By Jerry Adler
November 7, 2020
Well before his term was over, Donald Trump was already musing about adding his face to Mount Rushmore, augmenting his list of honors both real (a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, two Emmy nominations, 30 Time magazine covers) and imaginary (Michigan’s “Man of the Year”). The New York Times reported that he had asked South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem about the possibility, to which he responded with one of his characteristic, have-it-both-ways tweets: “Never suggested it although, based on all of the many things accomplished during the first 3 1/2 years, perhaps more than any other Presidency, sounds like a good idea to me!”
Being impeached and then denied a second term are poor recommendations for presidential immortality, and Trump is likely to go down in history more for his sullen, graceless exit than his accomplishments. A running theme during his tenure has been the way he undermined democracy with his baseless claims of election fraud, threatened the rule of law by threatening to arrest his rivals, cheapened the presidency with his crude tweets and clownish rallies, and used his hotels and resorts to loot the Treasury. His legacy will be a case study in how the long-standing norms of American democracy can be bent to accommodate the whims of an aspiring strongman with a major party and a national news network behind him.
Bent, but not broken. Overlooked in the headlong rush of news this week was that the machinery of democracy actually functioned. While the president blustered and TV anchors pontificated, unsung clerks in drab county offices worked long hours, at times under the hostile gaze of partisan observers, to sort and count more than 140 million ballots. A record number of citizens cast votes in the midst of a pandemic, and despite the panicked predictions from both sides of chaos and meddling — from foreign intelligence services, freelance hackers, corrupt software vendors, ballot-box-stuffing Democratic machines, vote-suppressing Republican legislatures — the president’s hysterical claims of fraud rang mostly hollow.
And having passed judgment on Trump’s four years in office, we can begin the essential work of imagining how history will look back on this period, on him, and on us. We elected him four years ago, with his grotesque character on full display: the greed, the bullying, the misogyny and flagrant sexual infidelity, the malignant narcissism that members of his inner circle have diagnosed in him. His own chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, described him — after his firing — as “the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.”
He will go down in history for his inability to even pretend empathy toward young children separated from their parents by his border policies, his bullying of the press whenever it reported something he didn’t like, his casual subversion of the justice system by issuing pardons to his allies while calling for the jailing of his opponents, his moral cowardice toward dictators. After four chaotic years, he still won more than 69 million votes on Nov. 3, around 6 million more than in 2016. His semiliterate tweets and ranting speeches filled with half-completed thoughts notwithstanding, he managed to connect with a near-majority of Americans on a visceral level that political scientists, pollsters and opinion writers will be dissecting and debating into the foreseeable future.
At the moment, of course, we are captive to the narrative imposed on the nation by the coronavirus pandemic. With our lives upended by a disease that by the end of his term will have led to the deaths of well more than a quarter-million Americans, we naturally judge the president by his handling of the pandemic, and the verdict on his stewardship is clear: It was a disaster characterized by wishful thinking; scientific illiteracy; and inconsistent, dishonest and reckless policymaking.
If the coronavirus turns into a world-historical calamity that alters the course of civilization, Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine and his disdain for masks will eventually become footnotes. If it is controlled through some combination of science, good policy and luck, it will still have left an enduring mark on America and on Trump’s reputation, but it will eventually recede as a political issue. Trump’s prediction that the media would stop talking about COVID after the election (“That’s all I hear about now. … ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.’ By the way, on Nov. 4 you won’t hear about it anymore.”) was obtuse and perverse. His resentment over being cheated out of the chance to run on his pre-pandemic record on the economy by what amounts to an act of God is, at least, understandable.
Trump’s political career was conceived in the fevered atmosphere of 1980s New York City, when he famously took out newspaper ads calling for the restoration of capital punishment in the aftermath of the Central Park Five case, in which minority teenagers were falsely convicted of the brutal rape of a young, female jogger. As recently as last year, long after the youths were exonerated and released, Trump as president refused to retract or apologize for his remarks, callously insisting that “you have people on both sides of that.” His rhetorical style was forged in the reality-warping force field of right-wing talk radio, which fed his cynical promotion of birtherism — the belief, based on nothing, that Barack Obama was born in Africa. He came into office blaring his frenzied, and easily disproved, insistence that his inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s, a belief based on less than nothing.
Trump’s previous career as a New York City real estate developer, it turns out, was perfect preparation for how he ran for office and governed. In the world of luxury condominium marketing, the lobby will always be done in two weeks, like the COVID-19 vaccine or the health care plans Trump has been promising since June. “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan,” Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in an interview — three and a half months ago. He even acknowledged his use of this tactic in “The Art of the Deal,” calling it “truthful hyperbole,” an oxymoron that turns meaning inside out. His second career, of course, was the host of a so-called “reality” television show, which bore the same relationship to reality as “John Madden Football” does to the NFL.
A clear distillation of Trump’s mindset was Sharpiegate, the micro-scandal around his refusal over several days in 2019 to admit or correct his error in naming Alabama among the states in danger from Hurricane Dorian. Not only did the White House pressure government meteorologists to change their forecast to agree with this misstatement, Trump went on television himself to defend it. He brandished a printout of an official map that had been altered by a line drawn with a thick, black marker, like the ones he uses for his signature, a way of flaunting his cynical indifference to whether anyone actually believed him. The term “Orwellian” gets thrown around a lot, but as an assertion of raw power over the minds of his supporters, that is about as clear an example as you could find.
It was a paradigm for his administration’s approach to everything, or at least anything that mattered. Climate change is a reality Trump wishes not to confront, so he throws out nonsense about windmills causing cancer, an assertion so ludicrous and irrelevant it doesn’t even amount to an argument. He doesn’t want to admit that Americans are still dying of COVID-19, so he invents a claim that doctors are inflating the mortality figures because they get paid more that way. In lieu of a health care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, he signs a meaningless “proclamation” that preexisting conditions shall be covered by health insurance, the equivalent of saying “the lobby is finished” before it’s even painted.
Some of the damage Trump has done to American democracy may prove self-correcting. After the last four years, it now seems unlikely the United States will elect another president who runs an international chain of golf courses. Falling in “love” at a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was an idiosyncrasy on Trump’s part, not a policy that future presidents will be bound by. Returning the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement or signing a bill to reverse his 2017 tax cuts can be done with the stroke of a pen.
