Why Attempts to Compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan Fall Flat

Sen. Tom Cotton recently delivered a speech on the future of the Republican Party, and it was noteworthy on a number of levels. Cotton has become increasingly comfortable giving voice to strident populism, and his remarks were very much in line with those delivered by President Donald Trump at his 2017 inauguration.

One purpose of the speech was to connect today’s right-leaning populist impulses with the revered 40th president of the United States, whose library had invited Cotton to offer his reflections on the state of the GOP. Cotton was explicit in stating his view that the vision for America he shares with Trump is in full continuity with that of Ronald Reagan.

It’s a bold claim. It is also telling that, having made it, Cotton suggested there is ample evidence in their records to make this connection, though his speech did not offer a list of specific examples.

There are, of course, some similarities between the Reagan and Trump presidencies. Both men cut taxes, and pursued, to varying degrees, deregulation to promote growth and business formation. But so too did George W. Bush, and no one thinks that he has much in common with Trump.

Cotton and others believe there is a special connection between the 40th and 45th presidents based on their shared ability to attract the votes of working-class Americans. Unstated by the senator in his speech, but present in the background (and explicitly advanced by others), is the contention that, like Trump, Reagan was reluctant to reform the nation’s main entitlement programs—especially Social Security and Medicare—out of his concern for the welfare of working families.

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