Would Reagan Recognize the Republican Party? No.

President Ronald Reagan points to a reporter offscreen at a press briefing.
President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan famously said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.” Decades later, it seems the party President Reagan once revitalized, led and inspired is the one that took its leave. Though one could argue Republicans didn’t so much leave Reagan but rather pushed him out the door of a moving car, all the while laughing and making jokes in poor taste.

What has become of the once proud & principled Republican Party? As questions go, it’s not exactly “What is the meaning of life?” But it’s nearly as puzzling. Think for a second: when was the last time you had the warm and fuzzies over the Republican Party? Could it be 1984 (no pun intended) when Ronald Reagan, running for his second term won in the most lopsided electoral victory (525 electoral votes!) in history? If not for less than 4,000 votes in Minnesota and the District of Columbia, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the president who spoke of a new day in America and the shining city on a hill, would have run the tables on the entire electoral college. Even many Democrats – 26%! – supported Reagan. 

The 1984 election was different from Joe Biden’s victory, which saw many Republicans crossing the aisle to vote for a Democrat, for one reason. Republicans voted for Biden because they feared more of a Trump presidency. Democrats voted for Reagan because he helped Americans envision a better, more optimistic future.  

Reagan spoke eloquently of America’s promise for those seeking a new life in the United States or held differing religious beliefs. He acknowledged it was these people, from different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, faiths and more, that made us stronger. Reagan said America was better with open arms, not closed borders. 

In fact, Reagan’s last speech as President extolled the virtues of America’s immigrants:

“We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength from every country, every corner of the world, and by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America, we breathe life into dreams. We create the future and the world follows us into tomorrow, thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity.” 

But today, we see a different Republican Party. Instead of Reagan’s optimism, we see a GOP that stokes fear of people of color, of different ethnicities and religious beliefs. It’s a party that would rather cast stones and close borders than align themselves with the proponent of a stronger, more united United States of America. We see a party that calls its political opponents’ active murderers, who tout outrageous conspiracy theories and some who even refuse to acknowledge the will of the people.

Not long ago, the GOP clamored to wear the Gipper’s mantle. In fact, being considered a “Reagan conservative” was almost essential to a GOP nomination. In 2016, former Vice President Mike Pence said of his running mate Donald J. Trump, “I have a sense of this man [Trump]. I have a sense of his heart. I have a sense of his hands-on style of leadership, and for all the world, he reminds me of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan achieved great things in his life and his career, a movie star, a celebrity, governor of the great state of California, but he never lost the common touch, did he?” Fast forward six years, with an attempted coup and a threat on his life by the very people who supported Donald Trump, and Mike Pence is still beating the drum for Ronald Reagan, as Reagan was integral to Pence’s personal political story.

“We’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with new ideas and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

President Ronald Reagan

Obviously any favorable comparison between Reagan and Trump is laughable. But it’s not just Trump who defies Reagan comparisons. Increasingly, GOP politicians not only fall short of Reagan’s ideals, but actively espouse ideas he denounced, starting with big government. Republicans like J.D. Vance, Blake Masters or Lauren Boebert, all so-called “conservative Republicans,” have no problem with big government. They simply want to be the ones running it. Adopting the name of America’s 1940s pro-fascist movement, the “America First” candidates dream of a theocratic state that punishes political opponents, retaliates against private companies via legislation, looks to cut legal immigration by half, and bails on its foreign allies. 

This disdain for immigration is perhaps the most painful evidence the Republican Party has cut ties with their once-standard bearer, but it is far from the only indication. If Reagan were alive, would his 11th commandment hold true? Or would the Gipper feel like so many of us former Republicans, that we didn’t leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left us.