What Is Really Unprecedented About Trump? – Julian E. Zelizer | The Atlantic

What Is Really Unprecedented About Trump?

In many respects, the way that the president thinks about politics is utterly conventional.

Julian E. Zelizer | The Atlantic

“Unprecedented” has become one of the most popular terms to use when discussing President Trump. On any given day since January 20 2017, the odds are good that a person can turn on their televisions or browse through a news story to encounter some pundit discussing how President Trump’s actions are unlike anything we have ever seen before.

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers  perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.   

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out of nowhere.

If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump.

The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history.

By contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcasted strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Another truly unprecedented part of the Trump presidency that doesn’t get much attention anymore has to do with the massive conflict of interest that exists in this Oval Office. When the president made a decision in January to avoid erecting a strict firewall between his family business and the presidency, he set the democracy on a dangerous path that we have not yet experienced. Never have we had a businessperson with such vast economic holdings as president. To have our leader be the titular head of a sprawling global company with property interests all over the globe, even with his two sons “running the business”, creates obvious problematic situations where the line between making money and making policy is permanently blurred.

The Washington Post recently reported how the private prison company GEO Group decided to hold its annual conference this year at Trump’s Miami resort rather than near its headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. The company and its top executives have donated a considerable amount to the president. The decision by the company, which has ramped up its lobbying operation in Washington and whose business is booming this year, was in part a result of signing a contract to build an immigration-detention center, and will now be bringing good business to one of the Trump properties — which have already enjoyed endless free advertising every time the president spends his golfing weekends at one of these resorts.

There are other times, however, where using the term “unprecedented” masks the ways in which Trump is simply exploiting the way that we have allowed our government institutions to evolve. Take his rampant use of presidential power to dismantle climate-change regulations put into place by former President Barack Obama and his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act through a slow, administrative death.

The risks of expanding presidential power over the course of the 20th century have been well documented. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had been a supporter and part of several Democratic administrations that strengthened the executive branch, warned of the “Imperial Presidency” when Richard Nixon was in office. Democrats were furious about how many of Ronald Reagan’s appointees in the 1980s, like James Watt at Interior or Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, refused to enforce the programs for which they were responsible.

Democrats were likewise outraged when President George W. Bush used signing statements and executive orders to aggressively conduct the war on terrorism regardless of legislative restraints, while Republicans were outraged by the way that President Clinton used the same power to protect the environment or President Obama to expand protection to the children of illegal immigrants. President Trump has been following in their footsteps, often in more dramatic fashion than we have seen, paying very little attention to legislating and using the executive power that he inherited to achieve his domestic aims.

Of course, even the evidence that President Trump has been willing to push the boundaries of what is permissible by abusing his presidential authority, such as when he fired FBI Director James Comey to get rid of that “Russia Thing,” he replicated the kinds of behavior we saw under President Richard Nixon with the Saturday Night Massacre and his efforts to stop the investigation of the FBI; or, possibly, President Reagan when his national-security team conducted an illegal operation to provide assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras — despite a congressional ban on doing so. When the public frets that we can’t have someone as president who is so out of control given the power they hold, particularly to launch a nuclear war, we need to remember that this is a risk we have already encountered, including Nixon’s dark days toward the end of his presidency.

When President Trump spews off insults about “Little Rocket Man” or blasts the Iran nuclear deal, threatening military actions against adversaries and promising that America will do whatever it takes, with the implied use of military action, to achieve its goals, many observers tremble. And they should:NOT because Trump is doing something so unprecedented, but just the opposite. He is partaking in a well-established tradition of hawkish bluster coming from U.S.A. presidents that have brought us to the precipice, or brought us directly into, costly military conflicts.

From Cold War presidents ramping up the world temperature through warnings about “puppet” governments in Central America and Southeast Asia to President George W. Bush discussing the mass cache of weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Iraq in 2002, Trump joins a long list of presidents whose words have heightened the tension levels with our adversaries. His brazen style simply does a bit more than some others to instantly expose the risks that can ensue.

Using “unprecedented” with too much ease causes us to miss how some of President Trump’s actions may be unusual in recent times, but in fact, tap into darker parts of our political traditions that we might not want to remember. Clearly, one of the most shocking and upsetting moments this summer took place in August when the president resisted offering a strong condemnation of the white racist activists who marched to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statute and killed one counter-protester. Others have been taken aback by his ongoing appeal to hardline nativist sentiment in his repeated attacks on the dangers that immigrants pose to the U.S.A.

