Liberals sneered at Reagan yet he stunned the world. Don’t laugh, but Trump could too, says Justin Webb

‘He’s a lightweight, not someone to be considered seriously.’ It could have been the judgment of the world on Donald Trump. But, actually, it wasn’t. It was Ronald Reagan (pictured)

The verdict is unambiguous: ‘He’s a lightweight, not someone to be considered seriously.’ It could have been the judgement of the world on Donald Trump. But, actually, it wasn’t.

These words were spoken by President Richard Nixon about Ronald Reagan in the Seventies. Nixon added, for good measure, that Reagan was ‘shallow’ and of ‘limited mental capacity’.

Gerald Ford, who took over the presidency when Nixon had to resign after the Watergate scandal, was no less dismissive.

In a 1976 press release when Reagan announced he would challenge Ford as Republican nominee for the White House, Ford stated: ‘The simple political fact is that he cannot defeat any candidates the Democrats put up. Reagan’s constituency is much too narrow, even within the Republican Party.’

The Democrats were equally nonplussed. Those who did not write him off him as a man itching to start World War III, saw Reagan as merely useless —a B-list Hollywood actor whose best film was called Bedtime For Bonzo and starred a monkey.

Dunce

Washington grandee Clark Clifford — who was an adviser to four Democrat Presidents including JFK — simply called Reagan ‘an amiable dunce’.

Yet Reagan not only won the election in 1980 and 1984; he went on to become one of the 20th century’s towering figures.

Today, many of the U.S.’s brightest and best are once again united in their view: the man the Republicans have chosen as Presidential candidate is so unqualified for the job that this was — in effect — the week Hillary Clinton became the 45th president.

Yes, she has to see off her pesky Left-wing challenger Bernie Sanders before she can win her party’s official nomination.

But that’s almost done. And the rest is easy. Come the November presidential poll, she will face a man so barmy, so extreme, so utterly unpresidential, that she can’t lose. A dunce who is not even amiable. Donald Trump is going to gift Hillary Clinton the White House.

But some serious U.S. commentators are questioning conventional wisdom and citing Reagan’s rise to the White House all those years ago as a possible portent of things to come.

They are chastened by how wrong so many pundits have already been over ‘The Donald’, how he was written off from the start — only to come out with the Republican nomination.

They are seriously starting to wonder if he could go all the way and win the U.S. election in November.

Likewise, some in the British Establishment now fear David Cameron will have to work hard to patch things up with Trump after saying the tycoon’s suggested ban on Muslims was ‘divisive, stupid and wrong’ — and that if Trump ‘came to visit our country he’d unite us all against him’.

Could ‘The Donald’ really make the White House? If so, what kind of President would he be?

Let’s be blunt about the task Trump faces. He is massively unpopular. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found 67 per cent of likely voters had an unfavourable opinion of him.

Could ‘The Donald’ really make the White House? If so, what kind of President would he be?

Among most Americans he is only slightly less popular than Vladimir Putin (who comes in at around 70 per cent unfavourable). And in certain key groups, Hispanics, women, the young, he is off the scale — properly detested, even feared.

But American presidents are not elected in a single nationwide contest. And it is because of this that he could secure victory.

Under its Electoral College system, the people don’t actually vote directly for the President; they vote for a group of electors in their own state.

And these electors — 538 in total — then cast their votes to decide who enters the White House. The point is that in the U.S. Presidential election of 2012, if just 64 electors’ votes had gone to the other side, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney would have beaten Barack Obama.

Since most states are already firmly in the Republican or Democrat camp, it is these few votes at the margins that count.

And Trump, with his hugely resourced campaign and outrageous populist pledges, could swing them his way.

Moreover, he represents the anti-Establishment, a no-nonsense change for those fed up with the entire political class.

In New York a few weeks ago, I met Carl Paladino, who ran for the New York state governorship for the Republicans in 2010.

He is a Trump man now, and waves aside what he regards as old-fashioned talk of Democrats and Republicans and party allegiances.

‘Imagine you are a carpenter on a building site,’ he told me, ‘you sweat all day and get wet and cold. You don’t care about party. You want a champion. That’s Trump. It’s about him.’

The carpenters, united, could swing it Trump’s way. They would need help from fitters and joiners and other men (yes, his supporters are almost entirely men) who work with their hands. But it could be done.

The so-called rust belt states — in the north-east and midwest — are ripe for the picking. Trump does best in areas where the death rate among white people under 49 is highest — the downtrodden working class.

Megalomaniac

Many of these people traditionally vote Democrat, but they have been voting for Bernie Sanders — Hillary Clinton’s Left-wing rival for the Democrat nomination — rather than Hillary herself. She lost the Michigan contest to Sanders, just as she lost Indiana to him this week.

Yes, Sanders is a socialist and Trump a billionaire plutocrat. But on trade — protection of American jobs — Sanders and Trump are on the same page.

Add a dash of Trump’s xenophobia and he’s in business.

Those who voted for Sanders because he speaks up for the little guy might well feel that Trump is closer to their hearts than Hillary.

The so-called rust belt states — in the north-east and midwest — are ripe for the picking. Many of these people traditionally vote Democrat, but they have been voting for Bernie Sanders — Hillary Clinton’s Left-wing rival for the Democrat nomination — rather than Hillary herself

So President Trump is not a fantasy. There is a path for him.

Not an easy one, but a path nonetheless.

But if he won, what then?

Again, the conventional wisdom might well be wrong. He is portrayed as a dictator. A megalomaniac. A man who has taken over a political party for his own crazed purposes.

All of which might be true.

But if Trump seriously thinks he can run America as he runs Trump Casinos, he has a shock coming. America was designed to be ungovernable without the consent of Congress.

Trump may have pledged to build a wall with Mexico, but he could never get that passed, still less a scheme to keep Muslims out of America.

He would need Congress on his side. He would need the Supreme Court to agree that it was constitutional.

Defeat

Remember the key Obama policy of closing Guantanamo Bay was stymied not by Republicans but by members of his own party in Congress? He said: ‘DO IT’. They said no. And Guantanamo is still open.

Even in foreign affairs, where presidents can make quite a splash, the system is likely to defeat him. Trump seems, for instance, to be in favour of torture and has said that, as President, he’d authorise ‘worse than waterboarding’ against suspected terrorist captives.

But already John Rizzo, a top lawyer at the CIA when the agency employed so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, has pointed out that President Trump would face a revolt by his own staff.