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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took incoming fire from all sides as he stood at center stage Wednesday night at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. So, too, did tech investor Vivek Ramaswamy, who again doubled-down on his belief that transgender kids were mentally ill; former Vice President Mike Pence followed-up with a proposed federal ban on gender-affirming care for students and almost insta-executions for guilty mass shooters. And—hooboy—did no one see Sen. Tim Scott launching a rocket alleging Ramaswamy was “in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden.”
Messy? Of course. And yet, despite the drama and shade, borderline slander and sinister sneering, Wednesday’s second GOP debate among White House hopefuls may still have mattered less than the man who didn’t show: former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner in polls, money, and self-confidence who couldn’t be bothered. Instead of joining his fellow Republicans under Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One at The Gipper’s presidential temple, Trump instead jetted to Michigan in the midst of an autoworker strike to offer his version of worker-based populism. Whereas Ronnie fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers during his first year on the job and set back the labor movement in a huge way, there was Trump—some 2,300 miles away—rambling at a nonunion factory, yet still seemingly contradicting a half-century Republican orthodoxy once again.
All of which explains why, with Trump leading his nearest competitor, DeSantis, by a 42-point spread using a platform of grievance, gotcha’, and goblins, it might be worth asking if anyone is looking for Reagan’s Morning in America any longer. At the first GOP debate, staged in Milwaukee, Ramaswamy seemed to mock that nostalgia: “It is not Morning in America. We live in a dark moment.” Such sacrilege was unthinkable in a pre-Trump era.
After the first Republican debate, Trump’s lead widened, his hold on the party hardened, and his challengers largely seemed to fade into the background. As much as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made gains with her defense of the neocon standards and traditional Republican values, it still didn’t move the needle enough to give Trump reason to worry. Which begs this question: Is Ronald Reagan’s place as a sacralized figure in the Republican Party a thing of yesterday? Or has its crown been replaced by one shaped like a baseball cap and stitched with Make America Great Again? Has Reagan reached peak irrelevance in a party seemingly hellbent on hewing to Trump's whims?
Since Reagan first burst onto the national scene with an ideology-resetting speech at CPAC in 1974, he was considered the gold standard for the modern conservative movement, a new true north for what it meant to cut taxes, provide international security through an unbeatable American military, and demonstrate an absolute indifference to most social-safety nets in pursuit of bigger gains. Politicians still jockey to emulate The Great Communicator, activists still wear replicas of his campaign T-shirts, and donors still respond to the Pavlovian ring of those 80s-era slogans that sometimes feel like gospel. For years, the thinking was that if a candidate could replicate Reagan’s magic, they could crack the code to the modern Republican Party.
Then, along came Trump. Where Reagan saw a City on a Hill, Trump saw American Carnage. Where Reagan promised Morning in America, Trump promised to Lock Her Up. As Reagan negotiated amnesty for 3 million immigrants in the country illegally, Trump sought to build a border wall, lock up migrants, and gleefully discussed separating families. And Trump came within striking distance of winning a second term in the White House, winning more votes than any other incumbent President in history.
Now on his second contested run for the nomination, Trump may be looking as much to get back into power as to tapdance on Reagan’s grave, which is on the same hillside campus that hosted the debate Wednesday evening. Everything that Reagan stood for—worthy of honor or abhorrence—seems deserving of Trump’s contempt. Reagan sought to win the Cold War with allies and internationalism, while Trump preached isolationism and deference to Moscow. So much so that Trump declined to return to the scene of his second ever political debate in 2015, the one where he said he’d get along with Putin, wanted to put Ivanka Trump on the $10 bill, and refused to apologize to Jeb Bush’s Mexican-born wife.
So as the candidates Wednesday night sparred about how to secure the Southern border and combat Chinese influence, there was an almost aggressive ahistorical appreciation for Reagan’s record. Scott said “The City on the Hill needs a brand new leader.” DeSantis invoked Reagan’s 1989 farewell message and Ramaswamy sought to hide behind Reagan’s 11th Commandment to never speak ill of another GOP figure. And, as Ramaswamy broke a half-century of conservative foreign policy norms—many made seemingly unbendable by Reagan himself—Pence roared the Reagan mantra that “peace comes through strength.”
But it may have all been in service of a legend that no one longer moves the modern Republican Party, and the candidates at times seemed all too aware of it. That much was clear when the evening coasted toward a close with a pointed debate about how much responsibility Haley bore for costly curtains installed at her government-provided home where she lived while serving as the U.N. Ambassador in New York. (The decision actually dates to the Obama administration.)
For decades, Reagan was a must-kiss ring. Even after his passing in 2004, candidates still made the pilgrimage to meet with his widow. And after she passed in 2016, mainstream candidates and hopefuls still made the trek to Simi Valley to offer their view of conservatism and its future.
For Trump? All of that seems beneath him. And his rivals hoped voters would catch the snub.
“You know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing an action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.” Christie offered his own twist, testing a new nickname in the style of his nemesis: “If you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They will call you Donald Duck.”
Trump knows his ideology: whatever makes him feel popular and powerful in the moment. He seemed to know who Margaret Thatcher was, but he couldn’t contain his giddiness—or hyperbole—when he met the Queen of England. While MAGA is his official slogan, Hedonism Over History might be more accurate. And if that means tossing aside the long-held deification of Reagan, that’s just part of the deal. His supporters get it, his party excuses it, and the country may just reward it.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org