What history can teach us about Trump
Edward Luce and historian Michael Beschloss discuss the parallels between Donald Trump and previous presidents.
Produced by Ben Marino. Filmed and edited by Donell Newkirk.
Welcome back to Luce Talk. Many people wonder whether America's past offers us any kind of guide to the presidency of Donald Trump. Do, perhaps, the administrations of Andrew Jackson in the 19th century, or Richard Nixon in the 1970s, shed any light on where Donald Trump might be headed? Or is he simply one of a kind, a unique figure to which history offers no guide? To help me explore this question, I talked to Michael Beschloss, one of America's leading historians and a biographer of many of America's great presidents.
History shows that character and a sense of what are the norms guides people-- even Nixon in his final days, to resign. Trump seems to be a norm breaker, out of all proportion. So that, have you got no shame, sir, sort of line doesn't work on him.
We're thinking way, way ahead, but if you got to a situation where Trump was like Nixon, where impeachment seemed certain and conviction in a Senate trial seemed certain, Nixon essentially said this would be the country in limbo for six months. I will resign for the good of the country. Hard to see Trump doing that.
Now, let's suppose we don't get to impeachment. Do we just carry on like we've been carrying on? Unlike Jackson, what Trump does has instant global implications. Again, is there a roadmap for that?
The odd thing you've got here is something that we have never seen before in American history. This goes back to what Bob Corker so recently said, that the country is protected from chaos by three people-- Kelly and Mattis and Tillerson. You know, think of a moment in history where you've had someone say that about a sitting president, especially of their own party. This is something that we have not seen before.
And we're not normally accustomed to relying on generals or retired generals, military figures, to be our comfort blanket.
It's so amazing, because you think of, for instance, the early 1960s, like the movie Seven Days in May. You know, the liberal worry at that point was that you'd have a rightwing general's coup that would throw a president out of office. This is almost the flip side.
Yeah, that's-- what if somebody like, particularly General Mattis, Jim Mattis, resigned because he couldn't take it anymore, and we got a more Trumpian figure in that job? What would that do to our peace of mind?
If that happened and Donald Trump suggested someone who is unsuitable, senators would say, no, we're going to reject this nominee in favour of someone who will protect the Republic.
Is there anything that the founding fathers conceived of that would stop a mentally unstable president from taking military action? I know there's Article 25. That's a separate thing. But just from taking impulsive military steps that would go against all the best advice?
The founders were obsessed with restraining presidential power. They didn't want a king. They didn't want a dictator. They made a president's powers pretty limited, especially the president's power to take the nation into war, which even in 1787 would have required amassing an army and getting them to move-- could not be done instantly. If they came back and saw the situation now, where you've got one leader with a finger on the button able to do this much more quickly than they ever imagined, they would be very nervous about that.
In the last days of Nixon, there were people who were worried that Nixon, in order to hold on to power against certain impeachment and conviction, might use the military to keep the presidency, might surround the White House with tanks or even make nuclear threats. And the secretary of defence at that point, Jim Schlesinger, required, without telling Nixon, that any such order be brought to him and he would have to countersign anything that the president wrote. And what that shows us is that that wasn't in the Constitution, but in extraordinary circumstances, people of stature do act.
I know you're not a futurologist, but drawing on your deep knowledge of the past, what do you expect will be Trump's fate?
As an historian, I'm not a futurologist. But even if I were, this one is more difficult to predict than almost any other presidency, because it is so outside the boundaries of what we normally see in print, in history. That having been said, I think one of the most distressing things of all is that I can't think of a president with less of a sense of history or reverence for what history can teach you than Donald Trump.
And you look through every single president, back to the beginning, there are very few things that can guide you if you're in a crisis and the information is fragmentary and you're trying to figure out, as a president, what to do. Almost the only thing that's there is to know what has worked for other presidents of the past, and also what's failed them. And in Trump's case, it almost scares me that he knows so little about any of that.