Yet, he is not the first to play in this sandbox. Nineteenth century U.S.A. presidents worked within a political system where slavery was an institutionalized part of the economy, and later in the decade, Southern Democrats who defended racial inequality, segregation and violence, commanded immense influence on Capitol Hill. Woodrow Wilson’s checkered history on civil rights was front and center two years ago when there was renewed attention to his views on race. Even the liberal FDR, as the historian Ira Katznelson has reminded us, accommodated the power of segregationist Democrats as he agreed to live with Southern attitudes in exchange for support on domestic legislation.

Rick Perlstein has documented how Richard Nixon, as candidate and as president, made indirect appeals to southern conservatives and white northerners who firmly opposed the civil-rights revolution. Extremist organizations who espoused these views were always on the fringes of the conservative movement, and there were moments when presidents like Ronald Reagan appealed to them through promises of “states’ rights” and attacks on “welfare queens.”

On immigration, there is a long list of presidents who have supported hardline restrictions on persons entering our borders, including Calvin Coolidge, who signed the Immigration Act of 1924 that imposed stringent quotas preventing European immigrants from entering our shores. Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies were famously devastating to an entire generation who lost their homes and lives as a result of his administration’s brutal policies.

We have been witnessing partisan polarization for so long that we should have expected a president who would drop the pretense.

Excessive use of “unprecedented” can mask the ways in which Trump’s presidency is an outgrowth of deep trends that have been taking hold in recent decades. He is the symptom of our divided, polarized times, rather than the root cause.

For instance, the fact that President Trump spends so much of his time “playing to the base” and ignoring bipartisan opportunities should not be a surprise. We have lived through decades where the forces of partisan polarization have hardened. The parties move further and further apart, with the center vanishing.

While recent presidents, unlike Trump, have still attempted to look for points of compromise, the truth is that they have usually failed. Much of what presidents do these days is focus on their party, and in doing so appeal to the activists and organizations who are loudest and most influential within their coalition. Working for Karl Rove in 2004, adviser Matthew Dowd popularized a strategy that appealed to the base. The assumption of Bush’s re-election campaign was that much of the country, those counties in blue, would never be turned, so best to increase the turnout of core supporters.

In congressional politics, appealing to the base has become a standard tactic in an era of ever-present primary challenges. The rhetoric of partisan polarization vilifies opponents, and imagines a political universe where it is impossible to agree with what the other party has spread through the elaborate partisan media that shapes much of our conversations about Washington.

In many respects, the way that President Trump thinks about politics is utterly conventional and, in fact, makes sense given how our system works. We have been witnessing partisan polarization for so long that we should have expected a president who would drop the pretense and embrace this reality without hesitation.

Sometimes using the term “unprecedented” is just a mistake and limits our historical vision. When Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake attacked President Trump, warning of dangerous instability in the Oval Office, many pundits were quick to describe a moment unlike anything we had seen before. The truth is that there have been numerous intra-party feuds that unfolded before the public. One of the most legendary of these fights took place between Franklin Roosevelt and the conservative Southern Democrats who ruled Congress in 1938.

FDR actively campaigned against legislators like Georgia Senator Walter George in the primaries, hoping to “purge” them from the party. He failed, and there was hell to pay on his domestic agenda in the years to come. The personal and political tension between Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter became severe. When asked by a congressman about a challenge from Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, Carter replied: “I’ll whip his ass.”

When President George H. W. Bush accepted tax increases as part of a 1990 deficit-reduction package, House Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich was outraged. He bolted out of the budget negotiations in fury and publicly castigated the president, never forgiving him for this sin. The president was so upset with his fellow Republican that he refused to shake hands at a White House ceremony. The language of the conflict in these cases was not nearly as personal. But bitter intra-party tensions between presidents and legislators have happened before, and often the damage to the party has been severe.

