Trump vs. GOP Establishment: What Would Ronald Reagan Say?

Ronald Reagan has long been the touchstone of the Republican Party, but the way candidates, supporters, detractors and the media incessantly evoke the former president’s name is getting more than a little ridiculous.

Every GOP presidential hopeful has positioned himself as the next Ronald Reagan at one time or another. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz use his name constantly. Even Donald Trump has compared his own ideological evolution to Reagan’s transition from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican.

The GOP establishment is downright obsessed with the man. I actually counted 13 references in a National Review piece called Conservatives against Trump. I’d quote a few, but they’re so tedious I don’t want to bore you to tears.

It makes you wonder what Reagan would think of all this nonsense and whether there really is any value in such comparisons.

Let me answer the second question first. The short answer is no. The more nuanced answer is that leaders become icons by virtue of their behavior and accomplishments. And the great ones all defy comparison. There’s a good reason for that. Comparisons are self-limiting.

Think about it. Nobody ever called Reagan another “fill in the blank.” He was his own man. He did things his own way. He was his own authentic self. He neither followed nor compared himself to anyone else. That’s a sign of a true leader.

It’s the same in business. Who would you possibly compare Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs to? These men didn’t just accomplish remarkable things. They built and ran their companies in new ways and created cultures that never existed before. That’s what made them great.

When Walter Isaacson’s memoir of Jobs came out, CEOs ran out to buy it for their leadership teams. Up-and-comers bought it to boost their careers. Everyone wanted to replicate his management practices.

Lei Jun, CEO of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, even dresses in Jobs’ trademark black shirt and jeans and finishes product rollouts with the Apple CEO’s “one last thing” tease. He’s been called a Jobs knockoff. No wonder that attribute has rubbed off on his company’s products, as well.

You simply can’t copy and paste iconic leadership. Had Jobs done that, he wouldn’t have been Jobs. As Apple’s former communications veep Allison Johnson once told a group of entrepreneurs, “The thing that Steve did better than anyone else is, he was his authentic self,” she said. “We don’t need more Apples. We need more you.”

Don’t get me wrong. Great leaders have mentors. Grove was actually one of Jobs’. Likewise, Buffett has been a friend and mentor to Gates. But there was no cloning going on there, just advice to help with some particularly thorny decisions.

The key element of a great leader is his own unique way of looking at things, coming up with groundbreaking insights, making critical decisions and motivating others to do what’s never been done before. As soon as you start modeling yourself after someone else, you lose that ability.

Bringing that logic back to politics, the question of Reagan’s opinion of the current state of the GOP vis-à-vis the primaries is essentially a moot point. The GOP – or America, for that matter -- shouldn’t be looking for another Reagan, but instead an entirely new and unique leader. But let’s indulge the question for just a moment.

Granted, Reagan was big on the Eleventh Commandment. He never spoke ill of fellow Republicans, respected his opponents and even placed some of them in cabinet positions. That was his way of unifying the party. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Grove had a similar way of running things at Intel. It was called constructive conflict. Folks were encouraged to openly debate issues – to attack a position, not a person.

The current state of rancor among the party and its candidates couldn’t possibly be further from Reagan’s and Grove’s methods. But if you look across the entire field of GOP players – candidates, insiders, strategists and commentators – you’d be hard pressed to find a pair of clean hands.

I suppose you could say that vitriol begets vitriol. That Trump started the attacks so his opponents are justified in retaliating. That would also presumably justify the not-so-secret plot to stop Trump among Washington insiders at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum and Mitt Romney’s vicious attack speech in Utah.

You could say all that, but then you’d be breaking the Eleventh Commandment and the tenets of constructive conflict as surely as anything Trump has said or done. I might even argue that a concerted anti-Trump movement could do more damage to the party than if the GOP establishment simply let it run its course.

Some have likened the Trump insurgency to a virus invading a weak host. Well, the Trump virus certainly didn’t make the GOP host weak. And the anti-virus might kill both the disease and the patient. Trump’s methods may be different than Reagan’s, but the GOP’s current response to Trump could be worse for the party.

The irony is that many of the great entrepreneurs of our time – including some of those mentioned above – were anything but gentlemen with their opponents. Many, if not most, were ruthless competitors. Say what you will, that worked for them in their circumstances.

Just as the world doesn’t need another Jobs or Grove, the Republican Party doesn’t need another Reagan. It needs to a leader for today, who can move the party forward – not backward.