How Will History Judge Trump?

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he talks to journalists who are members of the White house travel pool on board Air Force One during his flight to Palm Beach, Florida while over South Carolina

This is not the first time a newly elected president has caused anxiety at the start of his mandate.

November-December 2017

“THERE ARE three times,” wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions, “a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.” Each is needed for contextual understanding, but gaps between them are not readily apparent. As History meanders, one moment at a time, reality catches up slowly, one step at a time—“crabwise,” as the postwar German novelist Günter Grass wrote.

The Trump moment grew out of a confluence of circumstances shaped by luck, will, resilience, defiance and skills (not to mention a significant assist from Russia). There was an opportunity in 2016, and Donald J. Trump seized it. The same could be said of the Obama moment eight years earlier, although it responded to a mix that was clearly different and produced a more convincing outcome. Only eight days after his inauguration, Trump faced majority disapproval in Gallup public-opinion polls: George W. Bush and Barack Obama took 1,205 and 936 days to reach the same point. History’s final verdict on both former presidents is still pending, but what is already said of Trump carries tones of finality: an end, à la Watergate, but on the quick and more grim.

Are we then premature in assessing with such certainty a presidency that is still in its infancy? And what is the effect of this heteroclite moment on the world, at a time of deepening global disorder? Can a nation whose presidential leadership is question at home still offer decisive leadership to other nations?

As the Trump moment unfolds, there is a risk that critical security issues are neglected, distorted or damaged—not only because of what Trump does and says about them, but also because of what his critics say and do about him. Echoes of a recent past: there was too much Vietnam for the postwar generation of the 1960s, which feared more Vietnams too readily; there was too much Nixon in the 1970s for a post-Vietnam generation, which imagined a declining America far too early; there was too much Reagan in the 1980s, for a post–Cold War generation that later embraced assertive preponderance as a shortcut to peace; and so forth, including too much globalization in the 1990s, too much 9/11 in the 2000s and too much Iraq in the 2010s. Now, there is too much Trump. He is the issue, he has become “our” obsession and “we” are his—alleged fake experts, fake reporters, fake voters and fake facts.

But enough: there is much less in Trump than in America, and there is much more to America than Trump. No moment, whatever its frustrations and even its aberrations, should distract from such an elementary truth. Admittedly, time makes it harder to remember the battles against History that ensued when making peace with wartime enemies, rethinking postwar Europe, testing a fragile institutional order on a newly decolonized world, launching a Great Society for an ever more perfect union, defeating evil ideologies—and more. Coming in the wake of half a century of suicidal wars, these were all distinctly American achievements that helped remake half the world for the better, and they were not inevitable until they happened. At last, now that we know, a high passing grade for the U.S. role in the world should come easily—for America to be great was never the issue. I am an American, Casablanca born, and it is in Casablanca the movie that Humphrey Bogart said it best: “Play it again, Sam,” and keep playing it. This is still the best way to bend History to the right side of Humanity.

And yet, having stumbled into a Trump moment aimed at making America great again, what if History now fails to understand which side America is on? What if Americans, who expect History to serve them no less than they service it, object to its direction and insist on a different course? Leadership always matters, whether that of the president at home or that of America abroad. Now, in a moment of transition at home and mutation abroad, it matters more than ever.

THIS IS not the first time a newly elected president has caused anxiety at the start of his mandate. A crisis of apprenticeship is a rite of passage. Like each of his postwar predecessors, Trump is painfully discovering, in his own words, that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Truman, who came to power abruptly after Roosevelt left too suddenly, had a tough start too; so did Eisenhower, who lacked political experience, and Kennedy, a bit too tender, and Johnson, too southern, and Nixon, too deceitful, and Ford, too transient, and Carter, too righteous, and Reagan, too Hollywood. Whatever the case, each president pledged a new beginning but delivered a false start instead, more or less early—like Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna summit, Clinton in Somalia and Bosnia, Bush 43 after 9/11, and Obama over Afghanistan—until they sought a reset of sorts, which often made changes within each presidency more significant than from one president to the next.

After their reelections, Truman and Reagan seized their second chances especially well. The former put in place an institutional order that enabled the latter to conclude the Cold War successfully, with significant contributions from every president who came between them. Since the Cold War, however, expectations of presidential greatness have met with disappointment. Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush or Barack Obama left a legacy that their partisan successors proved willing to pursue, or able to complete. Only Reagan got the “third term” he needed, with Bush 41 in November 1988. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat was, therefore, Obama’s loss as well, even though it failed to produce a convincing or clean victory for her opponent.

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