There’s Precedent for All of This Except Everything

Lives of the Presidents, Cover

Donald Trump will put all his business dealings in a blind trust. Except it’s not a blind trust, because it will be run by his kids. Not to worry. It’s happened before and America was fine. Lyndon Johnson put his money and the management of his radio station in a blind trust that he controlled obsessively. It wasn’t blind. It was a clear conflict of interest. Donald Trump is also a pathological liar. And hey, so was Lyndon Johnson. America was fine. Well, minus Vietnam.

So there’s a huge potential for corruption in the coming administration, but that’s not out of bounds, is it? Think of Ulysses Grant! Think of Harding, Nixon, George W. Bush. Sure it’s infuriating if it comes to pass, but we’ve been there before. Nothing new.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Populist, self-made man with a temper.

Donald Trump has a temper and is railing against the establishment. Welcome back, Andrew Jackson!

Donald Trump is seeking Top Secret clearance for his son. Par for the course, it’s a family business. John F. Kennedy made his brother Attorney General. Never a problem.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson. Shady dealings.

Donald Trump will be chosen by the Electoral College despite not winning the popular vote. Don’t look back too much, that’s 2000 all over again!

Donald Trump is keeping a list of enemies and wants to sue journalists he doesn’t like. His Attorney General in waiting has said that there are laws that don’t apply to the president. Not a good look on a leader, I admit, but at worst that’s comparable to Nixon. Sure, Nixon had to step down, but that was just because the media overreacted.

The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Donald Trump and is planning to hold a victory rally for him. I know, this looks bad, but remember that Woodrow Wilson was a true progressive and he had “Birth of a Nation” screened at the White House and loved it.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson. No distancing from the KKK.

And all those people protesting in the streets before Donald Trump even takes office? People protested against George W. Bush, and, well before that, against Lincoln. So we’ve seen this, too. (Don’t mention the wars.)

Donald Trump wants to decrease American involvement abroad. Sensible, I mean, George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and you surely can’t go wrong following George Washington.

And he wants to hold rallies after he’s sworn in, Donald Trump. Surely that can be accommodated. Obama held big rallies. Not really all that often after he was sworn in, but hey, there’s precedent for a popular speaker in the sitting president!

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon. Lashing out against journalists.

Donald Trump uses Twitter for hot takes and opinions. Why, certainly other presidents had a knack for the media of their age! Need I say more than “fireside chats”? Franklin Roosevelt knew how to make radio work for him!

Donald Trump is unprepared for the office because he has never been elected to a government office before. But neither had Dwight D. Eisenhower, and let me tell you, he was pretty great.

Donald Trump has said racist things. Meh. Presidents said racist things quite often until the 1960s, if not in public. This should not trouble you now.

And that Donald Trump isn’t interested all that much in governing, come on! Neither was George W. Bush! Reagan had to be shown little movies or he would lose interest.

So there really is nothing special about this unremarkable President-elect.

Except all of the above.

It’s not the same because we have never seen this combined in one man before. Because Donald Trump’s business interests are more extensive than those of any other president before him. Because questioning American support abroad is not the same in the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the republic. Because his popular vote loss is larger than the margins some presidents won while actually winning the presidency. Because his unpreparedness is not just the result of him never having been elected for anything before, but also because he was never appointed to any political office or held a military command. Because not distancing yourself from the KKK is not the same in 2016 as it was a hundred years ago.

Because if you put things together that all have been done before, you have something that has never been done before. You have uncharted waters when the stakes could not be higher.

But sure, nothing to see here. Move along.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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