be wise to follow in Reagan's steps

IN the end the American people opted for a political maverick and former TV star.

No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, but one Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Thirty six years ago he won a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter to become US president – the first time an elected sitting president had been defeated since Herbert Hoover was beaten by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932.

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Carter’s strategy had been to ignore his record in office and instead caricature Reagan as a right-wing bogeyman who would plunge America into civil strife and international confrontation. It backfired spectacularly as the one-time Hollywood actor turned politician romped home.

In his victory speech, Reagan said: “Together, we’re going to do what has to be done. We’re going to put America back to work again.”

Sound familiar? You can almost hear Donald Trump uttering those words today. There are many people who would be delighted if the property mogul turned president-elect was to emulate Reagan. But it’s a tall order.

Reagan, like Trump, inherited a country that was fearful and divided. The Cold War was still raging, and if relations between the US and Russia are frosty today, they were positively Arctic back then.

But Reagan knew his own limitations and had the foresight, or perhaps it was just good fortune, to surround himself with shrewd advisers and experienced political operators like Caspar Weinberger and James Baker.

He made former CIA director George Bush Senior, who had stood against him in the battle to be the Republican presidential nominee, his vice-president in what proved a political masterstroke.

Perhaps, most importantly, he left the complicated business of devising policy to others. He had a team that worked tirelessly on strategy allowing him to play to his strengths. In front of the cameras Reagan always appeared calm and looked and sounded “presidential” even during times of trouble.

It’s not by chance that he became known as the “Teflon President” – because no matter what scandal hit his administration the dirt never stuck on him.

During his two terms in office Reagan cut taxes, increased defence spending and in 1983 approved the controversial invasion of Grenada and CIA operations in Nicaragua, despite opposition from Congress.

He even survived the Iran-Contra scandal over US arms sales to Iran that sparked worldwide criticism and almost destroyed his presidency.

Seen through the rear-view mirror of history the Reagan years, like the man himself, are viewed with a kind of misty eyed nostalgia by many Americans. They don’t remember the controversies and failures but instead his sunny charm and witty one-liners and the fact that he was the man who beat Communism.

If Reagan was a catalyst for change in 1980, then Donald Trump is America’s lightning rod today. While the former brought a conservative revolution to Washington DC, the latter has become the figurehead of a new populism – fuelled by anger and anti-establishment rhetoric.

Reagan understood the potent appeal of patriotism, as does Trump.

Yet the two men differ in many ways. Reagan was a great communicator, like Roosevelt and Kennedy before him and Obama today, while Trump for all his straight-talking and ‘tell it how he sees it’ appeal, is not – the conclusion of his acceptance speech on Tuesday night lacked oratorical flourish.

At times during the the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton, he came across like an A-level student who’d been cramming the night before an exam, rather than a well rehearsed would-be statesman armed with gravitas and knowledge.

Reagan was no intellectual and neither is Trump – but then the American voting public like their presidents to be the kind of person they could imagine having a beer with, rather than someone who can explain the inner workings of fiscal deficits.

Reagan’s charisma was one of his great assets and like a great Hollywood old-timer he knew how to use it. And like him or not, Trump is a charismatic figure – albeit a hugely divisive one. But if he’s going to make a decent fist of being America’s next commander-in-chief then he could do worse than follow in Reagan’s footsteps.

This means offering an olive branch to moderate Republicans like John McCain and Paul Ryan. He will have to quit the macho posturing if he’s to live up to his pledge to be a president “for all Americans”, and he will need to display more than the bar room diplomacy we’ve seen from him thus far.

Mark Twain once said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And as the rest of the world comes to terms with the stark reality that Donald Trump will soon be the most powerful person on the planet, it must be hoped that having emerged victorious from a brutal and bloody audition he’s smart enough to take his cue from the man who played the part of president with such aplomb.

But if Donald Trump resorts to settling old scores with his political foes, both at home and abroad, and tries to obliterate Barack Obama’s legacy, then we may find ourselves reaching for our tin hats.