The temptation to blurt out “unprecedented” will continue to remain strong. President Trump will continue to test our ability to even pause before uttering this word. But it is crucial to show restraint in our commentary, to offer a clear understanding of when President Trump has truly done something that we have never seen before or, rather, when he is exploiting parts of our political institutions and traditions in a manner that exposes the troubling ways in which our democracy has evolved.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 29, 2017 at 1:48 am

    As you can imagine, this was a fairly long thread about Maduro dis – Maduro dat – until some where along the thread, somebody pops this left hook – out of the blue – I would say: “unprecedented”

    Rubio: Gringo, you know what would be a hoot?

    Ask Quico one day if he had to choose one, who would be his pick to run the country of Venezuela, Maduro or Trump?

    I bet he’d go with Maduro every trip of the train. LOL

    Gringo: Rubio, You’re one of the brightest, most consistently thoughtful people I’ve run into on the internet.

    They were discussing the “Travesty of Incoherence” – Caracas Chronicles

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 29, 2017 at 1:58 am

    Judgment Day for Trump May Come Sooner Than You Think

    Colbert I. King | The Washington Post

    Since taking the oath of office in January, Donald Trump has provided evidence, almost daily, that he is ill-suited to be president of the United States of America.

    For months, much of the country has watched in despair as he and his administration have meat-axed the Affordable Care Act; crushed forward-looking Obama-era regulations in education, the environment and consumer protection; and backtracked on civil rights.

    He has made a mess of things with our allies, emboldened our adversaries and embarrassed the nation on the world stage.

    We have groaned through his insults and lies and witnessed his embrace of people and causes that travel on the dark side.

    He shows no signs of relenting.

    Trump bullies, brutalizes and slimes with impunity because members of his base cheer his every move or concoct reasons to keep their mouths shut whenever he crosses a red line. And his enablers are not just holed up in America’s heartland and red states; they are here in Washington lining the halls of Congress under the banner of the Republican Party.

    His rabid base, however, is no reason to stand down.

    There is just cause to stand up to him. And the way to give voice to disgust with Trump is through the vote. Yes, that weapon which makes a noise that no politician, regardless of polls and scads of PAC money, can ignore.

    Preparation begins now. Tend to the basics: Get registered, get others registered, and get educated on how to vote because voter suppression is running amok, especially in the South. Get information about the elections and the candidates. And don’t pass up any contest.

    State legislature and gubernatorial races are just as important as elected jobs in Washington. And don’t buy the argument that your vote doesn’t count if you happen to live in a voting area where your party is outnumbered.

    Vote anyway, even if you cast a ballot for none of the above. That vote speaks volumes to the one who loses it.

    Keep that thought in mind when entering the voting booth in state legislature contests and House and Senate races. Those GOP officeholders are key to Trump’s base. Through their votes and, at times, their inaction, they are keeping him in business and his agenda alive.

    Upcoming elections should be a referendum on Trump.

    Face it: Stripped and unadorned, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is, politically, a Donald Trump.

    House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)? – Think Donald Trump.

    Look no further than the likes of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) to find a political likeness of Donald Trump on the ballot.

    The December Alabama ballot doesn’t carry Trump’s name, but consider Senate GOP nominee Roy Moore as a stand-in for the president.

    That ought to be reason enough for the 26 percent of Alabama residents who are black to flock to the polls.

    Likewise, a Trump proxy is running for Republican governor of Virginia this year under the name Ed Gillespie.

    In the 2018 Senate races, Trump doubles can be found with Republicans Ted Cruz in Texas and Roger Wicker in Mississippi. The three, as opponents of progressive government policies, are closer than two pages in a book.

    Want to speak back to Trump and tell him how you feel?

    Get out and vote in places such as Alabama, Virginia, California, Wisconsin, Texas and Mississippi, where Trump surrogates are on the ballot. Let the president know you are out there.

    The midterm 2018 elections can be Judgment Day for Trump. And dress rehearsal for 2020.

    Fume and fuss, talk back to the television, kick the can, call Trump names, vent to your heart’s content.

    All that changes nothing. – It may probably ruin your health.

    What can make a difference? – The ballot. Vote, Vote, Vote.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 30, 2017 at 1:00 am

    Meanwhile, Across the Pond – They got other concerns:

    Sunday Times – article by Rod Liddle

    ISIS Recruits aren’t Holidaymakers. Let’s Lock them up, and throw away the Key

    What should we do with the hundreds of jihadists returning to the UK after a spot of vigorous beheading with Islamic State?

    Or so-called Islamic State, as the so-called BBC still refers to it. Max Hill, QC, suggests we spare them court, wherever possible, and help them integrate back into society.