In other respects, the political currents Trump stirred up will be swirling for a long time after he leaves office. His impulse toward authoritarianism revealed how dependent American democracy is on norms of behavior that can be bent by a determined president with a cowed party behind him. He weaponized nationalism as a political force, even as he cheapened it with tacky stunts like hugging and kissing the American flag. He mobilized the economic grievances of workers in declining industries with promises that economists knew would be difficult or impossible to keep; after years of boasting about “ending the war on beautiful, clean coal,” employment in the coal industry, which stood at approximately 50,400 jobs when he was elected, was at exactly the same level this past February. He took advantage of the resentments of evangelicals over American society’s secular drift, enflaming them into an absurd “culture war” over department store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
But Trump’s habitual dismissal of logic and standards of proof may, in the long run, prove more consequential. It gives his imprimatur to what was already a dangerous trend in the country at large. Almost every significant event in American life over the last half-century — the moon landing, the 9/11 attacks, assassinations, and mass shooting events — gives birth to a cadre of “truthers” who construct their own narratives around it, and Trump has been an eager participant wherever he sees some advantage for himself — notably in fostering the destructive idea that Democrats will steal the election with fraudulent mail-in votes. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he warned darkly in his first debate with Joe Biden.
A PBS “Frontline” documentary shows how Trump echoed radio host Alex Jones’s rants about Obama “founding” ISIS, Sen. Ted Cruz’s father conspiring in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Hillary Clinton masquerading as a human but actually “an abject psychopathic demon from hell,” which Trump, perhaps showing off for his evangelical base, repeated as literal fact. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones during a call-in to his show in late 2015. “I will not let you down.”
So now, encouraged by presidential retweets, winks, and nods, many millions of Americans have fallen under the sway of a myth about “global elites” who keep children as sex slaves, spinning off corollary conspiracy theories about vaccines, ballot fraud, and other favorite Trumpian obsessions. Putting that genie back in the somewhat narrow-necked bottle of Americans’ common sense will be the work of years.
Trump’s border wall with Mexico, if it’s ever completed, can be torn down, if it doesn’t fall down on its own. But mental walls against unwelcome facts — “defense mechanisms” in the language of psychology — can be harder to dislodge. If that indeed is Trump’s legacy, it’s one we will be coping with for a long time.
And it’s certainly no argument for putting him on Mount Rushmore.
by Walter G. Moss
August 9, 2020
The fable of the blind men and the elephant is one that speaks to historians’ sense of humility in the face of complexity and need to consider other points of view.
It is unclear if Donald Trump grasps this lesson.
It is no secret that most historians dislike President Trump. In December of 2019, more than 2,000 of us signed a petition calling for his impeachment. In June, historian Sean Wilentz wrote “that he is without question the worst president in American history.” Most other historians rank him at least among the worst.
Many of the reasons for this judgment we hold in common with other citizens–his narcissism and other unappealing character traits, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, etc., etc., etc. But we also dislike him because he violates so many of the values important to us as historians. Here I’ll identify and explain our appreciation and his violation of just five of these values: 1) respect for truth; 2) respect for science, reason, and facts; 3) the valuing of history; 4) a realization of the complexity of life and history; and 5) an appreciation of empathy.
1) Respect For Truth
In a recent HNN op-ed I quoted from Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (2019): “The work of the historian” includes being “the teller of truth.” And I added my own conviction that “Tell the truth” should be as central to historians as “First, do no harm” is to doctors and nurses. My article also quoted Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies (2020): “Donald Trump, the most mendacious president in U.S. history . . . . [is] not known for one big lie—just a constant stream of exaggerated, invented, boastful, purposely outrageous, spiteful, inconsistent, dubious and false claims.”
2) Respect for Science, Reason, and Facts
Trump’s lack of respect for truth is related to his lack of respect for science, reason, and facts. The historian H. Stuart Hughes entitled one of his books History as Art and as Science, and he was correct. It is both. We historians share with natural and social scientists a commitment to the scientific method, which means trying to view evidence in as unbiased a fashion as possible and drawing conclusions that approximate truth as closely as we are capable. In his The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (2001), Peter Watson praised science for having “no real agenda” and for being open, tolerant, objective, and realizing its results were cumulative, one discovery building upon others. Such an approach also suggests humility by recognizing the limits of the truths we discover.
We historians are like the characters in the Buddhist tale of the elephant and the blind men. Each blind man feels only one part of the elephant–e.g., a tusk, a trunk, or a tail. In Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom Robert Kane relates this story to make the point “that the whole or final truth is not something finite creatures can possess entirely. What they can do is partake of or participate in that truth from limited points of view.” What Kane says about truth is also true of history–each historian presents only a limited point of view.
Five years ago on this site I suggested that the quote “history is the error we are forever correcting” could more accurately be rendered “history is the inadequate portrayal of the past we are forever correcting.” Further, I indicated that “this helps explain why there will always be revisionist interpretations.” Valuing the scientific method, we do not see our historical works as the final words on any subject, but merely honest, impermanent efforts to portray some slice of history.
But Trump has no respect for science. Before becoming president, he tweeted that “global warming is an expensive hoax.” And in the present coronavirus pandemic he has often ignored the best advice of scientists, for example in regard to wearing masks, easing government restrictions, and by his hyping of the drug Hydroxychloroquine. Thanks largely to his influence, many of his followers ignore the best scientific advice regarding social-distancing and mask-wearing.
3) The Valuing of History
Given his lack of respect for science, his failure to value history (our third professional reason for faulting him) should come as no surprise. Early in Trump’s presidency David Blight, author of the acclaimed Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), wrote “Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial.” The article summed up nicely why a distinguished historian found Trump’s “5th grade understanding of history or worse” so “deeply disturbing.” “Perhaps,” Blight speculated, Trump’s “grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism.”
In the three years that have passed since Blight’s article, several books like A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, and The Room Where It Happened, by John Bolton, have added new examples of Trump’s ignorance of history–e.g. not knowing that India and China shared a border or that the United Kingdom was a nuclear power (as it had been for over a half century). But Blight’s article retains its relevance for why presidential historical ignorance is so appalling to historians.
4) A Realization of the Complexity of Life and History
A fourth Trump failure from a historian’s perspective is his failure to acknowledge the complexity of life and history. On a recent PBS Newshour discussing the tearing down of statues, some African Americans stated that the Washington, D.C. Emancipation Memorial of Lincoln standing above a kneeling newly freed slave should be torn down because it depicts a black man kneeling in a subservient position. But historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said it would perhaps be better to add “another statue next to it of Frederick Douglass, for example, creating, in a sense, more history.”
In general, Bunch said he wanted to see “a reasoned process that allows us to discuss, that allows us to bring history before we make decisions of pulling things down.” By adding the Douglass statue, Bunch thinks the revised memorial would provide more complexity and nuance, which is what he believes history should do.
Newshour interviewer Jeffrey Brown commented, “That may be a lot to ask in an America so greatly divided, seemingly not in a mood for complexity and nuance, now fighting over its past and future one statue at a time.”
A lot to ask? Yes, indeed. We historians often feel compelled to reject simplistic casual explanations by saying, “Well, the matter is more complex than that.” For Bunch is right–history teaches us that the reasons things occur are usually complex and nuanced–but people often prefer, especially in our polarized political arena rife with conspiracy theories, more simplistic accounts.
