From Reagan to. . . Trump

Shadows of People in a street and Flag of The USA as Background concept toned Picture

Edward AshbeeJohn Dumbrell and Alex Waddan on the American Right from the 1980s to today.

In August 2019 Donald Trump abruptly cancelled his forthcoming trip to Denmark giving just a couple of weeks’ notice. The decision was seemingly triggered by the Danish Prime Minister’s refusal to contemplate selling Greenland to the US. Although there had been some in Denmark, who while not exactly fans of President Trump, had argued that he should be welcomed as the head of the country’s most important ally, the cancellation was seen across the spectrum as an affront to the Danish nation and monarch.

The incident was fairly widely noted but few commentators were particularly surprised. Over the past three years we have become used to daily tweets, outlandish hyperbole, and descriptions of events and people that are beyond recognition. Indeed Trump has become a by-word for chaotic policy lurches, a fairly rapid turnover of core personnel and, if foreign policy is considered, the abandonment of long-standing allies and an apparent accommodation of both illiberalism and totalitarianism.

There are inevitably those who seek to turn conventional wisdom on its head. It has been argued that if we dig below surface appearances, and concentrate on legislation that was enacted in Congress before the Democrats won back the House of Representatives or if we examine the character of nominations to the federal courts, then the Trump presidency is offering fairly standard Republican fare. And, despite the bluster, the US’s network of alliances across Europe and Asia remains intact. There hasn’t been much, the argument goes, which would not have been adopted had John Kasich, Jeb Bush or one of the other 2016 Republican presidential contenders, been victorious.

Just occasionally, however, conventional wisdom can get it right. Political processes do include legislation and appointments but involve so much more. Just as discourses have changed in Europe as populist parties have made headway they have also shifted significantly rightwards in the US during the Trump years. The agenda has tilted towards issues such as migration, ethnicity and race. While earlier administration toyed with tariffs, protectionism has now become an article of faith. Traditional conservative concerns such as deficit reduction have been sidelined. And, whilst alliances remain intact, the assurance of security that they formerly seemed to provide has undoubtedly been weakened. Countries that depend upon the US have had to consider the value of self-help.

All this prompts an obvious question. How and why did the Republicans, who proudly proclaimed themselves to be the “party of Reagan” suddenly become the “party of Trump”?

This is the question addressed in a new book written by Eddie Ashbee, John Dumbrell and Alex Waddan. The American Right after Reagan argues that although the right made substantial political advances in the 1980s and thereafter and the US shifted in a neoliberal direction through tax reductions and deregulation, many of these reforms were secured by stealth and were therefore largely invisible to grassroots conservatives. At the same time, as the US faced overseas challenges, it appeared to be at the mercy of rising powers and aggressive non-state actors.

In the face of this, there was growing grassroots anger and resentment. The traditional principles and the religious faith that had guided conservatives over many decades gave way to nationalism and populism. Those attached to the principle of the small state began to think of a rather bigger state. Those who formed the Christian Right looked towards a redeemer who appeared to lack the most basic religious credentials.

Ashbee, Dumbrell and Waddan chart the period between the 1980s and today and the ways in which institutional realities and conservative ideas interacted with each other. And they will be talking about the book at a forum organized by the London POTUS Group on Wednesday December 4th – 18.00 – 20.00, Room 246, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.


Ashbee American book

Edward Ashbee, Professor (MSO) in American Politics and Policy, Department of International Economics, Government and Business, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, John Dumbrell, Professor of Government, Durham University, (retired) and Alex Waddan, Associate Professor in American Politics and American Foreign Policy, University of Leicester, UK 

The American Right After Reagan is out now.

Read the Introduction free on Elgaronline

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