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

For Trump to recover from his false start as well is, to say the least, unlikely. For Truman and those who followed him, the presidency assumed an alphabet of its own—A for accountability, B for balance, C for convictions, D for discipline, E for experience and so forth. At first, some presidents lacked one or more of these features. But none ever came to office without any, and all eventually acquired much of what they lacked along the way. Just think of the distance from Reagan to Reagan, a presidential icon who initially struggled with the demands of an office for which he at first seemed ill prepared. But Trump is no Reagan, and what made him a surprisingly successful candidate in 2016 is making him a dangerously ineffective president in 2017, with neither “the stability nor some of the competence” required of presidents, concluded Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, just over two hundred days into a presidency that his party hopes will last eight years. This is not a matter of “letting Reagan be Reagan,” but rather of not letting Trump be Trump.

As the presidential clock keeps moving, Trump is increasingly heard as an alien, dixit Tom Friedman, far from established norms of democratic leadership but dangerously close to crossing the constitutional red lines—and ill suited for the complex alphabet of multilateral governance, the political arithmetic of check and balance, the rigidities of institutional discipline, and the rigors of democratic accountability. Abroad, he is widely viewed as a historical and cultural stranger who complains of the world’s “theft of America’s prosperity” and the “massive sums of money” that must be returned to the United States for services previously rendered. But it is not so easy to rectify the monetary, let alone the geopolitical, balance sheet. And moving more deeply into the twenty-first century, his image of “America First” is that of a geopolitical pagan who resurrects an unsatisfying self-image of the nation as one governed by opportunities and expediencies of all kinds, and guided by “our security interests above all other considerations.”

BUT WAIT: there is the “Scottish verdict” which Dean Acheson used to invoke: “Not proven yet.” Are the objections to the president overstated, coming too late for the 2016 election or too soon after his inauguration? Could we be all wrong—as we were, perhaps, about Iraq and Putin and the Arab Spring and Syria and North Korea and Brexit and all kinds of other things—now about Trump, not so much over who he is and says, but over what he wants and does? There is no greater “fake” than a claim made with too much certainty. What if our reaction is based on preconceived ideas, partisan resentment, intellectual arrogance and misplaced righteousness, enhanced with secondhand bits of information hurriedly assembled?

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” It lingers with whatever is remembered after every mistake has been forgotten, forgiven or not. After Sen. John Kerry became secretary of state, he confessed to having been “ill advised” and even “stupid” on many of his national-security “no” votes, including the development and deployment of new weapons systems in the 1980s and the decision to repel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. The torch had been passed, but Kerry clearly did not want to torch the past. Besides, dissent, honorably expressed, is an avenue to power, not a substitute for it. Although Kerry’s confession was to his credit, would he have been the success he became had he spoken or voted otherwise, from Vietnam to Iraq? Bush’s late turnaround after the 2006 midterm elections was born out of the evidence of failure. That is the challenge: when facts change, you’d better change as well. Give Bush credit, therefore, for having done just that: the military surge he dared order then was politically courageous and strategically audacious—and universally criticized.

Knowing what we know now does not justify a full pardon for Bush 43, but he did enough to earn an early parole at the very least. What critics may say at any point in time is of no consequence to History, which remembers little of those who angrily questioned Eisenhower in Hungary, Kennedy in Cuba, Johnson in Czechoslovakia, Nixon in Cambodia, Carter in Afghanistan and Reagan in Lebanon. The Cold War might have turned out differently if any U.S. president had done what he was criticized for not doing, but who can say that the difference would not have been for the worse?

History likes to take its time, and its verdict comes slowly and erratically. Knowing what will be said of Obama’s determination to “change the playbook” remains unknown. Meantime, the tragedy is that the case against each president is first adjudicated by his successor, seemingly acting as his historical executor—Eisenhower for Truman, Kennedy for Eisenhower, or Carter for Nixon—just as, now, Trump does for Obama. But no such verdict is ever final. History relies on its own code of justice: it must clean the rot inevitably left behind before it can tell, and even then, it is rarely pour toujours.