By Evan Brady (Fall 2017)
Table of Contents Introduction Abraham Lincoln Ronald Reagan George H.W Bush George W. Bush Donald Trump Conclusion Works Cited
After the conception of the United States, several early Presidents warned against the dangers of a two party system of government. George Washington and John Adams, the first two Presidents of the United States, both warned against “a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other”. However, against the wishes of our founding fathers, our government has been controlled by two major parties for almost the entire history of the United States. Both of these parties have changed greatly over the 241 years our government has functioned, but only one has produced a modern leader who goes against the most basic freedoms provided to Americans. This paper hopes to examine the consistencies in Republican Presidents throughout the years, but also to track their differences and determine what makes Donald Trump so different from previous administrations.
When examining the Republican Party, there are a number of Presidents whose influence on the GOP can still be felt today. Many Republicans hold Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan as the standard for perfect Republican presidents. George HW Bush and his son, George W. Bush, also both affected the GOP in ways that hadn’t happened previously. However, as influential as these men have been on their political party, their policies and presidencies have been very different from each other due not only to circumstance, but also to the sentiments of voters during their time. These two determining factors are in turn influenced by many fields, including important domestic indicators such as the social climate of the country and the world around us. We will use this context in order to examine the response each president had to the challenges presented to them, the leadership they displayed during those challenging times, and how each of these differ from president to president.
Like any elected official, a president is determined through the will of the people and their feelings towards the rhetoric and policies of the presidential candidates. Most Presidents have had to confront serious social issues during their campaigns and times in office. Lincoln needed to determine the future of slavery in late 19th century America, Reagan mitigated the public’s fears during the Cold War, George HW Bush was president during a time of great change both domestically and internationally, and George W Bush was the first president to face the challenge of radical Islamic terrorism. Trump has also faced his share of social issues, including the death of African Americans at the hands of police forces across the country and LGBT issues. One of the most important skills for a president is their ability to adapt to such situations, and we will now examine how each of the men mentioned responded to the social climate of their times.
Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency is almost a perfect reflection of America’s social position at the time. Lincoln’s position of halting the expansion of slavery in the country was hotly contested by Southern Democrats and contributed to him only receiving roughly 40% of the popular vote. However, due to an unlikely number of candidates during that election (there were four in total), Lincoln actually won a 180 of the possible 303 electoral votes at the time. These votes were very clearly split between the North and the South due to Lincoln’s policies on race and slavery. In fact, not a single vote was cast for Lincoln in 10 of the 15 existing slave states during the election. However, Lincoln’s stance was not originally the abolition of slavery across the United States. In an effort to preserve the union and avoid civil war, Lincoln even “supported a thirteenth amendment then passed by Congress that would guarantee slavery in the existing slave states”. The first Republican president was keen on compromise, and in order to cool the tensions of the Union he was willing to concede slavery to states where it was already established, but refused to allow it to expand further. Lincoln’s response to the social issue of slavery was very balanced for his time, and his adherence to his own beliefs in refusing to allow the practice to expand or hold any more influence over the country was admirable and the right thing to do.
The next Republican titan we will be placing under the microscope, Ronald Reagan, faced his own social issues, but none were as drastic and threatening as the enslavement of other human beings. The American people during Reagan’s time were more concerned with the prevalence of drugs in their communities and the possibility of nuclear war with the USSR. Both of these issues were of great concern to the public, but they couldn’t have been handled in the same way Lincoln dealt with slavery. In order to combat the growing anxieties and fears of nuclear war and the spread of communism that most Americans of the 1980s felt, Reagan presented himself as a tough, uncompromising leader who was never going to back down to the “evil empire” on the other side of the world. In reality, however, Reagan was just as afraid of conflict with the USSR as anyone else, perhaps even more so. By spending $2.8 trillion on strengthening America’s military and supporting anti-communist rebels across the globe, Reagan provided Americans with a sense of safety and security in a time of nervous uncertainty. According to an article published in Foreign Policy, “For Reagan, chest-thumping was in large measure a substitute for a new Vietnam, a way of accommodating the restraints on U.S. power while still boosting American morale.” .
However, behind closed doors, Reagan was very much against involving the United States military in a direct conflict with the USSR or its allies. When Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested overthrowing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua might require bombing Cuba, the very thought “‘scared the shit out of Reagan’ according to White House aide Michael Deaver” . Reagan wanted only to protect the United States from communism by presenting it as being too strong and too indomitable to be confronted in the first place. His plan was deterrence rather than action. In fact, once the support of the American public shifted from trying to bankrupt the USSR to detente, Reagan was happy to oblige. In 1984, late into his first term, Reagan told the country that it was his dream “to see the day when nuclear weapons would be banished from the face of the Earth” and scrapped many conditions for meeting leaders of the Soviet Union that had been in place, telling the superpower the US “has no wish to change [the Soviet Union’s] social system” . This is a clear evolution of Reagan’s original rhetoric, one that indicates Reagan’s understanding of his country’s desires and how to best keep them at ease.
