Former President Donald Trump’s debate reelection bid relied on a callback to Reagan’s 1980s America

Former President Donald Trump was quick to name-check predecessor Ronald Reagan in Thursday’s presidential debate against President Joe Biden. 

Trump wasted no time in bringing up Reagan, who is beloved by almost all old school Republicans, and others, to seemingly make his points on abortion. The more significant callback to “Morning in America” was the former president’s ever-so-brief, and not-so-surprising, outline of his economic agenda.

The economy, and more so, inflation, was the first topic broached by CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Dana Bash at the debate. In the opening lines of the matchup, Trump repeatedly hammered President Joe Biden’s economy and called on viewers to recall the pre-pandemic years of his term and sweep him back into office. 

Inflation and tax cuts 

Trump repeatedly referred to his first term as “the greatest economy in the history of our country” recalling the low inflation, but that was before the pandemic. Trump said his administration spent the necessary money so the economy didn’t fall into another recession, recalling the Great Depression. 

Pressed by Biden on the lopsided nature of his 2017 tax cuts, which conferred vast savings on the wealthiest sliver of the population, Trump, after suggesting that was the only thing Biden had said correctly so far, replied: “I also gave you the largest regulation cut in history, that’s why we got the jobs.” 

Biden, on the other hand, stressed that Trump left him an economy in “freefall,” before he put it back together—which of course, Trump countered, saying Biden inherited almost no inflation. (Americans consistently cite  inflation as the top issue facing the country. Inflation worries also recently sent business owners’ optimism to its lowest point in a decade.)

Trump’s agenda for a second term closely mirrors his first: More tax cuts, broad deregulation, and ramping up energy production,. During his first term, the Trump formula, while adding over $8 trillion to the U.S.’ debt, eventually resulted in low unemployment and decent wage growth, along with the same low inflation that the U.S. had enjoyed since the 1990s. Trump returned to an appeal to Americans’ wallets in the closing moments of the debate, painting Biden as a tax-raising bureaucrat. 

“He wants to raise your taxes by four times. He wants to raise everybody’s taxes by four times,” Trump said, adding, “When we cut taxes…we had all these companies bringing money back into our country,” another exaggeration.

Ronald Reagan: The original MAGA

In contrast with Bidenomics, which relies on a number of levers to “build the economy from the bottom up,” Trump’s pitch may benefit from its radical simplicity. The appeal to tax cuts taps into Americans’ general distaste for taxes and bureaucracy, all traits that Reagan, the original celebrity president, tapped into brilliantly during his two terms. In name-checking Reagan, the man who coined “Make America Great Again” as a slogan, Trump is not only softening the MAGA slogan but aligning himself with one of America’s most popular presidents in history.

Reagan, who swept into office on the heels of crippling inflation, fully unleashed the trickle-down economic agenda that held sway over the GOP for the following three decades, dismantling the New Deal framework that shaped much of the 20th century. Regan pushed through the largest tax cuts in U.S. history, simultaneously juicing economic growth, accelerating widening inequality, and starting the nation on the path to ever-larger peacetime deficits.

In their closing statements, Biden stressed the need for a fair tax system and said he’ll continue to fight inflation. Trump went back to the wars, suggesting they would have never happened had he been president, while again touting his cuts to taxes and regulation—but if he’s reelected, he’ll make it all great again, Trump said, ending the debate. 

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