Uncouth he may be, but he’s not unfamiliar.
By Philip Terzian – The New York Times
Mr. Terzian is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”
President Trump spoke to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in October.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times
Like more than a few Americans, I used to read President Donald Trump’s tweets with trepidation. No modern president had ever expressed himself publicly in this manner, and the universal reaction seemed to be a mixture of horror and consternation.
Now I find that the tweets I see tend to make me laugh rather than wince. Unlike his stately predecessor’s feed, which read as if drafted by a lucky intern, Mr. Trump’s tweets could not possibly have been composed by anyone but Mr. Trump himself, or by someone with a good ear for Trumpspeak. Best of all, the fury and indignation they inspire are very nearly as entertaining as their memorable content. Like the old New Yorker cartoons of plutocrats listening in silent rage to F.D.R. on the radio, or inviting their friends to join them at “the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt,” Mr. Trump seems to have the chattering — or in this case, sputtering — classes where he wants them.
Moreover, the president has a genuine gift for this sort of thing. Even his famous nicknames — “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Stormy “Horseface” Daniels — while occasionally puerile and sometimes cruel, deftly capture something essential in their subjects. And the fact that Mr. Trump takes such evident pleasure in the torment, and his critics respond like Pavlov’s dogs, seems to fortify the bond between Mr. Trump and his enthusiasts. When Franklin Roosevelt exclaimed that his political enemies were “unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred,” admirers swooned. Mr. Trump’s admirers are equally enchanted when he declares that Representative Adam “Pencil-Neck” Schiff’s impeachment proceedings are “illegal, invalid and unconstitutional.”
What’s the difference? Less than you might think.
There is no question, of course, that Mr. Trump is a dramatically unconventional commander in chief. He is not our first divorced president (Ronald Reagan) nor the first to have been harried by allegations of a sex scandal (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, et al.). He is a “reality-TV star” just as Reagan was a “B-movie actor” and Harry Truman a “failed haberdasher.” Still, he is the only president to have arrived in the White House without experience of public service or political office — the last comparable major-party nominee was Wendell Willkie (1940) — and his manner is a striking departure from one English journalist’s rule that the public prefers its politicians to resemble either clergymen or undertakers.
None of this is altogether a bad thing. The increasingly monarchical trappings of the presidency are some distance from the founders’ ideal of republican simplicity. We might wish, at times, that Mr. Trump were a little less juvenile, or insensitive, or hypersensitive; but we might also wish that every president achieves perfection. Even the tweets are more likely to be remembered as mastery of new technology — akin to F.D.R.’s “fireside chats” — than the outrage and embarrassment journalists deplore.
Indeed, one of the intriguing things about Mr. Trump is that, in certain significant ways, many of his attitudes and actions are reliably conventional. He wavers between American exceptionalism (Make America Great Again) and skeptical realism (“You think our country’s so innocent?”). Like Calvin Coolidge, he believes that “the business of America is business,” in the sense that a healthy market economy is the guarantor of inclusive prosperity. He presides at ceremonial occasions — memorials, commemorative rituals, official receptions — with a measure of solemnity and switches gears for the lighthearted trappings of office. (See his pardon last month of a Thanksgiving turkey.)
His instincts in domestic and foreign affairs are identifiably conservative, with certain exceptions. It’s not difficult to imagine a President Jeb Bush appointing Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, or a President Marco Rubio recruiting Elliott Abrams for duty on Venezuela. In his suspicion of foreign entanglements Mr. Trump is more like a Taft than an Eisenhower Republican — or more like George Washington, for that matter. His weakness for protectionism, while regrettable in my view, harkens back to an older G.O.P. orthodoxy and, in any case, is consistent with his pledge to speak for industrial workers left behind by decades of free-trade agreements. His approach to reform and refreshment of the Atlantic alliance, while bumptious at times, is a louder, more insistent and, not least, more successful version of what policymakers of both parties have been whispering for years.
It’s useful, as well, to consider Mr. Trump’s opprobrium — as racist, proto-fascist and aspiring dictator — in light of the history of partisan rhetoric. It’s essentially forgotten now, but the standard enlightened view of Reagan in the Oval Office was as an “amiable dunce” (in Clark Clifford’s memorable phrase) and frontman for a handful of sinister Los Angeles millionaires, whose presidential passion was provoking nuclear war with the Soviet Union. George W. Bush was once considered vulnerable to impeachment for his habit of issuing lengthy “signing statements” when rendering a bill into law. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 his most vehement opponent was not the Republican nominee Alf Landon but Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic nominee who considered parts of the New Deal to be as dangerous as Bolshevism and antithetical to his party’s historic values.
Nor is Mr. Trump’s turbulent personality unprecedented. His impulsiveness is very nearly as habitual as Theodore Roosevelt’s, who was never happier than when picking fights with adversaries great (J. Pierpont Morgan) and small (sentimental author-naturalists he called “nature fakers”) and whose disappointment with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, prompted him to split his party, run for a third term on a third-party ticket and deliver the presidency to Woodrow Wilson.
Mr. Trump’s affinity for Andrew Jackson is based on Jackson’s status as our first populist chief executive. But their ways of doing business are equally indistinguishable. Jackson’s determination to destroy the Bank of the United States prompted him to fire his first two Treasury secretaries. He presided over a contentious and ever-changing cabinet, and once lamented that his twin regrets in life were that he had not shot Senator Henry Clay or hanged his own vice president, John C. Calhoun. He was also the only president to have been censured by the Senate, dismissing it as “unauthorized, unprecedented, unconstitutional conduct.”
While unique in his way, Mr. Trump is not a president like no other, nor a threat to democracy or the constitutional order. He has roots in the American civic tradition, which is considerably more complex, and more fractious in tone, than we care to remember. He’s a politician with a thin skin and a fondness for the limelight and the music of his own voice — sound familiar? — and his political success drives his political adversaries to political apoplexy. That, too, sounds familiar.
Philip Terzian, a contributing writer at The Washington Examiner, is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”