Does US History provide any precedent for President Trump? In the spirit of the Bill Simmons & Malcolm Gladwell long-winded e-mail conversations, Craig Stein and his cuñado Gus Victoria search their annals of history to find a parallel to President Donald J. Trump.
Well Gus, the “impossible” is happening: today marks the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency. That date will mark the beginning of his (hopefully) four-year term, and a minimum of two years of complete Republican control of the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government. Yikes.
Rest assured, Americans, we have been here before! We’ve had unqualified, race-baiting, cheating scumbags at all levels of government. So maybe we’re just going old school with it in the 21st Century.
In an effort to find a precedent for what feels unprecedented, I will begin by trying to compare Mr. Trump to a president many Americans still think of as a hero: Andrew Jackson.
Jackson and Trump would totally swipe right for each other.
The first thing that made me think of General Jackson as the most likely comparison for Trump was his direct and unapologetic use of xenophobia and racism as a campaign tactic. Trump’s “Mexicans…are rapists” and threats to ban Muslims fit nicely with Jackson’s promises to “protect” Americans from the threat of Native Americans and clear them from the face of the USA. Interestingly, Jackson actually softened some of his rhetoric about Native Americans once he was actually in office, though the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and subsequent Trail of Tears were exactly what he was promising in the leadup to the 1828 election. Jackson also told White Americans that they did not need to respect Native property, and implied that if the Native Americans were smart they would cede the land before being killed. You know, that’s not too far away from Trump’s “deportation force” and promises to “take our country back.”
Jackson also rode in to the White House pandering to the lowest common denominator and riling up the masses to believe that a vote for Jackson became a vote against the standing political establishment of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and the like. Many Trump voters previously thought him an unworthy candidate, but later decided that their vote would register as a repudiation to the political status quo.
One last area that made me think Jackson could be the best historical comparison for Trump relates to the fact that their respective shady and criminal backgrounds somehow did not disqualify them from holding the highest and most important office in our country. Jackson was known to duel his opponents, at least one of whom he almost definitely killed. He had six of his soldiers executed without trial during the Creek War. Oh, and don’t forget that in 1816 (12 years before he was elected) he also commanded forces to illegally enter Florida – while it was still part of the Spanish Empire – to hunt down and murder the Seminole tribes that he had beef with after the War of 1812. While he received plenty of criticism for these misdeeds (note the Account of Bloody Deeds image), it sure didn’t hurt him at the ballot box, where he won in a landslide versus the incumbent and his previous opponent John Quincy Adams.
One of the “Coffin Handbiills” criticizing Jackson and his extralegal executions of soldiers during the Creek War. (Wikipedia)
Is it just me, or is Donald Trump actually looking pretty good by comparison?
So what do you think, Gus?
Well sir, I agree Andrew Jackson is a good parallel for several facets of a Trump Presidency. A damn scary parallel, but not an altogether hopeless one. I like to see Trump as almost a force of nature; as if an earthquake, volcano, hurricane, blizzard, wildfire and flood all joined forces, gained sentience and a mile-wide racist mean streak. The precedents I see in the 228-year history of the Presidency are each only part of the monstrous whole we get to deal with for the next few weeks or decades (he's such a wild card the chances for impeachment are high, but so are the chances he'll try to go full blown fascist). Jackson, for his racism and willful re-invention of the Executive is among the first to come to mind naturally, but for me Aaron Burr is an earlier example of a clear and present danger to the nation. A danger that, due to meddling by some Founding Fathers, we barely dodged. In the process though, it effectively destroyed the naive idea of the Electoral College.
Whereas Jackson is the bullish racist part of Trump, Burr can be seen as the unforgivably ambitious conniving power seeker. From a prominent pre-Revolutionary America family we must admit the distinction that Burr was a bit of a prodigy in school and therefore was most likely in possession of a far superior intellect than Trump. Then again when compared to the intellectual giants that were his contemporaries (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay) perhaps Burr's edge over Trump in this facet isn't quite as stark.Regardless, the visceral reaction I get when I see Trump's greed for power is very similar to the one I get when I read about Burr's actions around and after 1800.
In Federalist #68 Alexander Hamilton makes the case for an Electoral College. He writes that:
"Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter [sic], but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention"
While Burr's dalliance with foreign powers came later in his career and Trump seems to have built his on it, I find blind ambition to be at the root of both. And really that is what reminds me one of the other. Nothing, absolutely nothing was too sacred to not be tossed aside in order to further their own climb up the ladder of power. Both candidates switched parties as it suited them.
Talk, prior to December 19, 2016, was that the Electoral College could do something about this Trump menace. As the Federalist quoted above indicated, the very function of that mode of election was to keep one such as him from the highest office in the nation. Burr was a similar menace in 1800 and the College failed then. Our two-party system then was in its infancy, but had its birth after the Constitution was ratified. Political parties played a role in that Election that virtually rendered the Electoral College ineffective; 36 separate votes to settle on a president!!
