Symposium | What Compares to Trump

No, There Is No Precedent

By Sean Wilentz

The best historical analogies illuminate the past for the present, but the worst analogies domesticate the present to the past. And I cannot balk from stating, with great respect to my colleagues and friends in this symposium and to the editors of Democracy who thought it up, that historical analogies to the ascension of Donald J. Trump are among the very worst.

Understanding our current situation begins with the recognition that Trump and his incipient regime are utterly abnormal. Trump represents a sharp break in our national political history—something unlike anything America, in all of its turbulence, has seen before, his election the result of a fundamental collapse in our politics. Coming to terms with this requires, in part, finally admitting to ourselves that, although the constitutional trappings were respected, the events of 2016 resembled a foreign-abetted coup d’état more than they did an American presidential election. Coming to terms also requires paying close attention to the fact that Trump, by his own admission, learned his approach to leadership not in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, nor even in the wheeling-and-dealing of high-stakes New York real estate, but in the Roy Cohn school of political racketeering, including its links to organized crime—training that, apparently, has made Trump feel perfectly at home working with the syndicates of the post-Soviet Russian oligarchy.

Of course, it is easy enough for bright and serious historians to look at all of this and still find homologies between our times and the past. Many historians, myself included, spend a good deal of our day negotiating between our sense of the present and our sense of the past, so we are always on the alert for equivalences. As the public seems to expect from us this kind of analogizing, we happily oblige, flattered to be asked and pleased to display our expertise. More to the point, as most professional American historians stand politically to the left of center, looking back for even faint resemblances is one way of dealing with trauma. But to link Trump to any past President or Administration—even if that linking is meant to diminish—instantly normalizes and thereby ennobles him.

Steve Bannon subscribes to some crackpot historical theories, but, to give the grim reaper his due, he evidently has a shrewd awareness of the politics of history. By calling Trump the reincarnation of Andrew Jackson, for example, Bannon and his surrogates have attempted to give Trump unearned legitimacy and luster. But by picking Jackson —who was once and in some quarters remains a liberal hero as the champion of “the common man,” but who represents to today’s progressive academy everything it despises—Bannon hit the jackpot. Never mind that the analogy is flawed to the point of absurdity: Whatever else Jackson did, he won a resounding popular and electoral mandate and then warred against an earlier version of the swindler capitalism that Trump embodies and celebrates. The fact remains: Bannon says that Trump is Jackson and he cheers; the right-thinking professors respond that Trump is indeed Jackson and they curse; either way, Trump is Jackson: the bearer of an American political tradition. The pedigree, of course, is as phony as the Trump family heraldic crests on the house in Queens where young Donald grew up, but that’s part of Bannon’s shrewdness. As soon as the scholars take the strategist’s bait, the single most important historical point about Trump, his vicious abnormality, is forgotten. So it is with other analogies: By likening Trump and our current politics to the past, historians end up doing Bannon’s work for him.

Of course, there are a couple of American presidencies that very slightly resemble Trump’s. The drunken racist Andrew Johnson was manifestly unfit for the office, and he did his best to prove it by spewing personal denunciations and inflaming racial hatreds after the Civil War. Johnson, though, was an accidental President, in the line of succession only because of what turned out to be the worst single decision Abraham Lincoln ever made, putting Johnson on the ticket in 1864 in order to shore up support from so-called War Democrats. Then there is the singularly abnormal, treasonous presidency of Jefferson Davis, the outcome of 30 years of radicalization within his own party. In terms of personal qualities and attainments, though, Davis, the West Point graduate, army officer, Secretary of War, and public works overseer, as well a keen student of government and history, was far superior to the loutish Trump. Davis, initially a reluctant secessionist, finally backed and then led the Confederacy out in the open, as a matter of principle, loyal to the cause of slavery. By contrast, Trump, when he isn’t tweeting, operates as racketeers do, in the shadows, on the paramount principle of family first, demanding utmost loyalty to his supremely damaged self.

Never before has American democracy been so debased that roughly one-third of the nation can dictate its politics. (Even the slave power oligarchy of the 1850s managed to mobilize electoral pluralities and majorities.) Never before has an American Administration lied as continuously and as brazenly as Trump and his minions have, not simply as self-protection but as calculated insults to reason, gaslighting not just the nation but the entire world. Never before has an Administration’s supporters—today, the ruling one-third of the country—shown such an ardent willingness not merely to accept its mendacity but to get off on it, to the point of thrilling to possible criminal interference in our national elections by a hostile nation, so long as it gives the finger to the other side. Finding similarities in our past to this state of affairs brings to mind the French proverb, that to understand everything is to pardon everything—only, in this case, to analogize too much is to understand too little.

From the Symposium

What Compares to Trump

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Sean Wilentz Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.

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