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Is Ronald Reagan's long shadow on the GOP fading away?


Tonight's GOP primary debate takes place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Reagan is a towering figure in American and Republican politics and was a touchstone for GOP candidates at all levels. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, Reagan's legacy seems much less present in the current election.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There are so many iconic Ronald Reagan moments. Any student of U.S. history can recite them, whether it's standing up to the Soviets during the Cold War...


RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.


GONYEA: Then there was Reagan's optimistic view of America as, quote, "a shining city on a hill."


REAGAN: That we did keep faith with our God, that we did act worthy of ourselves, that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

GONYEA: We could play dozens of examples. But these days, as the 2024 campaign plays out, such rhetoric among Republicans is hard to find. Dominant now is the approach of Donald Trump, who, in his 2017 inaugural address, described the country as, quote, "this American carnage." Nearly seven years later, his tone hasn't abated. This is from two days ago in South Carolina.


DONALD TRUMP: We're a failing nation. We're a nation in decline. And now these radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections...

GONYEA: That Trump is so dominant explains why Reagan, even though he's still loved, is no longer the party's most publicly revered figure. Historian H. W. Brands is the author of a biography called "Reagan: The Life."

H W BRANDS: You know, it was fine for previous - we'll call them the pre-Donald Trump Republicans - to think of Reagan as a hero. But in the Trump era, there's only one hero, and that's Donald Trump. And so anything that elevates Reagan diminishes Trump.

GONYEA: Reagan's signature issues have fared even worse. Trump and much of the GOP now argue for protectionism and tariffs instead of global free trade. As for U.S. strength abroad and maintaining strong alliances, Trump touts America first and says the U.S. is wasting money in Ukraine. He also boasts of his close and friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan doing that when he considered the Soviet Union an evil empire, but it's been decades since Reagan led the party Again, biographer H. W. Brands.

BRANDS: If you're under 50 today, you really don't have an active political memory of Reagan - you might have heard about him from your parents - because he left office almost 35 years ago.

GONYEA: Now, Reagan's not exactly invisible these days. Former Vice President Mike Pence portrays himself in the model of Reagan on the campaign trail.


MIKE PENCE: I must tell you, when I started to hear the voice and the values and the ideals of the 40th president of the United States, I joined the Reagan Revolution and I never looked back.

GONYEA: Others do mention Reagan as well, like last week when GOP Senator Tim Scott was asked about the current UAW strike. He recalled that Reagan fired air traffic controllers when they launched a work stoppage in 1981. Here's Scott in Iowa at an event recorded by NBC.


TIM SCOTT: Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you're fired. Simple concept to me.


SCOTT: To the extent that we could use that once again, absolutely.

GONYEA: Tonight, seven GOP candidates will share the stage on the grounds of the Ronald Reagan Library in California. Look for the 40th president to be invoked frequently there, perhaps for this one night only.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.