    Hill is possessed of a milk of human kindness that is organic and unpasteurised, ie, the kind likely to give you tuberculosis.

    Mine, meanwhile, is at best semi-skimmed from Asda Supermarket. I tend to agree with Conservative MP Rory Stewart that the best recourse would be to shoot them “in almost every case” while they are still out there.

    The only problem I can see with this is:

    What if we miss? We’re bound to let a few slip through the net. It is a conundrum.

    A few years ago, the problem was the other way around. What should we do, we agonised, about young British Muslims going off to fight for ISIS?

    It seemed to me a criminal absurdity that we would let them go out there, just to be killed by British high-ordnance explosives and keen-eyed snipers.

    So why not shoot them at Heathrow as they’re about to board the planes for Ankara?

    The result would be the same, just a hell of a lot cheaper. But I was told sternly that this had constitutional, moral and legal implications — and would scare other passengers.

    My second suggestion was no better received:

    Let them go, but don’t let them back in when, eventually, they get bored or feel deprived of First World comforts.

    Indeed, the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary said he would be delighted to go live with ISIS and urged like-minded British Muslims to follow him — if only Theresa May, then home secretary, would give him his passport back.

    I thought this was an excellent idea and wrote to May suggesting she relent. Give him his passport. Let him go, and maybe throw in a few vouchers for him and his acolytes so they can buy some snacks at the airport.

    And perhaps a CBE for Choudary for helping rid us of murderous jihadists — preferably awarded posthumously. Problem solved.

    Instead, we’re paying thousands of pounds a week to keep Choudary incarcerated for saying stuff rather than blowing him up for doing stuff. Makes no sense.

    Max Hill, QC, suggests we shouldn’t lock up people like Choudary. Hill, incidentally, is the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. I don’t know about you, but I think he seems too naïve for the job.

    We can’t ban British-born jihadists from returning to Britain because they’re, uh, British. Sure, I get that.

    Unless we enacted a law that said if they’ve fought against British troops, they are deprived of citizenship and should go live somewhere more amenable to their views.

    And how about kicking out all the foreign-born Islamists known to the security services as being potential threats? But we don’t do that either.

    I have no idea why not. We just insist we’re watching them, as they return from the cash-and-carry with their multiple packs of hydrogen peroxide and fuse wire.

    We are still a little deluded about this, and as a result impotent to act. Hill, for example, thinks the young thugs and hags who went to Syria were simply nice young people who had been unaccountably “radicalised” by Islamist ideology. As if their murderous intent had been imposed upon them by an outside agency and they are victims.

    So here’s the thing: when they try to come back, deport them. If you can’t deport them, lock them up for as long as our laws allow. If there’s a key, throw it away.
    That will help the people of London and Manchester feel a little safer.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 30, 2017 at 2:14 am

    I suppose plugging this note here is as good as anywhere:

    A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things

    Feelings of greatness come and go, so savor them.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic

    I have been studying the French language, with some consistency, for three years. This field of study has been, all at once, the hardest and most rewarding of my life.

    I would put it above the study of writing simply because I started writing as a 6-year-old boy under my mother’s tutelage. I always “felt” I could write. I did not always “feel” I could effectively study a foreign language.

    But here I am, right now, in a Montreal hotel. I spoke French at the border. I spoke French when I checked in. I spoke French when I went to get lunch. I don’t really believe in fluency. If there is such a thing, I don’t have it. I mishear words. I confuse tenses. I can’t really use the subjunctive. Yet.

    Something has happened to me and the something is this — I have gotten better.

    I don’t know when I first felt it. I didn’t feel it this summer at Middlebury, despite the difference in my entrance and exit scores. I didn’t feel it when I first arrived in Paris in January. I felt, as I always feel, like I was stumbling around in the dark. I still feel like that. But I also feel like I am getting better at stumbling.

    I am emphasizing how I “feel” because, when studying, it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit.

    It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the “feeling” that your present level is who you are and who you will always be.

    I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the “feeling” of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care. As Carolyn Forché would say — “I’m going to have it.”

    To “have it,” I must manage my emotional health. Part of that long-term management — beyond French — is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

    I don’t know what comes after this. I have said this before, and will say it again:

    Studying French is like setting in a canoe from California to China. You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, “Wow that was really far.”

