The official text of Ronald Reagan’s first press conference as president — a mere nine days after his inauguration — has this Reagan answer to ABC’s Sam Donaldson on the subject of the new president’s view of the Soviet Union. Previous administrations of both parties had sought “Détente” — in theory a getting-along-as-equals policy with the Communists, a policy that in essence recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet Union in perpetuity. Reagan, a longtime “hardline” opponent of Communism from his days in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild, was vividly different from his predecessors of both parties. His view of the Cold War, as he expressed it to his national security adviser Richard Allen, was blunt: “We win, they lose.” On January 29, 1981, that Reagan view was expressed as follows as he called on Donaldson for a question.
Mr. President, what do you see as the long-range intentions of the Soviet Union? Do you think, for instance, the Kremlin is bent on world domination that might lead to a continuation of the cold war, or do you think that under other circumstances detente is possible?
The President. Well, so far détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims. I don’t have to think of an answer as to what I think their intentions are; they have repeated it. I know of no leader of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use.
Now, as long as they do that and as long as they, at the same time, have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards, I think when you do business with them, even at a détente, you keep that in mind.
Wrote Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward in The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989:
[W]hat was on the minds of the foreign policy elites was whether Reagan, like Richard Nixon before him, would embrace at least a modified détente once in office. Reagan’s answer stunned the room.…
There was an audible gasp among the press corps in the briefing room. Some of Reagan’s own aides, cowering in the corners of the room, blanched. This was not the way world leaders talked about other nations. This was the most blunt presidential language since Harry Truman dressed down Soviet foreign minister Vladimir Molotov two weeks after succeeding Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. “I’ve never been talked to like that in my life,” Molotov complained to Truman, who replied tersely, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.”
The difference between Truman and Reagan’s words was that Truman delivered his upbraiding in private. Reagan’s words were said quite publicly. For which he was immediately denounced, but of course. But he stuck to his guns — and eventually he did in fact win the Cold War without, as Margaret Thatcher would later say, “firing a shot.”
This comes to mind after watching the startling sight of Donald Trump turning up side-by-side at a presidential-style press conference with the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto — in Mexico City. A stunned world gaped at the sight waiting to see if Trump would fold — as they had expected to see Reagan fold on the subject of the Soviets and détente at that first Reagan presidential press conference. Not only did Trump not fold — indeed it was Peña Nieto who took heat from Mexicans (Jorge Ramos took off on Nieto for being “weak”) — Trump returned to the U.S. the same day and addressed his immigration policy in a point-by-point policy speech to an enthusiastic rally in Arizona.
What was on display in Mexico City and later in Arizona is leadership Reagan-style.
Reagan was about changing the world’s view of the Soviet Union, signaling, as he would say two years after that press conference, that the Soviet Union was not only not an equal partner deserving of some sort of “détente” but was in fact an “Evil Empire.” To be exact, he said this, bold print supplied:
During my first press conference as President, in answer to a direct question, I pointed out that, as good Marxist-Leninists, the Soviet leaders have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution. I think I should point out I was only quoting Lenin, their guiding spirit, who said in 1920 that they repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas—that’s their name for religion—or ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. And everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old, exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.
Well, I think the refusal of many influential people to accept this elementary fact of Soviet doctrine illustrates an historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are. We saw this phenomenon in the 1930s. We see it too often today.
This doesn’t mean we should isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them. I intend to do everything I can to persuade them of our peaceful intent, to remind them that it was the West that refused to use its nuclear monopoly in the forties and fifties for territorial gain and which now proposes 50-percent cut in strategic ballistic missiles and the elimination of an entire class of land-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
At the same time, however, they must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. And we will never stop searching for a genuine peace.…
I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
This was a sea-change in the American way of looking at the Soviets. Reagan was determined to change minds about the Soviets and how to deal with them. And that sea change, which eventually brought a victory in — and an end to — the Cold War came about because of Reagan’s vision and his willingness to challenge the status quo.
What Donald Trump was about in Mexico City and in his Arizona speech on immigration was his Reaganesque determination to change the status quo, to change minds, this time on illegal immigration.
Among other things, Trump said this in his speech of his talk with the Mexican president, bold print supplied:
This is the first of what I expect will be many, many conversations. And in a Trump administration we’re going to go about creating a new relationship between our two countries, but it’s going to be a fair relationship. We want fairness.
But to fix our immigration system, we must change our leadership in Washington and we must change it quickly.
Sadly, sadly there is no other way. The truth is our immigration system is worse than anybody ever realized. But the facts aren’t known because the media won’t report on them. The politicians won’t talk about them and the special interests spend a lot of money trying to cover them up because they are making an absolute fortune. That’s the way it is.
Today, on a very complicated and very difficult subject, you will get the truth. The fundamental problem with the immigration system in our country is that it serves the needs of wealthy donors, political activists and powerful, powerful politicians.
This is the Trump equivalent of that Reagan press conference and the Reagan Evil Empire speech. It is a calling out of hard realities that causes a wild hysteria among the forces of the status quo. Just as Reagan’s critics were beside themselves at Reagan’s change of policy on dealing with the Soviet Union, so now are they beside themselves at Trump’s taking on the immigration status quo. Over here at Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, this latest liberal hysteria to an attack on the status quo is catalogued, courtesy of Twitter.
Here is one Mark MacKinnon, the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail who is based in London, saying:
Trump surrounded on Phoenix stage by “Angel Moms” who say their kids were murdered by illegal immigrants. This is pretty much a hate rally.
Got that? The Angel Moms — all of whose kids were killed by illegal immigrants — are the hate rally. The literal murderers of their children? Golly gee, just a bunch of misunderstood folks.
Recall those Reagan words? These: “…I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault.”
MacKinnon’s tweet — and he was far from alone — is typical of the elitist xenophobia that centers on an almost instinctive revulsion for the American middle class, and a decidedly racist predilection with judging everyone and everything by skin color. The latter, I might add, the core DNA of the Democrats, as Trump flatly called out the other day when he quite pointedly and correctly noted the Democrats were the “party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow.”
Make no mistake. What Donald Trump accomplished by going to Mexico and quickly following up with his Arizona speech is a full-on assault on the status quo of immigration in exactly the same fashion Reagan took on the status quo of the Cold War. Both were and are about not just changing policy but changing minds.
What Reagan was about, and what Donald Trump is about, is following the wisdom of Reagan’s old friend Margaret Thatcher. To wit: “First, you win the argument, then you win the vote.”
Now, as then, the Reagan-Trump strategy is working.