In his The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch wrote what we historians know well–“the fetish of a single cause,” is often “insidious.” In Historians’ Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer dealt with this insidious error under the category of “the reductive fallacy, which “reduces complexity to simplicity.”
Such reduction, such over-simplification, and even that often untrue, is typical of Trump’s style. New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall recently cited several studies that indicate “Donald Trump has the most basic, most simplistically constructed, least diverse vocabulary of any president in the last 90 years.” Edsall places Trump among “authoritarians [who] are averse to diversity and complexity.”
5) An Appreciation of Empathy
The fifth (and final) Trump failure to be highlighted here is something Blight mentioned above, Trump’s “lack of empathy.” Over four years ago my “Historians Need to Write and Teach with Empathy” appeared on HNN. In it, I supported the article’s main point with quotes from various historians such as John Lewis Gaddis, and also furnished a link to a piece by then-editor Rick Shenkman that explained empathy. About a year ago I contrasted President Obama’s emphasis on empathy with Trump’s egoism, which completely submerged “any signs of empathy.
The five reasons provided above are not meant to be exhaustive. No doubt other historians can think of additional ones for our collective antipathy toward the man Wilentz labels “the worst president in American history.” I look forward to reading them.
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, a Contributing Editor of HNN, and author of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of his recent books and online publications click here.
As Trump enters his final days, he spent the past week pardoning, vetoing, and pointing fingers as he tries to leave chaos behind him.
Edward Larson, Austin Sarat, and Dennis Aftergut (Opinion contributors)
December 28, 2020
When history looks back for a signature week of the Trump presidency, Christmas 2020 may win the prize.
There was a pattern, and likely foreshadowing of a chaotic month to come: Political disorder, norm demolition and unrelenting indifference to others from a truth-negating president.
Just look at the week’s five major events and Trump’s responses:
1. Russia’s Cyber-Attack:
On December 19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Russians were behind a massive cyber-attack on American government and business.
What explains this stunning failure to defend America from Russia’s virtual “declaration of war?”
It’s the same reason Trump sided with Putin and against his own intelligence community at the July 2018 Helsinki summit, asserting that Russia was not responsible for 2016’s presidential election interference: Naked self-interest.
Trump serving his self-interest
Whether or not Putin has damaging information on Trump, a Moscow hotel has long been his dream. Today it surely plays an outsized role in his thinking about life after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The deal never went through. Ultimately, Putin knew the value of keeping the carrot in front of the donkey.
If your lifelong ambition were to build a Moscow skyscraper with your name atop, would you attack the Russian president who controlled the permit?
2. The White House cabal.
On Dec. 22, Trump met in the White House with a cast of fringe characters including confessed criminal Michael Flynn, his lawyer, Sidney Powell, and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.
Powell has distinguished herself by floating conspiracy theories so wild in November she got dropped from Trump’s legal team.
Byrne admitted in 2019 to an affair with Russian intelligence asset, Maria Butina, now expatriated to her homeland after serving federal time.
The still-tethered Mark Meadows and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone “ended the meeting when it started heading in an alarming direction.” Their concerns reverberated across an already shaken nation.
3. COVID relief.
On Dec. 22, Congress finally adopted a $908 billion COVID stimulus package, including $600 payments to individuals earning under $75,000 per year. The White House signaled that the president would sign the bill.
Hours later, Trump pulled the rug out, tweeting that relief checks were too small. But any president who cared would have spoken up when it mattered — while the bill was being debated.
Trump promptly flew to Mar-a-Lago, leaving a hot mess on a hurting nation’s porch until he finally signed it late Dec. 27th.
Why the unnecessary drama? Explanations center on revenge for Mitch McConnell’s telling Republicans not to contest President-elect Biden’s win.
Same presidential character: Personal pique and pleasure watching those he felt had crossed him —along with suffering citizens — hang in the wind.
4. The $740 million Defense Authorization Act.
On Dec. 23, Trump stirred more turmoil, vetoing the massive defense bill. Republican Senate Arms Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe protested: “The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops.”
No matter to the president as he headed south to golf. As George Conway tweeted, “He just wants to break stuff on the way out.”
What better things to break than troops’ pay hikes and national security?
Trump just working to ruin as much on his way out as he can
5. Christmas Pardon Giveaway.
Instead, Trump has rewarded the corrupt, the complicit and the cold-blooded. Trump “granted mercy” to:
► Jared Kushner’s convicted father, who — to blackmail his sister and her husband before their planned testimony against him — hired a prostitute to seduce the husband, then sent the sex video-tape to the sister;
► The Blackwater mercenaries who machine-gunned 17 Iraqi innocent civilians, including a 9-year-old boy in the back seat of his father’s car;
► Roger Stone, who lied to Congress to cover up his 2016 campaign role as go-between for Trump and Wikileaks;
► Former Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, following their 2019 convictions for spending campaign funds on family vacations and bar tabs.
As Professor Goldsmith put it in a tweet, “It’s the pardon power unleashed to serve private gratification, score-settling and eye-poking.”
That tweet perfectly summarizes the presidential week that was. In the days before Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, expect arson from America’s nihilist-in-chief, thrilled to be watching the flames.
Edward Larson, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of “The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States 1783-1789,” is University Professor at Pepperdine University; Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College; Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor and Supreme Court advocate who writes on national affairs.
By Jane C. Timm
Dec. 31, 2020
President Donald Trump spent his first days in office pushing false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd.
He has spent the final weeks of his term blitzing the American people with falsehoods and far-fetched conspiracies as part of a failed attempt to overturn the election he lost — cementing his legacy as what fact checkers and presidential historians say is the most mendacious White House occupant ever.
“I have never seen a president in American history who has lied so continuously and so outrageously as Donald Trump, period,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in an interview. “Dwight Eisenhower used to say one of the most important tools a president of the United States has is that people believe what he says.”
But that belief in the president’s words has become increasingly dependent on the political party to which a person belongs. Trump decries reports that are unflattering and facts that don’t fit with his world view as “fake news,” fueling a growing partisan information divide on everything from the contagiousness of the coronavirus to the reliability of the media.
Trump’s run for the presidency was fueled by political prominence gained by promoting the racist “birther” lie about President Barack Obama, and his 2016 victory was secured by a campaign rooted in false claims about immigrants and inner-city crime.
Once in the White House, the president routinely made false claims about everything from toilet flushes to tax reform. Some of Trump’s false claims drove policy, while conspiracy theories were elevated in tweets and in public and private conversations with foreign leaders.
In the last year of his term, Trump’s countless false claims about the coronavirus muddied the U.S. response to the pandemic, which has killed 339,062 people as of Dec. 29, according to an NBC News count. The president’s utterly baseless claim that the election was stolen from him delayed President-elect Joe Biden’s transition for weeks — hampering the incoming administration’s efforts to prepare for wide-scale vaccine distribution and endangering national security, according to experts.
