Paul Johnson, the historian and journalist, talks to his grandson Tycho Johnson about his memories of Ronald Reagan and his hopes for Donald Trump
Tycho Johnson: Let’s start by talking about Reagan. What were your first impressions when you met in 1980?
Paul Johnson: He was a very smooth operator. Everything about him was smooth. He had a soft, sympathetic voice, he loved talking, and he talked well. You could tell that he had been a professional actor. He had a lot of the graces and characteristics of one, he spoke well, spoke evenly, never at a loss for a word, and in fact gave a very good performance, you might say.
TJ: Modern Times, your history of the 20th century, profoundly influenced American conservatism, and Reagan himself is believed to have read it.
PJ: He did read it, and I remember he read a number of things of mine, and said he liked the way I wrote.
TJ: Did Modern Times have an impact on his presidency?
PJ: I think that would be going a bit too far, but I think it had some impact on him, yes, and he certainly enjoyed it.
TJ: Could you say that it provided the historical framework to give conservatism purpose at the time?
PJ: Yes. I think he liked to see things through the lenses of history. And therefore he needed a historical context in which he could place himself and his work as president of the United States. I think my writings helped him to do that, they helped him to see how his times fitted in to the general perspective of history, and how he emerged from it, and how he could possibly change things as a result of his perception of himself.
TJ: How would you describe the economic and political mood of America before Reagan?
PJ: The Cold War was coming to an end, and America had won it, but he didn’t want to proclaim this too openly, for fear the Russians would react too strongly against it.
TJ: Would you say that the feeling of the nation, before Reagan, was one of uncertainty? That they felt in a precarious situation?
PJ: Yes, they did feel that way, but Reagan was a very reassuring figure. He looked reassuring, he had a reassuring voice, reassuring things to say, and his general aura was one of calmness: “We’re doing well, and we’re going to do even better!” He was also the kind of person who got his inner strength from reassuring other people, to give them the sense that life was improving in general and he wanted people to aim higher than just “good”.
TJ: America today finds itself in a similarly precarious situation, as it was before Reagan. Massive debt, low wage growth, foreign policy concerns such as China, Russia, Islamic terrorism, not to mention the divided public. How would you compare the moods of then and now?
PJ: I think America has had a weak presidency for these last few years, and nobody pays much attention to Obama. So they have to recover from that, and I think they will. People are very critical of Trump, but I think that Trump may well turn out to be an above-average, maybe rather impressive president, once he gets going.
TJ: Reagan was a Hollywood actor who transitioned to politics. Trump is somewhat similar, being a businessman and TV celebrity. How would you compare them background-wise?
PJ: A lot of people didn’t think Reagan would do well, but he was probably one of the best presidents of the 20th century, and I think that is something very much to his personal credit — he created it all himself. So I think in that way they are alike. Both are self-made.
TJ: We had Reagan Democrats, and Trump seems to have attracted similar blue-collar votes. Is there a connection between their particular personalities, backgrounds, and ability to attract that demographic?
PJ: Yes. Trump has a strong appeal to white, conservative, youngish, but most importantly working-class people. And this is something which not many Republican leaders have, and partly why the Left fears him so much. He can expand from that starting-point to include a very large number of ordinary Americans.
TJ: I suppose those people may feel more connected to a Trump or Reagan?
PJ: If you take white working-class American males, there is obviously something that Reagan appealed to very strongly, and which I think Trump can also appeal to in the same way. But experience shows that they don’t come alone — they also bring a strong contingent of working-class (and indeed middle-class) women too, and if you appeal to the men strongly, as I think both Reagan and Trump did, you will appeal to a lot of women too.
TJ: You mentioned that Reagan was a political outsider whom people didn’t expect to succeed. Do you think being viewed as an outsider helped him during his presidency?
PJ: Probably. People certainly saw Reagan as someone who came from outside the political class, although by the time he became president this was no longer true, since he’d been governor of California — the largest, richest state — for eight years, and he was thoroughly established as a political operator on the American scene. He was already an “in” figure. Now this is not true of Trump, but I suspect that Trump will get on pretty well, particularly on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and a large part of the Midwest.
TJ: What was the reaction to Reagan’s election in Europe at the time?
PJ: A lot of Europeans mistakenly thought that Reagan was not an experienced politician and therefore they were surprised by the skill and effectiveness with which he established himself. They took a certain length of time to adjust to this, though people with inside knowledge of American politics were not at all surprised — they knew that Reagan was an old professional.
TJ: Our global situation, many would say, is now extremely unpredictable. What kind of advice would Reagan have for the new “leader of the free world?”
PJ: I think Reagan would tell Trump: “You must use all the professional skills that you have at your disposal, but at the same time be yourself. Try to project your character through your words and actions, in as accurate a way as you can. You’ve got a lot to give. But I think that you’re going to succeed and that is what really matters.”
TJ: Let’s talk about policy. Reagan obviously believed in lower taxation, Trump does as well to a degree, but they seem to differ in terms of free trade, Reagan more in favour, Trump more protectionist. Can we make a comparison?
PJ: I think it’s too early to say. I think that Trump may have quite a number of surprises in store for us, and therefore I would hesitate to try and guess what Trump’s policies are going to be, at any rate in detail. I wouldn’t like to do that, because I think I might be wrong, and too many in the media are already making that mistake. There will be surprises in store, but I don’t think they will be tremendous surprises, and I think most of Trump’s moves and ploys have been signalled in advance.
TJ: Do you think the special relationship between Reagan and Thatcher could be reproduced between Trump and May?
PJ: I think there are too many imponderables there. I think Mrs May is doing rather well so far and will do even better given a chance, but I don’t think we can forecast in advance how she will get on with Trump.
TJ: Just what made Reagan’s personality so attractive?
PJ: I think it was partly an ability to handle cameras and microphones, all the apparatus, the technical side of broadcasting, he was very good at that, was used to it, it all came naturally to him. Now, Trump doesn’t yet have quite the same skill, and you can see that people still find him divisive, but I think he should do well eventually. He can talk to cameras, and he has a rather calm personality when under pressure.
TJ: Many people would disagree, they find his personality quite worrying. A lot of people see him as an egomaniac, or paranoid, and too unpredictable.
PJ: Yes, they’ve been influenced too much by political commentators. Trump has had quite a hostile reception on the whole, particularly from the media, and I was impressed by how he held his nerve. I don’t think he’s been given fair play, and he’ll turn out to be both less extraordinary as a phenomenon, and far less worrying as a person now that we are out of the election hysteria.
TJ: How do you see the West five years from now?
PJ: That’s a difficult question at any time, and with anybody. But I think Trump will succeed as president, and do much better in that role than as a candidate, and be re-elected. I think at the end of eight years he’ll have established himself rather like Reagan did as an acceptable, reassuring and on the whole positive figure in American politics. In five or six years’ time he’ll be much more part of the scenery, and he’ll get on well with the British, the Russians and the Chinese, and a decent part of the international furniture. I think most of these worries going through the world will have ceased, and we will all be much happier.
TJ: You wrote an article supporting Trump earlier in 2016. Do you feel vindicated?
PJ: Oh yes, I think so. Trump has done very well, better than most people expected. He has won a convincing victory, and he has won it in a perfectly reasonable, sensible way, and I think he starts his presidency in good shape. I don’t understand all that hysteria.
TJ: Thank you very much for the interview.
PJ: I’m sorry it wasn’t better: I’m 88, you know.