(CN) — When Donald Trump first moved into the Oval Office, he installed a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the controversial populist president who fought duels, hated the press, accused economic elites of corruption, and became a folk hero to large swaths of the white working class even as his policies created misery for tens of thousands of Native Americans.
Nearly two centuries later, American historians still argue about how good a president Jackson was. And it might also take quite a while before passions cool, and they reach a consensus about Trump.
America’s 45th president is not without accomplishments. He almost single-handedly refocused the country on issues of personal importance to him, including trade, internationalism and the strategic threat posed by China. He presided over peace and pre-Covid prosperity with the defeat of the Islamic State group, historic Mideast agreements and record-low minority unemployment.
Trump also engineered what many believe will be a lasting realignment of the political parties, turning Republicans into a vehicle for working- and middle-class interests in opposition to economic and professional elites.
But he did this with a force of personality — uncouth, vindictive, casual with facts, and openly contemptuous of long-established norms and institutions — that enraged his opponents and eventually alienated (or simply exhausted) enough ordinary Americans to seal his electoral downfall.
Trump is “a tragic figure in the Greek sense” of a larger-than-life character brought down by his own fatal flaws, said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who is writing a book on Trump’s foreign policy.
A key to understanding Trump is that he is the first U.S. president to come to the office without any experience in government or the military, added David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers.
Ronald Reagan also rose to prominence as a celebrity, but he spent eight years as governor of California before running for the White House. Other celebrities have become governors, noted Greenberg, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. But Trump is unique in that he used celebrity alone to rise to the country’s highest office.
Not being part of the political system made Trump “a disruptor, not a leader,” said Kaufman.
This had some value, or at least plenty of Americans in 2016 thought so. “He broke old complacencies and forced us to think about things we had long neglected,” Kaufman said.
But it also brought problems.
“People who come up through the political ranks learn the benefits of moderating influences. Trump never learned that,” Greenberg said. “He recklessly broke the rules, disregarded norms, and showed disrespect for customs, traditions, and even the law.
“His lack of education in the political process was both a strength and a weakness,” Greenberg added. “He was willing to attempt things that no one else would: pulling out of treaties, diverting money to the wall. But while he tried new things, he also destabilized the system. He endangered, or at least tested, the limits of democracy.”
David Gellman, chair of the history department at DePauw University, said “politics is theater but it has to be anchored to substance.”
“It matters a whole lot if the person understands what the job entails and how it fits into a constitutional system and norms,” Gellman continued. “And there’s a price you pay if someone is unaware and contemptuous of those norms.”
Reagan’s years as governor gave him skills, knowledge and associates that Trump lacked, Gellman said.
“There’s often a fantasy that we can solve all our problems if we just put a businessman in charge,” he added, noting that Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992. But Gellman said Perot had far more executive accomplishments than Trump, who “was always more of a showman.”
Kaufman compared Trump to General George Patton, who was often beloved by his troops but disliked by other leaders for his vulgarity, contempt for norms of conduct and occasional mistreatment of the vulnerable.
Patton was “not a man meant for normal society,” Kaufman said. “Normal society can’t deal with abnormal problems. You need someone with a unique skillset who makes people uncomfortable. It’s a very American phenomenon.”
But Stacy Cordery, a historian at Iowa State University who has written extensively on the Roosevelt family, thinks Trump will be viewed not solely in American terms but as part of a worldwide post-Cold War movement away from democracy and toward more autocratic, strongman-type leaders.
“We’ve seen this recently in Poland, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere,” she said.
Other presidents have been divisive, of course, including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But both Johnson and Nixon “understood how the political process worked,” said Gellman. “They were egotistical but not ignorant. Nixon could work against type and take advice. Trump had a desire to embrace chaos.”
Some of Trump’s accomplishments will last, Kaufman believes. “You can’t put the naivete toward China back again,” he said, and “the Republican Party is never going back to where it was. Trump disrupted and realigned it to a more class-based orientation.”
Nevertheless, Americans declined to renew Trump’s lease on the White House. Voters often seek with a new president to correct the perceived problems of previous ones — Jimmy Carter’s “I’ll never lie to you” campaign was a corrective to the Nixon era, just as Reagan was seen as a corrective to Carter’s weaknesses — and Americans have now replaced a president with no Washington experience with a man who spent 44 years in federal office, more than any previous candidate.
To Greenberg, however, the election “represents a rejection of Trump and yet not a repudiation of everything he stands for.”
“A Democratic landslide would have indicated that the country was rejecting the choice it made. But the House and Senate results indicate that there will be a fight for the future.”
Cordery said it’s possible that the country rejected “Trump qua Trump” but not Trumpian policy, and that despite his personal weaknesses “he tapped into a common-man side of America that people in cities and on the left don’t even think about.”
In addition, said Greenberg, “time will tell if media celebrity is the new route to power.” He believes that certain left-wing elements in the Democratic Party might be open to embracing a similar philosophy of chaos and disruption, citing calls to defund the police, Congresswoman’s Rashida Tlaib’s vow to “impeach this motherfucker” and the progressive threat to pack the Supreme Court, which Greenberg, a liberal Democrat, described as “an idiotic idea.”
“There will be Trump emulators who come down the pike,” Greenberg said. “The way is open for someone more stable with a similar message.”
Apart from his personality, Gellman thinks that the Trump era will be remembered primarily for the pandemic.
“It’s the defining event of his presidency. Every president has one big event or challenge or crisis that defines him because there’s only so much room in the history books, and Covid is his. He tried to ignore it, and we haven’t had a robust effective response. In historical terms, he can’t get out from under that.
“Impeachment will be remembered by historians because it doesn’t happen very often, but it will be dwarfed by Covid,” Gellman predicted.
Cordery added that historians might “draw parallels to Reagan’s poor handling of the emerging AIDS crisis.”
The coronavirus was in many ways the worst possible type of problem for Trump because it didn’t play to any of his strengths. It wasn’t an enemy that could be negotiated with, bullied or intimidated. Handling it required a compassion he didn’t easily express, cooperation with governors he had insulted and mastery of a complex bureaucracy he had frequently attacked.
Of course, Trump didn’t cause the pandemic any more than Herbert Hoover caused the Great Depression or James Buchanan caused tensions over slavery, but they will all be remembered for not responding well, Gellman said.
Carter is another president who faced difficult challenges not of his own making. But historians’ views of Carter have been moderated somewhat by his humanitarianism after leaving office, Gellman noted, and, “I don’t anticipate that Trump will have a similar sort of post-presidency.”
A key challenge for historians will be describing what life felt like under Trump.
“The hardest thing for historians to capture will be the way the last four years have been so exhausting for ordinary people, journalists and government employees trying to keep up with his challenges to our normal ways of doing things,” said Greenberg.
Historians will also have to explain “how Trump became a hero to ordinary people despite his Neanderthal personality,” said Kaufman.
The key, perhaps ironically, is Trump’s authenticity, Kaufman believes.
“He was very faithful to what he promised. He chose the justices he said he would; he took on China; he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, which Republicans had promised for 20 years and never did. He was more faithful to his promises than any president in history.
“And that’s stunning given that the personal side of him is so untruthful. He lies constantly and yet he did exactly what he said he would.”
Kaufman said the result was that Trump succeeded in catalyzing a remarkable realignment of American political parties. “And if historians are fair, they will appreciate, if not approve, the extraordinary significance of his presidency,” he said.
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