The formal tally early Thursday of Electoral College votes for Joe Biden, after a chaotic scene in which pro-Trump rioters mobbed the Capitol and delayed proceedings for hours, should show even the most MAGA-loyal Republican that a Trumpist orientation of confrontation, disregard for civic norms, and disrespect for the Constitution is poison for Republicans and poison for our Republic.
So as Republicans survey the Trump defeat and the debris of yesterday’s unseemly chaos in the nation’s capital, we would do well to reflect on past moments of success and consider how we can recapture the moral high ground, the policy initiative, and the hearts of American voters in the next election.
I submit the following question for consideration: Can we consider, once more, some of the guiding principles of Ronald Reagan? To be sure, these principles are not exclusive to Reagan, but he seemed to bring the right blend of substance, vision, and communication skills that made these ideas consequential. Books have been written about Reagan’s leadership style, but let me put the spotlight on six approaches that the 40th president embraced and (with one exception) the 45th president seemed to disregard:
- Tone matters. Be careful of personal conduct. People who regularly denigrate or abuse other people raise questions as to their fitness for office. In the policy world, communication is usually not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The goal of communications is to help shape a consensus for a decision, and using it to demean others makes it harder for some to support you. Reagan occasionally found support from Speaker Tip O’Neill. Trump ended up with nothing from Speaker Pelosi.
- Inclusivity matters. The advantage of a political philosophy is that a political party becomes a universal party. The Republican Party was founded on a set of ideas rather than individual identity, so people from any background should be welcome. Spend time with constituencies that might not be a natural fit. Reagan’s outreach was universal, shaped by his radio and movie experience. You need to talk with everyone you can. Trump’s approach was insular. The point of a Trump rally was to speak only to the base.
- International leadership matters. We value alliances and collaboration not because we are naive or because it is an act of charity. We undertake a leadership role because America is safer and more prosperous when we build alliances and reduce trade barriers. Our two great international successes of the past century, World War II and the Cold War, depended on America’s ability to lead a coalition. Reagan set the stage for NAFTA with his call for a “North American Accord.” Trump sided with Bernie Sanders in withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Economic growth matters. Whatever problems we face, from racial disparity to clean energy, will be that much easier to tackle with economic growth. To give Trump credit, he was able to preside over three years of growth. This is arguably the one area where there is an overlap between Reagan’s worldview and Trump’s.
- Values matter. The first rule of a president should be to act like a president. Behave in a way that makes it easy for people to like you, to want to respect you, and to follow you. Reagan knew he was leading a great nation and reached an approval high of 71 percent according to Gallup. Trump merely asserted greatness, and reached an approval high of 49 percent.
- Defeats matter. Reagan actually received more votes in the 1976 Republican primaries than did his rival, President Gerald Ford, but the distribution of these votes allowed Ford to be awarded more delegates. Reagan was gracious in defeat, endorsing Ford from the convention podium and campaigning for him in the general election. Accepting defeat showed a level of maturity that allowed Reagan to unify the GOP when he went on to win the nomination four years later. Trump’s bitterness at defeat and his sustained efforts to overturn an election reflect, to put it mildly, a lack of maturity and a willingness to hurt both Republican Party interests and the national interest in pursuit of his personal benefit.
Yes, Republicans can move on. America needs a vibrant two-party system, but one based on a competition of ideas and of policies — not a clash of personalities. We need to reflect on what kind of country we want to see and what kind of political leadership it will take to get us there. The above six points aren’t a bad way to start.
Frank Lavin served in the Reagan White House. He supported Republican Voters Against Trump in the 2020 elections.