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No, Donald Trump Is Not Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan

No, Donald Trump Is Not Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan

Trumps is successfully and actively pursuing his own agenda, unlike those two previous U.S. Presidents.

The treatment of Trump’s foreign policy in the July-August issue of The National Interest by Dimitri K. Simes and Dov S. Zakheim were remarkably different. Mr. Simes offered thoughtful analysis with valuable insights into the current president’s thinking, whereas Mr. Zakheim undertook an almost inexpressibly implausible effort to find some resemblance between President Trump and his distant and relatively undistinguished predecessors, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. Mr. Simes noted that President Trump sees the possibility of settling differences with Russia, which seems to be based on acknowledging that country’s repossession of the Crimea—which was only awarded to Ukraine by the Ukrainian Khrushchev, in 1955—in return for Russia desisting in its incursions in Ukraine. Furthermore, Mr. Simes believes Trump sees a potential partition of Syria between sponsored groups with Assad retaining half the country, especially with his Alawites, while the western-supported secular factions co-exist in their cantons. The combined opposition to ISIS and other theocratic extremists continues, and refugees will eventually be encouraged to return with prospects of relative calm and more generous international assistance. No more of the former Soviet republics are likely to be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but nor will they be forcefully reintegrated into the Russian state or orbit. Though not mentioned, there would be reciprocal pledges of political non-intervention. Sanctions, in these circumstances, could be relaxed in stages.

Though Mr. Simes did not put it in precisely these terms, Russia, with a GDP smaller than Canada's and serious social, economic, and demographic problems, though a great and distinguished nationality and civilization, is not a threat or rival to the United States, despite the frenzied efforts of the American Democrats to represent it as one. The emerging rival to the United States, replacing the Soviet Union and before it, Nazi Germany, is China. This is the American consensus agreed before domestic political skullduggery and esoterica distracted the Democrats and their echo chamber in the national political media, as they desperately searched for a no-fault explanation for their 2016 electoral defeat. The real danger Russia could present—though, again, Mr. Simes isn't explicit about this—is that if the United States rebuffs Russia too vigorously, it will have the effect of driving Russian leader Vladimir Putin into the arms of the Chinese, where the mischief and damage Russia could do would be seriously escalated. Dimitri Simes recognizes the astute political instincts of President Trump and his grasp of the ambitions and vulnerabilities of statesmen with whom he deals—however clouded Trump's reflections may be at times with polemical flourishes and indiscretions.

Mr. Zakheim benefits from no such insight. All he sees in Trump is bluster, philistinism, reaction, xenophobia, and the bumbling of the ancient, isolationist, unworldly American humbug and, literally, Know Nothing. This was the popular name for the anti-immigration American Party that Millard Fillmore, as a rejected and accidental ex-president, shamefully led in 1856, splitting the anti-Democratic vote with the newly founded Republicans and electing a doughface (slavery-appeaser) Democrat for the last time, James Buchanan. President Fillmore was elected vice president with General Zachary Taylor, as Mr. Zakheim writes, and succeeded on Taylor’s death in 1850. He had been a Whig senator from upstate New York and was a follower of Henry Clay, Whig leader in the Congress and three times candidate for president, and Fillmore naturally supported the Compromise of 1850 which Clay, Daniel Webster (the other great Whig), and Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, in particular, worked out. It restricted slavery’s expansion geographically and provided for relentless hunting down of fugitive slaves, of whom more than 40,000 had fled to Canada and were beyond retrieval. It was a justifiable measure at the time, as it bought the Union another decade before the Civil War, in which the free states grew much more quickly than the South, and in which the Republican Party was founded out of the detritus of the Whigs and the growing abolitionist faction, and brought forward Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate. Fillmore was an unpretentious little man, and he made himself the figurehead for a party of rednecks who tried to make hostility to foreign immigration and the Roman Catholic Church a substitute for dissent over slavery.

It was a time of great strains on the traditional parties. Taylor and Fillmore were only elected when former President van Buren, disgruntled at not being nominated for the third time, ran as an anti-slavery Democrat. Fillmore’s third-party candidacy secured Buchanan’s election, and Lincoln was elected in 1860 over three other national candidates. To compare Fillmore’s presidency to that of Donald Trump, who became only the second person in American history to win the nomination of a major party without ever having sought or held any public office, elected or appointed, or a military command (Wendell Willkie in 1940 was the only other one), is absurd. And Trump is the only such person to be elected president. He is conducting a partial revolution against the elites of both parties, not just clinging to the furniture and appeasing anyone with a loud voice, as Fillmore and Buchanan did.

Buchanan was only nominated because the Democrats could not unite behind either a pro-slavery southerner of greater stature or behind Douglas, who was forced by Lincoln in the senatorial election of 1858 to admit he had a distaste for slavery that was unacceptable to the South. He had no authority from the beginning and a few days after his inauguration was overshadowed by the shameful Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that effectively declared the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 to be illegal, approved slavery everywhere in the country and found that slaves could not, in any practical terms, be emancipated. Mr. Zakheim mentions Dred Scott with appropriate contempt but persists in the absurdity of the comparison with Trump, who unlike Fillmore and Buchanan, has a very assertive personality, was anything but a compromise or fluke president, and has an ambitious and radical program that he is enacting. Buchanan was helpless against the forces tearing the Union apart and sat by passively as the Union disintegrated. His secretary of State, General Lewis Cass, (who had been deprived of election as president by Van Buren's vote-splitting in 1848), resigned in disgust at Buchanan's weakness in 1860. States were seceding each week as Lincoln's inauguration approached.

Donald Trump artfully seized control of a political party and ran an astonishingly successful campaign. He has put together, with some months of trial and error, a very talented senior administration. Additionally, he has passed one of the most comprehensive and successful tax reforms in the country's history and has made considerable progress in most of his major initiatives. For instance, Trump has reduced illegal immigration and cut the trade deficit. He has deterred the deployment of nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles by North Korea and securing greater financial participation by North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states. Finally, he has also confirmed a more conservative judiciary. Comparison of Donald Trump with these trivia question-nonentities of 150 years ago is fatuous. And it is a bit rich for someone as identified as Mr. Zakheim was with the monstrous fiasco of the Iraq War to carp that Trump is “harming America’s image in the region” (Middle East). The closest any nineteenth-century president of the United States got to the Middle East was Jefferson’s attack on the Tripoli pirates and his administration’s free trade agreement with Morocco.

It is almost scandalous that a foreign policy expert of Mr. Zakheim’s standing would compare this sometimes rather outlandish but very activist and consequential presidency with the purposeless blundering of two of the country's least successful presidents.

Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs, 2007). He is publisher emeritus of The National Interest.

Image: Reuters.