Donald Trump: a president without precedent?

Donald Trump is a one-off. This is a sentiment so often repeated that it has entered the realms of cliche. But is the cliche rooted in fact? As the 2020 race for the White House gathers pace, Mark White considers whether Trump really represents the sharpest of departures from his predecessors in the Oval Office

US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference. (Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump appears to be an American president like no other. He has attacked political opponents with a venom unmatched by his predecessors. His apparent disregard for the truth, such as when refusing to accept photographic evidence that more people attended Barack Obama’s inauguration than his own, has shocked many observers. His musings – such as his comment that it would be “interesting” to consider the injection of disinfectant as a treatment for Covid – have sometimes appeared eccentric (even though, in this case, he later claimed that he was being sarcastic).

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These are but a few examples of a brand of presidential leadership that appears unique. As one journalist put it a year into the Trump presidency: “Donald Trump was a very different kind of presidential candidate and from the moment he was inaugurated a year ago, it was clear he was going to be a very different kind of president.”

But is that true? One of the obligations of the historian is to provide perspective by putting the present in its historical context. So, as we approach the 2020 presidential election, it is important to consider the significance of Trump’s time in the White House in terms of the broader sweep of US history. Has he been a president unlike any other? Or is that assertion a lazy cliche?

When attempting to answer these questions, a good place to start is with the policies that Trump has enacted in the core domains of the economy and national defence. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he promised a major tax cut – one that, he claimed, would benefit ordinary working Americans and boost the economy. Once elected, Trump did indeed slash taxes, but in order to secure the bill’s passage through Congress he had to ensure that it was wealthy Americans and corporations that benefited most.

“The Tax Cuts are so large and so meaningful,” Trump tweeted in 2017. “This is truly a case where the results will speak for themselves, starting very soon. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” When the US economy grew in the period before the Coronavirus crisis, it was to his tax policy that Trump would assign the credit.

In the wake of his election victory, Trump also championed a vast military build-up. In response to the economic crash of 2008, and the massive increase in government debt that followed, US military spending had declined. For Trump, this was a sign of the weakening of American power under Barack Obama. So, in his first budget as president, he called for an extra $54bn for the military. The Republican-controlled Congress would ultimately provide him with a total of $700bn, even more money for defence than he requested.

Trump has continued to celebrate this military build-up. “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment,” he boasted at the start of 2020. “We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way… and without hesitation!”

To cut taxes and increase defence spending at the same time had clear fiscal implications: America’s national debt would surely skyrocket. That is precisely what happened. By late 2019, Trump had added $3tn to the national debt, despite promising in 2016 to eliminate that debt within eight years.

Tax cuts, spending hikes

Trump has revelled in his image as a sharp break from what had gone before. Yet in cutting taxes, ordering a huge hike in military spending, and overseeing a large increase in the national debt, he was, in fact, singing from the same hymn sheet as several recent presidents – among them Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who occupied the Oval Office from 1981–89, had changed the very meaning of conservatism. Previous Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower would have been appalled, indeed morally outraged, at the notion of piling up debt for future generations. Reagan, however, both cut taxes and bolstered military spending – with inevitable implications for the national debt.

In terms of core economic and defence policies, Trump’s presidency is not so unprecedented as some would have us believe

Two decades later, another Republican, George W Bush, would follow a similar path. But that recipe of military escalation and tax cuts was not confined to conservative presidents. In the early 1960s, John F Kennedy, a Democrat, oversaw what was at the time the largest increase in US military spending in peacetime history, accompanied by the introduction of legislation to cut taxes (which passed after his death). So, in terms of core economic and defence policies at least, Trump’s presidency is not so unprecedented as some would have us believe.

Another way in which the 45th president has echoed his antecedents is the manner in which he has sought to communicate his ideas to the American people: direct and unfiltered, above all side-stepping the media whenever possible.

Trump’s communication tool of choice is, as everyone knows, Twitter. He began tweeting in 2009, and initially used the platform infrequently. But once he grasped the power of the new social media he began to tweet incessantly. And, before long, he was using Twitter to mock opponents relentlessly, attacking everyone from “Lightweight Marco Rubio” to “Crooked Hillary” Clinton.

Once in office there was speculation that Trump would stop tweeting, as it might be perceived as gauche and unpresidential. The new president, though, had no intention of relinquishing the tool that had won him the White House. “My use of social media is not Presidential,” he argued, “it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” He told British Conservative MP Michael Gove that he thought it was important to continue to communicate with Americans via Twitter because the press was so dishonest in its coverage of him.

At the time of writing, Trump has more than 80 million Twitter followers. What he says to them on a daily basis is unfiltered by critical journalists. Moreover, Trump’s use of social media has allowed him to influence the news cycle on US television networks: he knows that if he sends a controversial tweet then the TV news will inevitably report it. Conservatives have long believed that the traditional media has a pro-Democratic bias; Trump’s torrent of tweets has, in their eyes, enabled him to counteract that bias.

Frequently shocking

While the content of Trump’s tweets is frequently shocking – for example, telling a group of liberal Democratic Congresswomen (all but one of whom were born in the United States) to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” – the rationale behind his use of Twitter does have presidential precedent. One such precedent can be found in the figure of Franklin Roosevelt, who sought to circumvent the press in the 1930s by addressing the people via radio. At the time of the Great Depression, Roosevelt used his ‘fireside chats’ to explain his New Deal policies to Americans as they sat in their living rooms.

John F Kennedy, too, side-stepped the media by employing televised press conferences. As he had used television so effectively in the 1960 presidential campaign – most famously in his television debates with Republican candidate Richard Nixon – his press secretary proposed that, as president, he hold live televised news conferences. Many journalists were appalled at the idea, believing that it would marginalise them. When journalist friend Ben Bradlee praised Kennedy in December 1962 for a successful television interview, JFK remarked: “Well, I always said that when we don’t have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story over to the American people.” Those words could easily have been spoken by Donald Trump.