“After two centuries, it is impressive that Americans still are inclined to believe what a president tells them, especially at a moment of crisis,” Beschloss said. “When a president breaks that bond of trust with the American people, it makes it harder for future presidents to have the kind of moral authority that enables them to protect us.”
NBC News has fact-checked Trump for more than four years. Based on thousands of hours of reporting and hundreds of reported fact checks, four issues stand above the rest as the falsehoods that define the Trump presidency.
Dozens of times since the start of the outbreak that has killed 1.7 million people around the world, Trump publicly downplayed the severity of the novel coronavirus, suggesting it would go away on its own, while comparing Covid-19, the disease it caused, to the seasonal flu.
“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows,” Trump said Feb. 28, with dozens of cases but no known fatalities in the U.S.
“We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump said March 10, when there were just over a thousand known infections and 30 deaths.
His view was disputed by public health experts, including the government’s own top scientists, who predicted that even with a strong, coordinated response, the virus wasn’t just going to “go away.” Later, the journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Trump had told him at the same time the president was publicly downplaying the virus’s severity, he knew it was more dangerous than the flu and “deadly.”
After states enforced tough lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus — wreaking havoc on the economy and putting millions out of work to try and save lives with hospitals and emergency services overwhelmed — Trump pressured governors to reopen quickly, while experts cautioned against it. To support his push, he falsely claimed cases were going down throughout the spring even as experts warned the virus was uncontrolled; in a news conference April 22, he lambasted coverage of experts who warned of a dangerous potential second wave in the fall and the winter as “fake news.”
A month later, Trump again said things were improving: “At some point, it’ll go away. It may flare up, and it may not flare up. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said May 15. By that point, at least 1.5 million Americans had been infected; 88,101 had died. The numbers decreased slightly in the summer as cities that were home to early surges drove down their caseloads, but by the fall, the virus had taken root in nearly every U.S. community; regional surges have led to one steady nationwide increase.
Trump continued to compare the virus to the flu even after he recovered from Covid-19 himself in early October.
In mid-October, as the nation readied for an expected winter surge, he tweeted: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”
His tweet inaccurately inflated flu deaths while downplaying the coronavirus’s danger. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said Covid-19 is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.
Trump also routinely spread misinformation about testing, the efficacy of masks, and potential and unproven treatments for the virus, once claiming that injections of antibacterial cleaning agents like bleach might clean the lungs of the virus.
Ten months in, more than 19.4 million people in the U.S. have been infected, but public polls show a partisan divide on the understanding of the basic facts about the virus, which a large number of Republicans still believe is no worse than the flu. Numerous cases have been tied to large White House events.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who appeared maskless at the White House before contracting Covid-19, has said multiple times since his recovery that he was wrong — and lamented the politics driving anti-mask sentiment in a public service ad.
When Trump won the Electoral College — and thus the presidency — in 2016, he told lawmakers he only lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal votes. There was no evidence of that, something his own lawyers noted in an election court filing opposing the Green Party’s recount efforts after the election, but the new president was undeterred.
At the start of his administration in January 2017, Trump urged states to undertake more voter roll maintenance in the name of rooting out fraud, stirring alarm over aggressive purges that voting rights advocates feared would disenfranchise eligible people. He then launched a commission to seek definitive proof of his claims of widespread fraud; the group disbanded without finding any proof of it.
Numerous academic studies and criminal investigations, too, have searched for widespread voter fraud over the years and come up empty-handed. But there is ample evidence that restrictive voting laws aimed at preventing this alleged fraud disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.
Just over three years later, as Biden was closing in on the Democratic nomination and the rapid spread of Covid-19 was making clear the public health risks of people congregating at the polls, Trump began pushing a number of falsehoods specifically about voting by mail.
Throughout 2020, Trump baselessly claimed that changes brought on by the pandemic — namely the large-scale expansion of mail-in voting in most states, led by governors of both parties — were fraudulent, or that they created opportunities for fraud or foreign meddling. There are numerous safeguards that keep U.S. elections secure.
When Trump lost the general election, he blamed voter fraud and sent his lawyers to court to try and reverse the results. In a free-wheeling news conference that lacked even a shred of evidence, his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, alleged everything from a “centralized” fraud scheme to election interference by foreign communists. Just a handful of fraud cases have been uncovered in key states: in Pennsylvania, three Republicans have been charged with illegally voting.
The president’s false claims of a rigged or stolen election have not achieved the immediate goal of overturning the results. But many fear that Trump’s refusal to accept his loss is damaging to the overall health of America’s democracy —some 68 percent of Republicans believe the election was “rigged,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-November.
Voting rights experts are sounding the alarm over another consequence: a new flood of restrictive voting laws put forth by Republicans invoking widespread fraud no one can find. This scenario is already playing out in Texas, according to a report by the Texas Tribune. In Georgia, the GOP has promised a number of restrictions, including rolling back the absentee voting system Republicans there implemented a decade ago. These laws have the potential to significantly suppress legitimate votes, multiple experts have warned, and will particularly harm Black people and voters of color more generally.
Trump “amplified the public conversation around voter fraud, he made that more of a household conversation, and he has increased the salience of voting restrictions for his supporters,” Wendy Weiser, a national voting rights expert who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, said in an interview this month. “In that way, he made it a lot worse.”
Russia’s interference in the 2016 election
From Day One, Trump has disputed what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded as a fact: Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election with the goal of boosting his bid while working to tear down his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He repeatedly called the then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe into the matter a “witch hunt” against him and the inference itself a “hoax,” despite clear and sizable evidence that the Russian government worked to influence the outcome of the election “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” as Mueller’s report concluded. Multiple people were indicted as a result of the investigation, including a former Trump campaign aide, while other close Trump associates were charged with unrelated crimes uncovered in the course of Mueller’s probe.
The report gathered evidence that the president worked to stymie the investigation, but determined that the Department of Justice could not charge a sitting president and therefore would not determine whether he had broken the law. Trump, meanwhile, falsely claimed that Mueller’s report “totally exonerated” him from any wrongdoing, including allegations of his campaign’s “collusion” with Russia.
When asked directly if the special counsel did “actually totally exonerate the president,” Mueller said “no.”
In the second half of his presidential term, Trump began to raise a conspiracy theory that Ukraine and the Democrats framed Russia for election interference in an attempt to discredit his win. At the same time, Trump also began to advance a theory that Biden, then a likely 2020 front-runner, had acted corruptly while serving as vice president to benefit his son Hunter’s foreign business interests. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.
Comments about these conspiracy theories — made in public, as well as in an infamous private phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July 2019, when Trump asked for an investigation into the Bidens — would eventually trigger Trump’s impeachment, after Democrats in the House concluded that he had abused the power of the presidency by seeking foreign assistance with his upcoming election.
The conspiracy theory that Russia was being framed for election interference, a version of which was first publicly posted on a far-right message board, 4chan, in March 2017, fit into Trump’s yearslong effort to discredit Mueller’s investigation and undercut the idea that a foreign government helped get him elected. But according to the Trump administration’s own experts, he played into a narrative advanced by Russia.
Trump’s former Russia expert, Fiona Hill, called the idea that Ukraine meddled in 2016 a “fictional narrative” promoted by Russian intelligence and rebuked House Republicans for using it to defend the president against impeachment. Trump, and members of the GOP, have contended that the actions his administration took toward Ukraine were motivated not by political or personal interest, but by legitimate concern about corruption in that country, including alleged Ukrainian election interference.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said in her opening statement to Congress. “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
The Trump agenda
Throughout his term, Trump made sweeping and false claims to bolster his own policy agenda and exaggerate the extent of his accomplishment. He overstated his achievements on everything from tax reform to manufacturing investments.
After instituting tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump boasted of raking in millions from China; in fact, Americans pay the bulk of tariffs on foreign goods. He argued that Obama’s policies had greatly hurt Maine’s lobster trade and declared he’d saved the industry with a trade deal. In fact, it is Trump’s trade war that pinched the industry.
Trump often took credit for the nation’s economic recovery and inaccurately claimed the economy was struggling when he took office. In fact, the recovery began during Obama’s administration and continued under Trump. After the economy took an enormous hit when the pandemic hit and prompted mass layoffs, Trump boasted of summertime returns as new growth.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to build a southern border wall and make Mexico pay for it. As president, he’s built 423 miles of border wall, much of it in place of older existing border structures. Mexico has not paid a cent, despite the president’s false claims to the contrary.
And in what is perhaps one of his most bold-faced falsehoods, Trump argued for years Republicans were defenders of people with pre-existing conditions, all the while his administration and several red states sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health care law that guaranteed those protections, without proposing a plan with comparable protections.
Repeatedly, Trump has inaccurately summed up the successes of his administration. During a major speech at the United Nations, he said his administration had accomplished more than any other. The assembled world leaders laughed.
“Didn’t expect that reaction,” Trump said at the time. “But that’s OK.”
Jane C. Timm is a political reporter for NBC News.
We are American historians devoted to studying our nation’s past who have concluded that Donald J. Trump has violated his oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” His “attempts to subvert the Constitution,” as George Mason described impeachable offenses at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, urgently and justly require his impeachment.
President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president. Among those most hurtful to the Constitution have been his attempts to coerce the country of Ukraine, under attack from Russia, an adversary power to the United States, by withholding essential military assistance in exchange for the fabrication and legitimization of false information in order to advance his own re-election.
President Trump’s lawless obstruction of the House of Representatives, which is rightly seeking documents and witness testimony in pursuit of its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, has demonstrated brazen contempt for representative government. So have his attempts to justify that obstruction on the grounds that the executive enjoys absolute immunity, a fictitious doctrine that, if tolerated, would turn the president into an elected monarch above the law.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, impeachment was designed to deal with “the misconduct of public men” which involves “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Collectively, the President’s offenses, including his dereliction in protecting the integrity of the 2020 election from Russian disinformation and renewed interference, arouse once again the Framers’ most profound fears that powerful members of government would become, in Hamilton’s words, “the mercenary instruments of foreign corruption.”
Hamilton understood, as he wrote in 1792, that the republic remained vulnerable to the rise of an unscrupulous demagogue, “unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents…despotic in his ordinary demeanour.” That demagogue, Hamilton said, could easily enough manage “to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day.” Such a figure, Hamilton wrote, would “throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
President Trump’s actions committed both before and during the House investigations fit Hamilton’s description and manifest utter and deliberate scorn for the rule of law and “repeated injuries” to constitutional democracy. That disregard continues and it constitutes a clear and present danger to the Constitution. We therefore strongly urge the House of Representatives to impeach the President.
BY JUDY KURTZ
Asked about Trump saying he would give himself a perfect grade on his administration’s coronavirus response — Trump said on Monday that “on the job itself, we take an A+” — Woodward said, “I’m quite frankly embarrassed for him that he would say that, because all Americans know that 200,000 were killed.”
“It’s almost like denying the nose on your face,” Woodward, 77, added.
His comments come after Trump told him in an interview for the Pulitzer Prize winner’s latest book that he sought to downplay the virus in public while acknowledging its dangers in private.
Woodward said Tuesday that Trump failed to act because “he’s obsessed with reelection.”
“He’s failed to build a team, he harasses people, he attacks people who work for him. This impulse decision-making, I’ve never seen anything like it, in the presidency or any institution,” the Washington Post journalist said.
“We see now with the Supreme Court issue he’s shifted the spotlight,” Woodward said, referring to the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week at 87. “He’s absolutely delighted — this is an issue that’s very important to his base, to Evangelicals. So the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of these events in history that has changed the entire dynamic.”
Responding to Zucker’s question about whether Americans should be worried about the state of democracy, Woodward called the Trump administration’s COVID-19 handling a “monumental failure.”
“The historians I know are going to be writing about this for decades, and they’re going to say, ‘What the F happened to America in 2016, 2019 and 2020?” Woodward exclaimed.
by Elizabeth A. Cobbs, Kyle Longley, Kenneth Osgood and Jeremi Sur
October 4, 2019
We are historians who have researched every president since George Washington, and we’ve never seen anything like this.
When Donald Trump got on the phone with the president of Ukraine, he had a “favor” to ask. It’s not the first time he’s reached out to a world leader for personal gain and he has made it clear he sees nothing at all wrong with it.
In fact, several transcripts of similar conversations have reached the public domain, including others from 2017 and some to which the White House sought to limit access. They reveal a striking pattern of a president who consistently uses the Oval Office to advance his explicit self-interest seemingly without regard to national interest.
It is rare to get such a real-time look at presidential conversations with foreign leaders. As historians of US foreign relations, collectively we have read many thousands of similar documents from past presidents. We have also listened to audiotapes of conversations between presidents and their international counterparts. In our numerous books on presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, we have examined how American leaders conduct US foreign policy — the good, bad, and ugly. Nothing really surprises us anymore.
Trump’s documentary record differs dramatically from his predecessors. A worrisome thread runs through each conversation. Trump appears laser-focused on his own fortunes to the exclusion of the national security of the United States. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger and startling pattern of Trump promoting his personal agenda ahead of the nation’s interests.
Many examples exist. When speaking with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in July, Trump concentrated on soliciting help to discredit a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Missing was any discussion of US national interests. Trump never mentioned the shared US-Ukrainian goal of containing Russia’s ambitions, a cornerstone of the relationship. Instead, he pushed a personal agenda — and Zelensky responded by bragging about staying at a Trump property, to the financial benefit of America’s president.