    And then you realize that China is still so very far away. “Feelings” come and go.

    Likely, someone will say something — in the next hour or so — which I do not understand and I will feel a little hopeless again. But right now, I feel high.

    And one must savor those moments of feeling high, because they are not the norm. The lows are the norm. The Struggle is the norm. May it ever be thus.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 30, 2017 at 2:16 am

    societal opinion be damned

    live out a mistake

    experience is a teacher

    any way you must

    Jim Baruffi Poetry

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 31, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    Staying Silent May Backfire Spectacularly on Republican Lawmakers

    Usually, laying low during controversies is a savvy move for legislators. But when it comes to Trump and Russia, it brings its own risks.

    David Frum | The Atlantic

    “Senator, I wonder if I could get a comment … ”

    Click.

    That little scene is being enacted in one form or another across Washington on Monday, following the indictments of three former Trump campaign officials.

    Reporters are seeking comment from Republican officeholders.

    Republican officeholders are desperately eluding reporters, conforming to the maxim often attributed to Calvin Coolidge, ….

    “You don’t have to explain what you never said.”

    Yet what is usually good advice can become, when it fails, spectacularly bad advice. Today is such a day.

    The advice I want to offer here is not directed to the brave senator or the principled senator. It is directed to the run-of-the-mill senator — the prudent senator, the self-preserving senator.

    If you keep quiet today, you are putting yourself in jeopardy.

    Events are about to start moving very fast, and if you miss this moment, you will find yourself carried along by those events to places where it is not healthy for you to travel.

    Here’s your problem, senator: The Trump political and legal strategy is about to get very radical. This weekend, after months of hesitation and distraction mongering, The Wall Street Journal editorial page ran a column advocating the end-the-probe, pardon-everyone position.

    It also mobilized an array of high-toned op-ed contributors — acclaimed intellectuals, well-known lawyers — in support.

    Fox News will amplify the argument, your constituents will be mobilized to support it — and you will be trapped.

    You may think you are biding your time. In reality, you will find that you have pre-emptively surrendered to an internal takeover.

    Look, we all get that you have donors breathing down your neck demanding a tax cut. They gave you money, now it’s your turn to return the favor. You don’t want to focus on presidential misdeeds until you have delivered on your top priority.

    But by the time you are ready to move, things will have moved against you.

    President Trump has no fact-based defense. The soap-bubble distractions floated by Fox News and in-the-tank pundits — Uranium One! Dossier! — pop as soon as they meet bright sunlight.

    Trump has already confessed on national television that he fired Comey to shut down the Russia inquiry.

    Today’s Papadopoulos indictment brings forth still more evidence that Trump feared the Russia inquiry because of the contacts it might uncover between his campaign and Russia:

    “On or about June 19, 2016, after several email and Skype exchanges with the former Russian MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Connection, defendant PAPADOPOULOS emailed the High-Ranking Campaign Official, with the subject line, ‘New message from Russia’: ‘The Russian ministry of foreign affairs messaged me and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, if a campaign rep (more or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.’”

    So, Trump is likely to adopt a self-defense based on huge assertions of arbitrary power.

    “A president cannot obstruct justice through the exercise of his constitutional and discretionary authority over executive-branch officials like Mr. Comey.”

    Those words appeared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed posted Sunday afternoon by two well-known Republican lawyers. They are about to become the official White House position — and when they do, you’ll find yourself with little maneuvering room to prevent them from becoming your position as well.

    You will have to haul that position along with you into the 2018 elections, or (even more dangerously) the elections in 2020 or 2022, by which time even more of this scandal will have come to light.

    You need to wonder whether the avoidance of blowback from Fox News in November 2017 is worth the risks hurtling at you in the weeks ahead.

    The Trump administration’s authoritarian moment is on the verge of materializing.

    The president seems likely to openly stake a claim to use his position as head of the executive branch to exempt himself from all law enforcement.

    If the president can never obstruct justice, he can use the pardon power to protect himself and his associates from any investigation into criminal wrongdoing.

    By speaking out today, you may dissuade the White House from staking the whole Republican Party to an authoritarian, anti-constitutional position.

    At a minimum, you protect yourself from answering for it. Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. Just think ahead beyond the next 10 minutes and 10 days to your own interests and future.

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