George H.W Bush
Following Reagan and the end to the Cold War was his own Vice President, George H.W Bush. Because of the fall of the Soviet Union, Bush the Elder didn’t have to deal with the fear of nuclear annihilation among the public. In fact, Bush Senior faced very few social anxieties during his presidency. This did not prevent him from enacting key domestic legislation, however. In 1990, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, forbidding “discrimination based on disability in employment, public accommodations, and transportation” . Many Republicans at the time saw the signing of this bill into law as a betrayal of Reagan’s beliefs on smaller roles for government, but Bush believed that ADA would help disabled people be less reliant on the government by giving them greater opportunities for work. Other than the Americans with Disabilities Act, HW Bush also signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. These amendments focused on reducing urban smog, acid rain, and eliminating industrial emissions of toxic chemicals . Once again, this decision by Bush faced criticism from members of his party who believed implementation would cost too much money and regulation would hurt an economy that was already weakened. Despite the criticism he faced for these pieces of legislation, Bush believed in their cause and that they were the right thing to do for the American people, even if it meant going against his party’s rhetoric and platform at the time.
George W. Bush
Following George HW Bush’s presidency in the Republican line of succession is his own son, George W. Bush. Bush’s presidency began in a controversial win over Al Gore in the general election that was decided after several recounts of votes in Florida (where Bush’s brother Jeb was governor) and a Supreme Court decision ruled in Bush’s favor. To add to this controversy, Bush won 500,000 less popular votes than Gore did. However, Bush was indeed our president for eight years, and near the end of the first of those eight years, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack it had ever seen. Understandably, Americans were in fear post 9/11, and Bush did everything he could to try to calm the national sentiment and show the world how the United States reacts to being attacked. In his address to the nation nine days after the attacks, Bush did not incite fear or hatred towards the Muslim community. Instead, Bush accurately described Al Qaeda’s beliefs as a “fringe form of Islamic extremism” that had been “rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics” . However, the leader of the United States did not stop there. He went on to reassure the many Muslim citizens living in the United States and around the world. He described their beliefs as “good and peaceful”, acknowledged that Islam was practiced by “many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends”, and declared that “those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah” . Instead of attacking Islam for the sins of terrorists and evil men, or trying to ban immigration from the Middle East due to the beliefs of many people from that area, Bush looked the American people in the eye and assured them that the attacks of 9/11 and other terrorist activities were not caused by Islam as a whole but rather by extremist ideology. Rather than fear monger, Bush displayed the qualities of a leader, comforting a grieving country while simultaneously providing them with the reassurance and confidence in American leadership that they needed to hear.
While all of the above Presidents have displayed flexibility and an ability to compromise when faced with various social issues, our president in today’s age has yet to show the same leadership qualities. There is no shortage of modern social issues for the president to have at least attempted to mitigate, and yet he seems to prefer inflaming tensions. One example would be NFL players protesting racial inequalities and police brutality towards African Americans by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. These protests have divided the public throughout their duration, but Trump has done little to bridge the gap between those who support the protesters and those who disagree with their message. Instead, he has publicly denounced the protests, going as far as to encourage the league to “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now” in regards to anyone protesting before a game . This is not the only issue for which Trump has failed to compromise or bring Americans closer together regarding a social issue. The President has also failed to compromise on his stance regarding immigration and the refugee crisis.
Rather than carefully construct a plan using the wealth of intelligence and information provided to him as President of the United States, Trump has stuck to his guns regarding immigration from both the Middle East and Mexico. Unlike Bush, who worked to bring Americans together and deescalate growing tensions towards Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent post 9/11, Trump has used provocative an inflammatory rhetoric towards those same people in order to stoke the flames of Islamophobia. From retweeting blatantly anti-muslim, Islamophobic videos on Twitter  to enacting a ban that makes it all but impossible for citizens of “Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea” to emigrate, vacation, or study in the United States , Trump has worked to demonize Muslims on every level. His actions as president so far have been a far cry from the leadership displayed by Lincoln, Reagan, Bush Senior and W. Bush during times of crisis much more drastic than ours. By alienating such large swaths of Americans in order to appease his few loyal followers (his approval rating currently sits at 37% according to Gallup ) Trump has shown a lack of inclusiveness and leadership that previously discussed Presidents seemed to value highly.
After analyzing the actions of Lincoln, Reagan, and both of the Bush presidents, it becomes clear that the one thing that remains consistent with these men is their ability to put their political positions to the side and do what is in the best interest of the American people. Lincoln fought a war he desperately wanted to avoid in order to preserve the Union. Reagan presented Americans with an image of strength and bravery even though he was just as afraid of nuclear war as everyone else. George H.W Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and Clean Air Act into law even though they were opposed to his party’s platform because they were laws the American public deserved. And finally, George W. Bush brought Americans together in a time of tragedy rather than dividing them further with hateful rhetoric. At this point in his presidency, Trump cannot say he has done any of the things that embody leadership that these previous Presidents have done. This appears to be the most clear distinction between Trump and the administrations we have discussed before: a clear lack of leadership and ability to unite a divided country in order to strengthen the whole.
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