Can Trump convince voters he’s just like Reagan?

Tuesday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to rally a divided convention behind Donald Trump, a candidate some prominent conservatives don’t support.

Author and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has been watching the coverage. Cannon, who covered the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit for The Washington Post when Reagan was nominated, has been on the lookout for similarities between the two.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian spoke with Cannon about how Trump is trying to mirror Reagan’s campaign, and whether he’s succeeding.

KCRW: How would you compare that convention to this one?

Cannon: The large similarity is it’s a very close presidential race. The key thing for the Republicans, then and now, is party unity. Reagan had a pretty unified party, much more than Trump, going in [to the convention]. By putting George H. W. Bush on the ticket, he really did unify the party. It was a signal from Reagan that he was going to be a more moderate, compromising kind of president. Trump has done some of that by picking Pence, but the difference is people in the county knew Mr. Bush. He’d been around for a long time. Most people don’t know who Mr. Pence is.

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Republican presidential and vice presidential nominees Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush at the 1980 Republican Convention. (National Archives)

The slogan “Make America Great Again,” is a phrase Reagan coined during his campaign. Do you find it interesting that Trump has used it for his entire campaign?

I think he may have just gotten to it first among the 17 Republican candidates. They all wanted to say they were like Ronald Reagan. Why? Because, in the public’s eye, he’s the last successful Republican president. He’s an iconic figure. I’m not a Trump fan, but I think he tapped into something by using the Reagan slogan. Both candidates are trying to exploit the dissatisfaction that so many Americans have with the track in which our country is going.

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The 2016 Republican Convention floor. (Saul Gonzalez/KCRW)

What are you looking for during the rest of the convention?

I’m looking to see if, in his acceptance speech, Trump’s able to reach out beyond the base he already has. We know from pollsters that two thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump, but the disapproval has gradations. Some people just don’t really know very much about Trump. He’s well known because of  The Apprentice TV show, but he’s not known politically. They don’t really know what he’s going to do. He hasn’t filled in many of the blanks. So I’m looking to see if he can bridge the gap and make a speech that attracts some of the people who are skeptical of his ability to be president.