Trump's shady business dealings have not been secret, but neither have they disqualified him in the eyes of millions. Immediately, this reminded me of Burr and the Manhattan Company. While Trump (and his father) were busy in questionable real estate dealings and practices, Burr engaged in an equally devious scheme of his own. In 1799, following a yellow fever epidemic in New York, Burr was able to secure a grant to create the Manhattan Company whose purpose was to provide clean water for the city, ostensibly in order to prevent further outbreaks of disease. In reality, this created a bank from which anti-Federalists could draw from. The clause in the founding of the Company states that surplus funds raised could be used in such a fashion. Burr raised in excess of $2,000,000, but used only $100,000 (5%) for providing a system to deliver clean water to the city. If the system had been effective then perhaps these actions could be forgiven, but the poor quality of the work fixed nothing and allowed outbreaks of cholera and other diseases to continue for a few decades before adequate infrastructure was finally constructed. In other words, Burr and his friends got rich on the backs of everyday people. Just like one Donald J about to be sworn in.That Manhattan Company, by the way, survives to this day as JPMorgan Chase & Co.
History is scattered with ambitious, amoral, greedy hucksters, but these two New Yorkers that ran for president stay in my mind and remind me of each other.
Craig: What a shit stain on American history! At least Burr never quite made it to our highest office. That reminds me of how a lot of people were thinking Trump didn’t even really want to win the election, just liked the thought of POWER POWER POWER. Now that he’s gotten it – what happens now is the real question I suppose.
By the way, am I the only one that still thinks about this old commercial whenever I hear the name Aaron Burr?
Now we’ve got Jackson for xenophobia and shady-as-hell background that somehow didn't disqualify him for office, and Burr for win-at-all-costs assholery and complete lack of respect for the country and its inhabitants.
I was thinking now would be a good time to check-in with our first millionaire president, Herbert Hoover. If I was the type to pick and choose some details while leaving out some others, I could lay out a case here that Hoover was a clear-cut precedent for Trump. He was a millionaire from his career as a mining engineer and had business interests on every continent except Antarctica and had a reputation as an elitist who looked down at those who did not have his ambition or means, once being quoted as saying “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.” He was pro-business and laissez-faire to the extreme (until he couldn’t be) and just like Trump, his presidential election victory was actually the first election in which he competed.
But it’s right about here that things fall apart. Hoover was well received by both the “common man” and the elites throughout the country, winning a landslide in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. He was a renown humanitarian who organized massive relief efforts during World War I, was chosen to lead the US Food Administration, and later served as Secretary of Commerce, giving him years of service in the executive branch. He had a great relationship with the press and created a committee to reorganize the White House press conference system, while our president elect has shown nothing but disdain and ill will toward the press. He went on a 10-country tour of Latin America and vowed reduced American military intervention there. Meanwhile, Trump may be the most hated man in Latin America and called his supporters who beat Latino protesters “passionate”.
So despite their backgrounds as well-known businessmen and reputations as out-of-touch elitists, Trump and Hoover may not actually have too much in common. Let’s hope that what Hoover is most known for – presiding over the initial years of the Great Depression – also does not match the fate of our next President.
So far we tried Jackson, who at least he had an extensive military leadership background and the respect of his peers, Burr, who never quite got the ultimate power he sought, and Hoover, who maybe didn’t resemble Trump all that much in the end. You think we can find any precedent for our current state?
Who could forget the commercial that made Michael Bay?! Aawan Buhh!
I think Trump, in his whole monstrous entirety, is an amalgam of all the bad parts of previous presidents and pretenders. That I think is the difficulty in finding a true precedent. We can break him down into bits and pieces such as his racism, greed, power hunger, etc. and in each find a figure that somewhat approximates him. I cannot, in all my study, find a single figure that encapsulates everything odious about Donny J. Each person that we have talked about has had some redeeming quality. Burr, a brilliant lawyer, was a known abolitionist and in his private life was said to be a generous individual. Jackson kept the Union together when Calhoun would have nullified it. Hoover, as you pointed out, had a humanitarian bent that allowed him to do good even if he thought it was not the role of government to do so.
Conversely, even our greatest political heroes have their blights. Great men are still men. The barometer of presidential greatness then has to be relative in my opinion. The standard must be measured against the time and against right. What I mean by that is that some things are always wrong and must be noted so. Slavery for example. There has not been a moment where it has been right to own as property another human being. Many of our Founding Fathers failed in cleansing this stain on the country even as it was being created. Political expediency played too important a role. Yet, some of these very men who did little to nothing about freeing their fellow humans from bondage laid the framework by which future generations could do so. As politicians and Framers they then must be given that credit. Granted, this is an exhausting morally ambiguous exercise that often leaves us with more ambivalence than pride.
There is no such ambivalence with Trump! Everything about the man is hateful and this before he even officially takes office. We've had our share of presidential villains but usually they reveal themselves over time. Before even the first day he seems poised to govern with the vindictiveness of Nixon, the fear of the press of Adams, the negligence of Grant and Harding, the unhindered ambition of Burr, the racism of Jackson in one brand new cocktail that smells of democratic poison. Will the nation survive the dose? I think we might, but it won't be easy.
At this stage in the game (I am writing this literally on the last hour of the last full day of President Obama's presidency), we have to remember that democracy is a 365 day affair. We rallied in the days following the election, I became a sustaining member of organizations fighting the good fight, and I have a printed copy on my fridge of all the people who represent me, even if I voted against most of them. I plan to make sure they hear from me.