The populism that enabled Trump to crush 16 Republican rivals and put him over the top in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan had also arisen a decade and a half before — in the 1990s.
A decisive advantage Reagan and Trump both enjoyed is that in their decisive years, the establishments of both parties were seen as having failed the nation.
What is the common denominator of both the Reagan landslide of 1980 and Trump’s victory?
Both candidates appealed to American nationalism.
In the late 1970s, Reagan took the lead in the campaign to save the Panama Canal. “We bought it. We paid for it. It’s ours. And we’re going to keep it,” thundered the Gipper.
While he lost the fight for the Canal when the GOP establishment in the Senate lined up behind Jimmy Carter, the battle established Reagan as a leader who put his country first.
Trump unapologetically seized upon the nationalist slogan that was most detested by our globalist elites, “America first!”
He would build a wall, secure the border, stop the invasion. He would trash the rotten trade treaties negotiated by transnational elites who had sold out our sovereignty and sent our jobs to China.
But while there are similarities between these outsiders who captured their nominations and won the presidency by defying and then defeating the establishments of both political parties, the situations they confront are dissimilar.
Reagan took office in a time of Cold War clarity.
Though there was sharp disagreement over how tough the United States should be and what was needed for national defense, there was no real question as to who our adversaries were.
As had been true since the time of Harry Truman, the world struggle was between communism and freedom, the USSR and the West, the Warsaw Pact and the NATO alliance.
There was a moral clarity then that no longer exists now.
Today, the Soviet Empire is gone, the Warsaw Pact is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, and the Communist movement is moribund.
NATO embraces three former republics of the USSR, and we confront Moscow in places like Crimea and the Donbass that no American of the Reagan era would have regarded as a national interest of the United States.
We no longer agree on who our greatest enemies are, or what the greatest threats are.
Is it Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Is it Iran?
Beyond issues of war and peace, there are issues at home — race, crime, policing, abortion, LGBT rights, immigration (legal and illegal) and countless others on which this multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic nation is split two, three, many ways.
The existential question of the Trump era might be framed thus: How long will this divided democracy endure as one nation and one people?