Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the best historical comparisons for Clinton and Trump as potential Presidents. For Clinton, I think it’s clear that she’d fit right into the legacy of Bill and Barack–the expected center-left progress characterized by a lot of little policy achievements, ordinary failures, and one or two big signature moves. At worst, I see her as someone like Jimmy Carter, well meaning and competent but stymied by forces outside the President’s control. At best, the guy who comes to mind is Teddy Roosevelt: Too hawkish (though, like her, also a better diplomat than he often gets credit for) and hilariously wonkish (he was so into managing everything that he got involved in arguments about new rules for football and the spelling of words in English), but a tireless worker, an advocate for fair play, and a brilliant politician and institutional architect.
For Trump, the ceiling and floor are somewhat difficult to imagine. For the former I guess I can see a case for a Coolidge-like Presidency, where his utter inattention allows things to just sort of chug along while people of color are the victims of constant terrorist violence and the economy careens toward the Great Depression. At worst I can see him incorporating a sort of greatest-hits of the worst things Presidents have ever done–Watergate is a nice model for his paranoia about election rigging; Wilson’s casual stance toward the re-emergence of the KKK is basically already underway at Trump Campaign headquarters; the Alien & Sedition Acts look like the basis for his position on freedom of the press and libel laws; Harding’s notorious corruption is low-hanging fruit for a guy who literally goes on trial for fraud later this month; and given Trump’s cavalier stance on nuclear weapons, he could end everything by revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis, except this time swapping out Robert F. Kennedy for Donald Trump, Jr.
If I had to tie Trump to just one President, though, I think I’d go with Andrew Jackson: A populist who combined violent racism with distrust of elites, financiers, and government involvement in the economy. The latter stuff led Jackson to cancel the central bank charter in the U.S. and generally issue policies now thought to have contributed to the Panic of 1837, one of the worst economic recessions in American history. The violent racism, of course, led to the Indian Removal Act, which in turn led to the Trail of Tears.
These kinds of things seem like they’re in play in a Trump Presidency. He rails against money in politics, corrupt insiders, and “this Janet Yellen of the Fed” in particular. It’s easy to imagine him deploying his angry incomprehension of economics to put his thumb on the scales (he has basically indicated that he would like to do this) and essentially wage a destructive war against the modern economy. Certainly his utterly indefensible use of anti-Semitism is partly about its historical role as the socialism of idiots. But it also points to Trump’s real campaign emphasis, the racism. He has based his career on a sort of modern-day Mexican Removal Act, with a Muslim ban thrown in for good measure. It’s important not to be too haphazard with a comparison like that; the Trail of Tears was a human catastrophe, an ethnic cleansing that killed thousands. I don’t think Trump is going to march immigrants through the snow until they die. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he advocates ethnic cleansing—the definition of the term varies depending on where you look, but it’s basically the removal of an ethnic or religious group from a territory with the aim of making it ethnically homogenous.1 Trump does not explicitly advocate for the violence that often accompanies ethnic cleansing, but the purging, deportations, and vision of purity are right in his wheelhouse, and on a scale that our country has not seen in decades (perhaps a scale large enough that, practically, it would require Internment Camps, along the models pioneered by enthusiastic Trump supporter Joe Arpaio, thus checking off another of our Worst Hits).
I think America would survive a Trump Presidency; we survived Jackson’s, and that was in an era where a national collapse was much more thinkable than it is now. But I also think it would do lasting, terrible damage, to the white people duped by a man who understands their problems even less than he cares about them, and even worse to the people of color who would experience the worst of a history most of us thought we were done repeating. I used to wonder how on earth we still had Jackson on our money, given all that he did. I chalked it up to some combination of historical ignorance and apathy. I still think it was that—but, apparently, for a lot of people it was also a kind of aspiration.
1. It’s kind of chilling, when you read different definitions of the term “ethnic cleansing”, how closely they echo Trump’s ideas. On Wikipedia, it’s “the systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.” The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it, even more aptly, “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.” In the Oxford English Dictionary (that link is behind a paywall), it’s “The purging, by mass expulsion or killing, of one ethnic or religious group by another, esp. from an area of former cohabitation.” Wikipedia has some more legal definitions here. It’s fair to say that Trump is not explicitly calling for terrorist violence, but he does favor ethnically and religiously targeted mass expulsions of people (especially Mexicans and Muslims), and I think it’s pretty clear that this is based on the misguided dream of homogeneous American whiteness that underlies his “Make America Great Again” slogan.↩