Just days before, Trump had halted US military aid to Ukraine, apparently without a policy review and to the worry of members of Congress. Zelensky has said publicly that he feels no pressure to investigate the Bidens. But the halting of aid surely sent a message to the Ukrainians that they must do even more to please the president — and recklessly endangered the security of Ukraine, Western Europe and indeed our own country.
In 2017, he asked Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto to help get him out of a “political bind.” Mexico’s continued refusal to pay for a border wall contradicted a core campaign promise. Trump told Peña Nieto that little mattered to him other than saving face. He admitted that Mexico’s silence on the wall was not “important” for national security, but “politically this might be the most important.”
That same year, Trump’s narcissism dominated a telephone call with Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The conversation turned to a review of 1,250 migrants fleeing war zones. Since Australia had a standing policy of not accepting anyone who arrived unauthorized by boat, the United States under President Obama had previously agreed to consider a swap of Central Americans seeking refugee status in the US with those seeking refugee status in Australia. Trump explained his intent to negate his predecessor’s promise because “it is embarrassing to me.” The US president framed it not as a policy choice, but as something that would make him “look so foolish,” “like a dope,” and “kill me” politically. A joint foreign policy challenge with a close ally became an ego trip for the president.
When Turnbull tried to turn the conversation to urgent matters of grave concern, namely the war in Syria and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Trump was not interested. He squeezed in one last complaint about how the refugee deal was “an embarrassment to me.” Then he hung up.
To be sure, Trump is hardly the first president to fret about how international problems affect how he is perceived at home. Presidents always keep one eye on domestic politics when making foreign policy decisions. But Trump’s actions are different. In these conversations, there is little discussion of the national interest. His conversations are about him, his image and his needs. He turns policy meetings into short-term political deals with no thought about long-term consequences. He repeatedly stresses how much he values reciprocity but frames it in terms of what he gets personally. No other president has acted with so little evident regard for the nation’s core interests.
Finally, Trump repeatedly gives foreign leaders incriminating evidence they can use against him. In asking Zelensky to assist in undermining a likely campaign opponent, Trump made what his advisers recognized as an unconstitutional request. The mere fact gave Zelensky leverage over Trump, should he choose to use it. In much the same way, the Trump campaign’s outreach to Russia in 2016 provided Vladimir Putin with compromising material to hold over the future president of the United States. Trump’s personalization of diplomacy weakens him and undermines our security.
The revelations of this past week, and the patterns manifest in Trump’s own words over the past three years, suggest we cannot trust that experienced senior advisers will tame this presidency, as many had hoped. We must evaluate the Zelensky transcript and the whistleblower report alongside previous evidence that our president is unable and unwilling to place the nation’s interests above his own.
No one knows if Congress will decide that these actions rise to the level of impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors.” We do know history will judge them harshly, because Donald Trump is not fulfilling the most solemn duty of every president: to protect the nation’s security.
Elizabeth A. Cobbs is the Melbern Glasscock Chair in American history at Texas A&M University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Kyle Longley is the Snell Family Dean’s distinguished professor of history and political science at Arizona State University. Kenneth Osgood is a professor of History at the Colorado School of Mines. Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The views expressed here are theirs.
The American Historical Association has issued a statement on last week’s “White House Conference on American History” deploring the tendentious use of history and history education to stoke politically motivated culture wars.
As of October 14, 46 organizations signed onto the statement. Download the statement as a PDF.
Approved by AHA Council, September 23, 2020
On September 17, the White House announced, “In commemoration of Constitution Day, President Trump will travel to the National Archives to participate in a discussion on the liberal indoctrination of America’s youth through the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and other misleading, radical ideologies with a diverse group of professors, historians, and scholars. The President will deliver remarks on his Administration’s efforts to promote a more balanced, accurate, and patriotic curricula in America’s schools.”
This hastily assembled “White House Conference on American History” took place in the Rotunda of the National Archives, although the National Archives and Records Administration had no role in organizing the program. The organizers of the event neither informed nor consulted associations of professional historians.
The American Historical Association addresses this “conference” and the president’s ill-informed observations about American history and history education reluctantly and with dismay. The event was clearly a campaign stunt, deploying the legitimating backdrop of the Rotunda, home of the nation’s founding documents, to draw distinctions between the two political parties on education policy, tie one party to civil disorder, and enable the president to explicitly attack his opponent. Like the president’s claim at Mount Rushmore two months ago that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” this political theater stokes culture wars that are meant to distract Americans from other, more pressing current issues. The AHA only reluctantly gives air to such distraction; we are not interested in inflating a brouhaha that is a mere sideshow to the many perils facing our nation at this moment.
Past generations of historians participated in promoting a mythical view of the United States. Missing from this conventional narrative were essential themes that we now recognize as central to a complete understanding of our nation’s past. As scholars, we locate and evaluate evidence, which we use to craft stories about the past that are inclusive and able to withstand critical scrutiny. In the process, we engage in lively and at times heated conversations with each other about the meaning of evidence and ways to interpret it. As teachers, we encourage our students to question conventional wisdom as well as their own assumptions, but always with an emphasis on evidence. It is not appropriate for us to censor ourselves or our students when it comes to discussing past events and developments. To purge history of its unsavory elements and full complexity would be a disservice to history as a discipline and the nation, and in the process would render a rich, fascinating story dull and uninspiring.
The AHA deplores the use of history and history education at all grade levels and other contexts to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage. Healing those divisions requires an understanding of history and an appreciation for the persistent struggles of Americans to hold the nation accountable for falling short of its lofty ideals. To learn from our history we must confront it, understand it in all its messy complexity, and take responsibility as much for our failures as our accomplishments.
The following organizations have cosigned this statement:
African American Intellectual History Society
Agricultural History Society
Alcohol and Drugs History Society
American Anthropological Association
American Folklore Society
American Journalism Historians Association
American Society for Environmental History
American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies
American Sociological Association
American Studies Association
Association for Asian Studies
Association of University Presses
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians
Chinese Historians in United States
Committee on LGBT History
Conference on Asian History
Conference on Latin American History
Forum on Early-Modern Empires and Global Interactions
French Colonial Historical Society
Immigration and Ethnic History Society
International Center of Medieval Art
John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
Massachusetts Historical Society
Medieval Academy of America
Modern Greek Studies Association
Modern Language Association
National Council for the Social Studies
North American Conference on British Studies
Organization of American Historians
Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association
Phi Beta Kappa Society
Radical History Journal
Shakespeare Association of America
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History
Society for French Historical Studies
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender
Society for U.S. Intellectual History
Society of American Historians
Society of Automotive Historians
Society of Civil War Historians
Sociologists for Women in Society
Southern Historical Association
Urban History Association
Western History Association Council
World History Association
By Ben Jacobs
SEPT. 27, 2020
President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Joe Biden, but his rhetoric escalated last week, only 40 days before the presidential election. On Thursday, Trump expressed his skepticism that the election would be “honest” after initially saying “we’ll see what happens” when asked a day earlier if he would accept the results in November.
