When the Republican National Committee announced that it would hold its second debate in the primary at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, the decision drew ire from former President Donald Trump. He said President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t approve of the leadership of Frederick Ryan Jr., the library’s longtime board chair.
Trump threatened to skip the presidential debate altogether.
The former president wrote on his social media platform Truth Social in April, “When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile networks with angry Trump & MAGA hitting anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused? Also, the second debate is being held at the Reagan Library, the chairman of which is, amazingly, Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post. No!”
The Reagan Library, a sprawling complex of buildings and gardens, has hosted numerous GOP presidential candidate debates. Over the years, it has also welcomed world leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Why would the library, devoted to a man who was a movie star, California governor and a popular president, draw criticism from a Republican presidential candidate? The answer may lie in the differences in the personalities of the two conservative politicians.
The Reagan Library is known as the resting place for Ronald and Nancy Reagan and is home to a plethora of gubernatorial, presidential, and personal papers, gifts and artifacts. Known as the most visited presidential library in the nation, it features a jet that carried seven presidents, including Reagan.
A recent report from the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Democrats named Barack Obama when asked about the United States president who has done the best job over the past 40 years. Republicans, meanwhile, are split between Reagan, who served in the 1980s, and Trump.
Nearly 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said Reagan had done the best job as president over the past 40 years. About 37% said Trump has done the best job, according to the Pew Research report conducted in July.
“Trump is jealous of anybody’s legacy that somehow threatens his self-perception as the great American leader and the great Republican leader,” said Joel Kotkin, the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University.
While Reagan, who was born into a working-class family in Illinois, had the support of the working class and was a labor union leader, Kotkin added, Trump “has always been the pampered son of a very rich man.”
Kotkin, who interviewed then-Governor Reagan before he was sworn in as president in 1981, said, “People liked Reagan, and even if you were a liberal and you got to know him, you would say ‘well, this is not a bad person’ whereas Trump is considered probably a terrible person.”
Still, experts say Trump dislikes the comparison to Reagan and appearing at the Reagan Library will show him in an unfavorable light.
“Trump opposes the Reagan Library and Reagan because it’s constantly used as a comparison to him,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “It shows that you could be conservative, you could be a game-changer, without having a personality of being a disruptor as (Trump) is.”
Guerra added that “many people say ‘Reagan disrupted American politics,’ but look at the way he did it. Donald Trump is trying to disrupt American politics but gets close to destroying it.”
The second Republican presidential primary debate has been set for September 27 at the Reagan Library. But there’s still a small chance, Guerra said, that Trump will show up for the debate.
“I don’t see him investing in California,” Guerra said. “I don’t see him visiting California before the primary, so there’s very little cost to him skipping this debate.”
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute will “serve as an iconic venue for the debate. We are looking forward to continuing our fair, neutral and transparent primary process in Simi Valley to elect the next President of the United States.”
Earlier this year, Ryan said he was stepping down as publisher of the Washington Post to head the Center on Public Civility, the nonpartisan organization launched by the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
David Trulio, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a statement that “given the challenges and opportunities facing our country, there is no better place for presidential contenders to make their case as they honor the man — Ronald Reagan — who rebuilt America’s military and economy, and changed the world.”
Joel Fox, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy, said there’s no way to predict whether Trump will show up next week in Simi Valley for the debate.
“He still has that big lead,” Fox said. “On the other hand, if he feels like he’s got to get in the public eye — that he likes to do — and counter some of the news about him, particularly all those indictments, it will be a great opportunity if he showed up at the debate.”
Fox added that the source of animosity toward Reagan and his legacy goes back to the fact that “Trump wants what once was known as the party of Reagan to be the party of Trump.”
He said Trump “has to diminish Reagan in some way, and I think that has something to do with the attitude he has toward Reagan and the coming debate.”
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