The United States has had two presidents who hailed from the entertainment industry. There is nothing wrong with that provenance. After all, Hollywood and other forms of entertainment contribute almost a trillion dollars to U.S. GDP and is a major export earner.
It is also a huge part of U.S. cultural domination around the globe.
But the differences between Ronald Reagan, the B movie actor, and Donald Trump, the reality TV show host, reveal how starkly the United States has changed over the past 40 years — and not for the better.
Ronald Reagan was a pro
Reagan may not have been a great actor, but he was a professional, having spent a considerable amount of time honing his craft. He was a pro as a politician, too.
For several decades before winning the U.S. presidential election in 1980, he was active in conservative circles, served as governor of California and ran a serious presidential campaign in 1976.
When he became president, he knew exactly what he was going to do. As any professional would, Reagan had also assembled a team of other professionals that were able to implement his policies. One may disagree with Reagan’s policies, but his ideology was nothing short of consistent.
Trump, eternal amateur
In contrast, Donald Trump has always been Trump — an amateur performer and an amateur president. He never studied a day of his life. Even as a real estate developer, he was not a great success — despite having a very successful father in the business who showed him the ropes.
Trump’s gift is that he appears like someone who keeps winning the lottery — and that is something that appeals to U.S. voters, especially those in the lower half of the U.S. income distribution.
Having few other opportunities of socio-economic advancement, many of those Americans have become obsessed with lotteries. Massive ticket buying routinely kicks up jackpots into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In his time, Reagan was a star on the big screen. During his heyday, movie theaters were palaces and wonders of the world. People even used to dress up to go see a movie. You were in the audience with hundreds of other movie-goers, it was a community.
Trump, on the other hand, was a television star. Viewers watched his shows in their own homes, isolated from each other and from the world.
Old Hollywood was a dream factory. Regardless of the role he played, you knew that Reagan was no quarterback, military officer or cowboy, you knew it was art.
Cynic in the White House
The producers of Trump’s White House movie are cynically telling you lie after lie. Meanwhile, gullible Trump supporters are still convinced that he is a self-made man who built and ran a successful real estate enterprise.
A research report recently found that this fake news story has had a great influence on the way people voted.
Reagan’s fabric of high principles
Contrast that with Reagan. His Hollywood fables may have been naively constructed and ridden with clichés. But they were about freedom, generosity, openness, independent spirit and sense of justice. Movie heroes helped people in distress and protected the weak.
Most of the time, the Hollywood was about good triumphing over evil. This is what was so appealing about America when it burst onto the world stage after World War II. The face of America was a broad smile and a can-do, devil-may-care attitude.
Trump’s fabric of low principles
Trump’s reality TV program, The Apprentice, was a different animal altogether. It portrayed what America has become over the previous decades: A corporate viper’s nest with underlings fawning on the Big Boss and competing with one another for his favor, only to hear him bark the despicable phrase that became its trademark “You’re Fired.”
The show was a disgrace for those who produced it and a demeaning experience for participants and viewers. But it was a mirror placed to the face of modern America, capturing a handful of superrich oligarchs and a multitude of their lackeys struggling to make ends meet in a winner-take-all economy.
Where Reagan came across as avuncular and occasionally awkward (and probably senile while in office), Trump is impulsive, mean and only interested in himself. To him, there is no higher calling than aggrandizing himself.
If Reagan ever engaged in self-aggrandizement, it was only for a political end – not a personal one, as is the case with Trump.
This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together. Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And sign up for our highlights email here.