While Trump made similar remarks on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, he was not then the incumbent president with all the powers of the executive branch at his disposal. Last week’s comments provoked guarded critiques from Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill who often literally subtweeted him, sharing statements on social media that did not mention Trump by name.
The reaction couldn’t have been more different from leading scholars and historians who study countries that have fallen into dictatorship. A half-dozen prominent academic figures interviewed by Intelligencer warned of extreme danger for the country and analogized the United States right now to Eastern European and Latin American countries that faced a breakdown of the democratic order and sometimes plunged into autocracy as a result. Even so, they cautioned that analogies are only so useful given the unprecedented nature of events in the United States.
Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, the co-author of the book How Democracies Die, noted the chance of “an outright stolen election and Trump refusing to give up power … is quite low.” But he noted “the chances of a serious crisis are probably 50-50 at this point. Particularly given that there is a good chance even though Biden is ahead [in polls], given the distribution of voting on election night that Trump could either be tied or ahead.” He added that “the one thing I’m confident about that Trump will cry fraud, so I think there is a pretty good chance of a serious crisis on Election Night that will make Florida in 2000 look like a walk in the park.”
But while Levitsky conceded, “I don’t think fascism is around the corner … we’re not headed for 20 years of a Trump dictatorship,” other experts were more concerned.
“It’s hard for me as an historian to think of a coup d’état as well telegraphed in advance,” warned Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale and a scholar of Eastern Europe’s blood-soaked history.
Snyder noted that Trump’s repeated comments dismissing the legitimacy of the election “make it clear to us that he wants to stay in power illegally.” In Snyder’s view, this is “characteristic of an authoritarian or pre-authoritarian situation.” He said that there will likely be a power struggle after the election unless the Democrats win decisively. He analogized the situation to Serbia in 2000 where the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic knew “that it had to win by at least ten points … by some kind of margin that looks big.” But the opposition didn’t win by a big margin — and it took mass demonstrations labeled “the Bulldozer Revolution” and the threat of a military coup for Milosevic to finally yield power.
With Trump under apparent criminal investigation, Snyder saw Trump in “a classic authoritarian position. He has to win for its own sake, he doesn’t want to go to prison.”
“He knows he’s broken lots of laws and wants to die in his own bed.”
There was also debate about how much of the danger is due to Trump’s unique personality and how much is about institutional rot within the United States. Valerie Bunce, a political scientist at Cornell, said “as someone focused on institutions, all democracies have flawed institutional designs and there are always tradeoffs.”
Scholars repeatedly pointed to the Electoral College as one such flaw that has led the loser of the popular vote to win the White House twice this century. A repeat of this scenario is a particular danger in the view of Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University and co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics. “Eventually, at some point people are no longer going to see the system as legitimate and that is a serious concern,” he said.
On top of these flaws is the extreme level of political polarization in the United States. Daniel Ziblatt, a political science professor at Harvard and the co-author of How Democracies Die with Levitsky, compared the level of polarization to what happened in Chile in the early 1970s. Chile “had been Latin America’s most stable democracy throughout the 20th century,” he said, but polarization beginning in the early 1960s led to the election of leftist President Salvador Allende — which was followed by a bloody military coup in 1973 that killed him and installed right-wing general Augusto Pinochet, whose brutal dictatorship lasted for the next two decades.
While no one predicted the U.S. was headed for a junta or civil war, Cornell’s Bunce said extreme polarization “makes people more and more afraid of the other party taking power” and can lead to scary results if they view that “the alternative to their preference is truly horrific.”
Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican Party also prompted scholars to point to parallels abroad. The best example, according to Bunce, was Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, who remade the Fidesz political party into the standard-bearer for his vision of “illiberal democracy.” But Bunce also noted that Orban, who has drawn praise from Trump and many in the his inner circle, had structural advantages that Trump does not. In particular, the federal structure of the U.S. means a lot of power is out of Trump’s hands, according to Andrew Behrendt, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology who focuses on Hungarian history. What’s more, Democrats have provided a far more organized opposition to Trump than what Behrendt described as the “feckless and splintered” opponents Orban faced.
Domestic parallels were harder to come by. Sean Wilentz, an award-winning historian at Princeton University, thought the “the great parallel” was the election of 1860 where slaveholders were not willing to accept any Republican president and seceded when Abraham Lincoln was elected. Granted, Wilentz said the “ideological issues today were not quite as sharp,” and the country is not as purely sectional — after all, “Austin would have to secede from Texas.”
He also dismissed comparisons to the election of 1876, which constitutional scholars have repeatedly cited in recent months as the only time a disputed presidential election plunged the United States into political chaos. In that case, election returns from four states were disputed and the outcome was not resolved until the eve of the inauguration with a grand compromise where Democrats conceded — effectively in return for Republicans ending Reconstruction in the South. “It was a constitutional crisis, no question,” said Wilentz, but the presidential winner, “Rutherford B. Hayes was not a would-be authoritarian.”
The question that scholars struggled with most was how bad things could get today.
Tucker, the NYU professor, stressed that “where democracy is truly crumbling, opposition party candidates get arrested and don’t get approved to be on the ballot … and the entire state marshals its resources to get its incumbent candidates reelected.” That is what is now happening in Belarus, where dictator Alexander Lukashenko presided over a transparently fraudulent election in August that has led to hundreds of thousands of people marching for his ouster.
Indeed, comparisons only go so far. As Levitsky put it, “It’s hard to come up with parallels because there are so few cases of established stable democracies in wealthy countries that have had a crisis like this.”
The ultimate specter for those who study the decline of democracy is, of course, Germany and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Zilblatt said he once laughed off comparisons of the U.S. to the Weimar Republic, noting Germany in the early 1930s “had a major economic crisis and the trauma of millions of people dead in World War I.” However, while it’s not exactly the same, Zilblatt said Americans are nevertheless “suffering economically and from the trauma of death and being isolated” amid a recession and a pandemic that has left over 200,000 dead barely a month before Election Day.
Obviously, neither Hitler nor fascism is coming around the corner in the United States. But, the fact that such a comparison can even be considered by a serious political scientist with a straight face shows how far things have degenerated.
March 16, 2020
Trump’s presidency is failing rapidly. Like others before him, modern American presidents fail when they cannot master or comprehend the government that they inherit. This is a hard concept to grasp in an age when non-stop media coverage leads us to focus on the president’s communication skills and when presidents themselves value spin more than expertise. But in the end, presidential failure is about reality, not words—no matter how lofty and inspiring or how crude and insulting.