For many observers, it has been Trump’s abrasive style that has truly set him apart from other presidents. His four years in power have been punctuated by a string of vicious, arguably shameless barbs launched at his detractors. In fact, these attacks predate his time in the Oval Office. When the singer Cher ridiculed him in 2012 for wearing a toupee and harbouring racist sentiments, Trump tweeted: “I don’t wear a ‘rug’ – it’s mine. And I promise not to talk about your massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.”

Once in the White House, Trump continued in the same pugilistic vein. He described TV presenter Mika Brzezinski, whose show had been critical of his presidency, as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika”. Of Omarosa Manigault Newman, a senior black adviser fired in late 2017, Trump tweeted: “When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!”

Ludicrous attacks

As these examples demonstrate, Trump has ramped up the rhetoric to dizzying new heights (or lows). Among American presidents, his rhetorical vitriol has been unprecedented. But he is hardly the first US political figure to bad-mouth his opponents.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) pictured in 1953 with Roy Cohn, the combative lawyer who would play a key role in Trump’s rise to prominence in New York. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) pictured in 1953 with Roy Cohn, the combative lawyer who would play a key role in Trump’s rise to prominence in New York. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

While the Republican senator Joseph McCarthy will always be associated with the Red Scare of the early 1950s, it was President Harry Truman who originally ordered an investigation into the loyalty of those working for the US government. Taking his cue from the president, McCarthy delivered a speech in February 1950 in which he alleged that there were 57 communist spies in the US government. He ludicrously attacked Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had done much to build the whole postwar foreign policy of containing communist expansion overseas, as “a pompous diplomat in striped pants”. He even trained his sights on the great wartime general George Marshall for “advocating timidity as a policy so as not to annoy the forces of Soviet imperialism in Asia” and being part of a “great conspiracy”.

Joseph McCarthy practised politics by attack, politics by insult, an approach similar to that employed by Trump

From evidence released in the 1990s, we know that Moscow was trying to infiltrate the US government, but nevertheless, as Acheson once put it, McCarthy was “essentially a small-town bully”. It was politics by attack, politics by insult. And it was strikingly similar to the approach adopted by Trump.

There is, moreover, an important connection between McCarthy and Trump, in the form of abrasive New York lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn had been a close aide to McCarthy and when, in 1973, the US government sued Trump and his father for racist practices in renting out their apartments, Trump asked Cohn for his advice. Cohn told him to hit back hard by suing the Justice Department for $100m for defamation. In the end Trump settled with the US government but without having to admit any culpability. Thereafter McCarthy’s sidekick was a mentor to Trump, helping him to handle the power brokers of New York City as he built his property empire. Cohn said Trump would sometimes call him 15–20 times a day. “All I can tell you [about Cohn],” Trump said to a journalist in 1980, “is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me.”

Isolationist America

There is another feature of Trump’s tenure in the White House that has often been described as quite unlike that of any modern president, namely his nationalist rather than internationalist vision for America’s role on the world stage. During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to withdraw from free-trade agreements that (he said) had benefited other countries while destroying high-quality blue-collar jobs at home. He also infamously pledged to build a wall on the southern border to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico, and to redefine the relationship with Nato allies who needed to contribute more to the costs of western defence. “From this day forward a new vision will govern our land,” he declared during his inaugural address as president on 20 January 2017. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

At times Trump has played an internationalist role on the world stage, whether engaging with Vladimir Putin’s Russia or both threatening and negotiating with communist North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme. On the other hand, he has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate change agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. He has also strained every sinew to overturn the deal crafted by Obama by which Iran curbed its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, and has imposed tariffs on Chinese imports.

It’s an approach that contrasts sharply with that adopted by the likes of Barack Obama, who negotiated the aforementioned Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal, and Bill Clinton, who signed a raft of trade agreements with other countries. But, again, it’s not without precedent. In fact, it is reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s, when many Americans adopted an isolationist outlook on world affairs in response to the First World War and the looming prospect of a Second. And this was not just a question of public opinion. In the 1930s Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts designed to keep the US out of any future conflict. Again, Trump has proved less anomalous than many might think, although the nationalist emphasis is unique in the postwar period.

There is one respect in which Trump has been different from other modern presidents: his frequently insensitive approach to race

There is one respect, however, in which Trump has been troublingly different from other presidents who have been in office since the civil rights movement: his often insensitive approach to race. This can be traced back to his association with the Birther movement during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he claimed that his predecessor in the White House had not been born in America and was not therefore a legitimate president.

When, a few months into his presidency, a confrontation took place in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, between Black Lives Matter protesters and a group containing Nazi/Klan supporters, Trump refused to make any moral distinction between the two – saying the white nationalists included “some very fine people”.

Three years later, following the widespread protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Trump’s rhetoric inflamed what was already a white-hot situation. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted, threatening police reprisals. Twitter felt compelled to add a notice to the tweet, warning that it glorified violence. Following public and political outrage, Trump qualified what he had said. But that phrase was controversial as it had originally been used by a Miami police chief in 1967 in a racially inflammatory manner.

The assertions that Donald Trump is a president without precedent are often wide of the mark. But it’s hard to deny that, in the case of race relations, they are, sadly, right. overturn the deal crafted by Obama by which Iran curbed its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, and has imposed tariffs on Chinese imports.

Mark White is professor of history at Queen Mary University of London. He is co-editor of The Presidential Image: A History from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump (IB Tauris, 2020)

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This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine