Donald Trump’s first quest for the presidency in a number of ways can be compared to the first foray into national politics of another revered Republican who similarly sought the presidency: Ronald Reagan.
Besides his huge victories in 1980 and 1984, and his almost-successful run in 1976, Reagan first sought the presidency during a 21-month long campaign that began shortly after his 1966 election as governor of California and ended in Miami Beach when he addressed the GOP convention and asked the delegates to vote unanimously for Richard Nixon.
Reagan had sought the votes of minorities from the very beginning of his political career. When running for governor, his calls to lessen the interference of governmental bureaucracies in the lives of Americans of Mexican descent, coupled with a strong local team of pro-Reagan Mexican-American Democrats for Reagan, led Reagan to achieving a major plurality of Hispanic voters in 1966.
When running for president over the next two years, Reagan followed through on his 1966 campaign promises and proposed a number of programs to aid Hispanic Californians, who at the time often were working in agriculture. But Reagan also expanded his outreach to other minorities: blacks, Asians, and Native Americans.
In the spring of 1968, Reagan held a number of extraordinary meetings with minority leaders. Reagan visited a number of California cities and for several hours at each site met minority leaders — far away from the eyes of the press. Reagan did not want any of these meetings to be called a publicity stunt.
Listening today to the audio recordings of those meetings from almost five decades ago, one hears the inspiring clarity of Reagan demonstrating his compassion: his true concern by hearing the problems minorities were facing and then formulating new, conservative solutions.
On May 11, 1968, a month after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, Reagan addressed the issue of why Republicans had not spoken up much about the vexing problems facing the nation’s minorities and why the issue had seemingly been ceded to the Democrats: “Why have we as Republicans allowed our opponents to preempt this whole field of human misery and unequal opportunity? All they’ve offered, and offered it for three decades now, is a kind of federal plantation, a kind of mass therapy, when in truth we’re dealing with human beings.
"Each one is as unique as we are unique. Each one only asking for the dignity to being treated as an individual. Well, ours is the party whose philosophy is based on a belief in individual freedom and individual rights. Ours is the party of the individual. We can’t match our opponents in promises. But let us simply say . . . We’ll do whatever is necessary to save human beings, to restore their independence, and their self-respect, but we’re going to stop destroying them.”
Ten days later, when a black woman told Reagan that the GOP only was for whites, Reagan again used that new term. Reagan urged blacks to come back to the Republican Party because the Democratic Party was the party of the “federal plantation system.”
In mid June, 1968, several weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Reagan noted: "It was high time the minority communities in America recognize that they have been subsisting on promises for a great many years from the party now in power. I, for the life of me, can’t see any reason why a negro or an American of Mexican descent, or any of our other minorities would continue swallowing the promises.
"The cities where we have had some of the worst uprisings and disturbances are cities that happen to be run by Democrat political machines . . . The other side has failed in solving those problems. It ought to be time to give Republicans a chance.”
Reagan then firmly called on the national GOP to have, as part of the 1968 party platform, specific programs to help minorities. But welfare handouts, as but one example of the failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, were anathema to Reagan.
Donald Trump, who recently spoke outside Milwaukee in a major speech addressing minority problems and will speak this week to minority activists at the Republican Leadership Initiative in New York, can well follow the political trail blazed by Ronald Reagan in the mid-1960s.
Reminding voters that some of the cities with the worst social problems and huge unemployment have all been run by Democrats for decades, and asking minorities to try a new approach, could form a direct thread from Reagan to Trump.
If Trump expands his outreach to Americans of Asian descent, Americans of Hispanic descent, and continues his entreaties with blacks, he may finally succeed in freeing minorities from the firm grasp of what Ronald Reagan termed the Democratic “federal plantation system” and to give the GOP a chance to prove that their solutions of individual freedom and small government can provide the needed solutions for the problems of today’s minority communities.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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