Contemporary presidents are especially prone to mistaking spin for reality for several reasons. First of all, they are nominated not by other elected officials who have some sense of what it takes to govern, but by activists and party electorates who value inspiration and entertainment. Second, the importance of mass communication leads presidents to believe that the words and activities that got them into office can work once they are in office: more rallies, more speeches, more tweets, and more television advertising.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
Presidential scholars have been aware of the disjuncture between campaigning and governing for some time now. More than a decade ago, Sam Kernell wrote a book called Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership (CQ Press, 2007), in which he showed that beginning with President Kennedy, modern presidents spent a great deal more time on minor presidential addresses and on domestic and international travel than their predecessors. All this communication, he argued, came at the expense of actual governing. Later on, another presidential scholar, George C. Edwards III, writing in Overreach, Leadership in the Obama Presidency (Princeton University Press, 2012) argued that Obama thought he could go directly to the public to get support for his programs, an approach that placed communication over negotiation and that resulted in a stunning midterm loss for his party.
Reality still matters, and spin has its limits—even in an era of social media.
As long as things are going okay for most people, Americans tolerate a president’s verbal gymnastics. But when people are in trouble, even the most ardent government haters ask that famous question: “Where’s the government?” And for most Americans, the president is the government. Following the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the collateral damage to the presidency of George W. Bush was extensive. His popularity never recovered and his second-term agenda, including bold changes to Social Security, was destroyed. Nearly a decade later when President Obama rolled out his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, the hugely embarrassing crashing of the computer systems meant to implement the act increased Republican opposition to it and undermined public confidence in the government’s ability to implement important executive actions.
Trump’s failures during the coronavirus pandemic run the gamut from the rhetorical to the organizational. Every time the president speaks he seems to add to the fear and chaos surrounding the situation: telling Americans it was not serious by asserting his “hunches” about data, assuring people that everyone would be tested even when there were very few tests available, telling people that we are very close to a vaccine when it is anywhere from 12 to 18 months away, mistakenly asserting that goods as well as people from Europe would be forbidden from entering the United States, and announcing that Google had a website for testing while the initiative was merely an unimplemented idea, were just a few of his televised gaffes. After every presidential statement, “clarifications” were needed. Trump has the unique distinction of giving a national address meant to calm the country that had the effect of taking the stock market down over 1,000 points.
We have come to expect verbal imprecision and outright lies from this president, but that is more easily corrected on less momentous developments. When there is fundamental incompetence on matters of tremendous importance, voters punish poor results. And this is where Trump’s actions on the coronavirus have gone far off target. One of the most glaring deficiencies of his administration has been the failure to have enough tests available to identify those infected and to screen others for possible exposure. South Korea, a country a fraction of the size of the United States, is testing thousands more people a day than the United States. The failure to produce tests quickly will go down as one of the biggest failures in the overall handling of this disease because it prevented authorities from understanding the scope of the pandemic and therefore made it difficult for them to undertake appropriate steps to mitigate its spread. Other countries had tests and now state governments are rapidly rolling out their own tests after the CDC belatedly removed regulatory barriers. Even the nation’s chief infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, has admitted that testing is a major failure—a statement that is most certainly not one of the president’s talking points.
In this and other areas, Trump has failed to learn from the failures of his predecessors. When President Ronald Reagan signed into law the fundamental restructuring of the military known as the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, he did this knowing that he did not want a military fiasco on his watch like the failed Iranian rescue mission that did in Jimmy Carter’s presidency. And following the total breakdown in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, President Barack Obama made sure his FEMA director was an experienced state emergency management director. He knew that poor performance during natural disasters would doom his presidency.
During the Obama Administration, the White House dealt with a precursor of the coronavirus: the Ebola virus. While the scrambling eventually worked out thanks to decisive executive office leadership, it illustrated that pandemics were a fundamental national security threat. They created the Global Health Security Team in the National Security Council to prepare. In May of 2018, Trump disbanded the team allegedly because he never thought pandemics would happen and because “I’m a business person. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.” Trump’s hurried justification for abandoning a unit (that was well short of thousands) showed Trump’s limited understanding of why the government is different from a business—it is in the business of preparing for low-probability events. For instance, the United States military spends billions every year preparing for wars all over the globe and even in outer space that may never take place. The art of presidential leadership is anticipating major problems and coming up with plans to mitigate them.
In addition to learning from past administrations, presidents need the ability to anticipate reactions to their actions. The Trump administration has been especially inept on this dimension from the beginning. The first big executive order he issued, largely banning Muslims from coming to America, was so ill-conceived that chaos broke out in airports around the world as people with green cards to work in America and Muslims who had assisted U.S. military forces in Iraq were initially turned away. Airport chaos seems to be a specialty of the Trump administration. It reappeared this past weekend, as Americans came home from Europe in huge numbers following Trump’s announcement to close off travelers from Europe and screen returning Americans. When travelers arrived, they found vastly inadequate staffing at airports and were thus forced into the very situation medical authorities were warning against: large crowds being hoarded into small spaces with constant, close contact.
Trump has also failed to fill top government positions and turnover is far higher than in any other recent administration, as Katherine Tenpas has tracked on these pages. The absence of expertise in top government jobs is especially dangerous during emergencies. Also, when positions are filled they have not necessarily gone to the strongest candidates. Take for instance leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s top agency for infectious diseases. Dr. Robert Redfield’s appointment was opposed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which warned the administration that Redfield lacked a public health background and that he was under investigation for scientific misconduct.
Modern presidents inherit an enormous enterprise called the federal government that employs about the same number of people as the 6 largest U.S. companies and has a combined annual revenue that is larger than the combined revenues of the top 16 companies in the Fortune 500. No wonder modern presidents have had trouble managing this enterprise—in an organization this big, something is always going right and something is always going wrong. A president who understands what’s going right can call on deep wells of expertise to protect himself from the failures that will inevitably be attributed to him. And on the flip side, a president who is aware of what’s going wrong can take corrective actions and try to stave off the kinds of bureaucratic meltdowns that will also be attributed to him.
As Oval Office leadership fails while the pandemic spreads, governors, mayors, university presidents, religious leaders, business executives, and health providers are stepping into the leadership vacuum that has been the Trump presidency. They have sent workers home to telework, announced their own social distancing rules, and developed their steps to limit the spread of the pandemic. This tragedy teaches us many things about preparedness and public health, but it also warns us about the dangers of presidents who are manifestly unprepared to govern.
 These were named after Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Congressman William Nichols (D-Ala.) and established a new era of joint activity and preparation among the branches of the United States military.
 Elaine C. Kamarck, Why Presidents Fail and How they Can Succeed Again, Brookings Institution Press, 2016, page 123.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on American electoral politics and government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD nations, and developing countries. She focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns. Kamarck is the author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates” and “Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again.” She is also the author of “How Change Happens—or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy” and “The End of Government-As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work.”