At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, traditionalist conservatives, including Vice President Mike Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, named Reagan as the model they wanted to emulate. Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union referred to the 40th president as “St. Ronald.”
When President Trump spoke at the conference on Friday, he never mentioned Reagan’s name at all. Neither did Stephen K. Bannon, the president's chief theoretician. Instead, they talked about what Bannon called “a new political order” — one that leaves big parts of Reaganism behind.
Reagan campaigned relentlessly to reduce the size and power of the federal government: lower taxes, a balanced federal budget, all in the service of getting government out of the way. He never succeeded in balancing the budget — his Cold War military buildup made that impossible — but he tried.
Trump shares important parts of that agenda: lower taxes and less regulation (or, as Bannon calls it, “deconstructing the administrative state”).
But Trump has barely mentioned the goal of a balanced budget, much less shown how he would get there. More often, he brags about the activist things he wants his federal government to do: jawbone private employers to keep jobs in the United States, build a wall on the border with Mexico, and enact a health insurance plan to replace Obamacare.
Trump has departed most clearly from Reagan on two issues: immigration and trade. Reagan advocated “amnesty” — he even used that word; Trump promises massive deportations instead. Reagan was not only a free trade advocate; he was one of the first major politicians to champion a North America Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Trump wants to scrap NAFTA and has threatened to impose unilateral tariffs on companies that import manufactured goods from Mexico.
Those two issues, Bannon said, lie at the heart of Trump’s agenda.
“The central core of what we believe [is] that we're a nation with an economy — not an economy in just some global marketplace with open borders,” Bannon told the conservatives at CPAC. “We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”
Almost 30 years after Reagan left the White House, it’s hard to argue that conservatism wasn’t due a makeover.
Still, some of the old-style conservatives at CPAC were unimpressed.
“I had to leave the room when Bannon was talking. I almost felt sick,” said Joan Dougherty, a tea party activist from Asbury Park, N.J. “It didn’t sound like conservative values to me.” Bannon didn’t mention any social conservative issues such as abortion, she complained.
It didn’t help much when White House aide Kellyanne Conway gave them the back of her hand, saying the conservative movement had grown "sclerotic and dusty" until Trump came along.
“Tomorrow, this will be TPAC,” the Trump Political Action Conference, she joked.
Conservative radio host Mark Levin bristled at that. “When I worked for Reagan, we didn’t call it RPAC,” he grumbled. “It’s conservative.”
CPAC was never naturally hospitable to Trump, an outsider who flouted Reaganite shibboleths on his way to the GOP nomination. The activists’ convention has been dominated in recent years by social conservatives and libertarians; its most recent presidential straw polls were won by Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
Bannon acknowledged the divisions.
“If you look at the wide degree of opinions in this room — whether you're a populist, whether you're a limited-government conservative, whether you're libertarian, whether you're an economic nationalist – we have wide and sometimes divergent opinions.” (He left out the social conservatives – again.)
But he argued that all those factions on the right now have a chance to unite under the banner of Trump.
It’s true that when Trump spoke on Friday, conservatives of every variety put their qualms aside and cheered their new president – most loudly when he criticized the mainstream media as “enemies of the people” and recalled Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump voters as “deplorables.”
“Lock her up!” the audience chanted.
But what binds the factions of conservatives together is not so much their admiration for Trump as their shared loathing for Democrats and their common agenda on taxes and deregulation – old pillars of the Reagan Revolution, as it happens.
Skepticism about Trump’s reliability and discomfort with Bannon’s economic populism are not far below the surface.
They’re rooting for Trump to succeed. They yearn for him to deliver. But if the results are disappointing, the fractious pieces of his conservative base may not be as dependable as he’d like.