Donald Trump is president of the United States by title and law. He is not president of all Americans. Trump cares only about his voters and the most enthusiastic part of his "base." He is a political cult leader. Nothing seems to matter to him but the adoration and power that comes from his followers.
Public opinion polls and other research have shown that Trump's supporters are driven by racism, sexism, Christian nationalism and nativism. They hold authoritarian values and hold America's democratic norms in contempt. All that matters is winning: Democracy be damned.
Donald Trump is also enabled by the Republican Party and a right-wing media machine that has empowered this assault. Political scientists, historians and others have already begun to assess Trump's presidency. The consensus: At this early point in his tenure, Trump already ranks among the worst presidents in United States history. As I have already suggested, perhaps there should be an asterisk next to his name in future accounts of this political moment, a gesture of shame and apology to the world and the American future.
How will history remember those Republicans and other conservatives who voted Trump into office and continue to back him? How has Trump defiled the presidency? Is it possible for Trump to pivot back to the normal standards of the office? Is there still a place for moderation and incrementalism in American politics during a time of crisis and extreme polarization?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with historian Gil Troy. He is a professor at McGill University in Montreal and the author of numerous books, including "The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s," "The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction" and "Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How was Donald Trump able to win the 2016 election?
I think we have to divide your question into two parts. One, how was Donald Trump able to win? And two, how was Hillary Clinton able to lose? I think the more we read about that Clinton campaign we see all the opportunities she missed. Ultimately, she proved herself both in 2008 and 2016 to be just a terrible, terrible candidate.
We forget that she went into the 2016 campaign with popularity ratings of about 65 percent when she had been secretary of state -- then she just allowed herself to get taken to the cleaners by Donald Trump's. She did not have an effective message. During the campaign, I spoke to groups of people in the United States and elsewhere. I would say to them, “Donald Trump promises to make America . . .” And people yelled, “Great again!”
Even if they all hated Donald Trump, they would yell it. Hillary Clinton had no core message. There was also a kind of a conscious decision on the part of the Hillary Clinton campaign that they were not going to win because of Bill Clinton.
They didn't consult one of the great geniuses of modern American politics who understands how to speak to the frustrated white working-class people of America. We saw how that played out in those states which were so crucial to Trump's victory.
On the Trump side of this question there was a little bit of luck. He was running against the legacy of an incumbent president who’s been in office for eight years; he was also blessed to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent. But I really think we have to give him credit for being one of the great salesmen of our age, who was able to tap into the high amounts of frustration out there in many parts of America.
I was among the first people who tried to sound the alarm on national radio and TV about the likelihood of Trump winning. I highlighted how he is entertaining and a master communicator. We knew what he stood for. Hillary Clinton had no clear and simple message.
Absolutely. We started talking about Donald Trump in the summer of 2015. He understood that notoriety in today's celebrity culture counts. Let's be honest. For the last 30 or 40 years, to a wide swath of the American people, Trump is a brand that means quality, success and understanding how to work the system.
In assessing Trump as a president and a candidate, is he smarter than he appears? Or is he just a useful idiot for the Republican Party, the Koch brothers and other gangster capitalists, Christian nationalists and the like?
I think he's smarter than people think. He also worked harder than many people are aware of. For example, Trump would watch clips of himself on television and he got better at using the medium.
And you saw that play out brilliantly in the Republican debates. He understood that it was about the stage. But it was also really about the studio and how to speak to the viewer sitting at home. Also, I do think there's a certain substance in terms of his political strategy and presentation.
When people go, “Oh, he's so foolish, he’s alienating people,” well, he's alienating people who aren't going to vote for him at all. He also is taking something from the Ronald Reagan playbook. I think there are many different ways in which he is not like Ronald Reagan at all, but Ronald Reagan loved being underestimated.
When people would dismiss him as an actor, Reagan had a great comeback, which was, "I don't know how you could do this politics thing without having been in show business." But Reagan knew that once they were calling him a mere actor, it would mean they wouldn't be taking his message seriously, and they also wouldn't be taking his constituents seriously.
When we see the degree to which the Democrats have spent time treating anyone who votes for Trump or says anything positive about Trump as a buffoon, as a racist, as a sexist, as a pig — how are you going to convince those people to vote for you? And there are millions of Americans who were able to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then vote for Donald Trump.
You have to be thinking about how you get those people.
Trump has channeled the politics of hatred and resentment to win the White House and maintain control over his voters. In all, he is a symptom of a much bigger problem. But in terms of Trump as a leader, do you think it is still possible for him to pivot?
First of all, it's definitely possible.
We forget, first of all, how steep the learning curve is, how complicated the job is, and how much presidents really do change. Also, the greatest problem for every American president is just the constant barrage of external stimuli from internal scandals to politics to just stuff that happens that you don't anticipate. For a historian to say it's impossible for him to pivot, he's never going to change, wouldn't be an accurate reading of human beings, the history of the American presidents or the history of leadership.
On the other hand, I think many of us have been predicting a turn toward political maturity, a turn toward nation-building, a turn toward unity. That has not happened. That's why I really emphasize the degree to which Trump has not been like Reagan.
Trump has not shown that ability. As you say, he's playing to his base and by playing to his base, he’s using the politics of resentment and the presidency itself as a wedge. That is very disturbing,
I had an off-the-record meeting with a bunch of Republican congressmen. It was supposed to be nonpartisan so I was very carefully avoiding politics.
At one point they turned to me and one of them from the Deep South — who was as red as you can find in his voting record — says to me, “Well, what do you think about our president?”
I said, “Look, I don't want to get into partisanship tonight. I don't want to get into the politics of this particular issue. But as a historian of the American presidency, I really have a lot of reverence for the office and for the Lincolnian role of the president as someone who brings out the better angels of our nature. Franklin Roosevelt also talked about the presidency being a pre-eminent place of moral leadership. By that criterion, Donald Trump has not even tried and has certainly not met the standard of any of his predecessors."
There was a moment of silence and the congressman looks at me and says, “You can say that again.”
I really cannot think of a president who came into office — now in office for over a year — and is dedicated to not using the role of president as the civic high priest of America. Who has not tried to be the healer, who's not trying to be the one who transcends divisions, but in fact is the one who makes divisions.
I don't want to be categorical because there certainly have been moments every now and then. For example, there was the Florida mass shooting, when he tried to play that presidential role. But we see how quickly even there Trump goes into judgmental mental mode. He goes into demagogic mode. He goes into wedge mode rather than healing mode. Let's be honest, that's what won him the presidency and has now become his political mode.
One of the things [that] is also fascinating about Trump is that we really have never had such an amateur.
Trump really comes from a different universe, a different world, the business world and in particular the family business world. That is one of the dynamics that people sometimes miss in trying to understand what's going on with this presidency.
Donald Trump inherited this divided country — and he’s only so far made an angrier and more divided [country] and that's a crime. It is a crime against the American people and it is a crime against the American presidency.
There have been many moments when Trump could have exercised presidential leadership and elevated himself in the eyes of the public and world. But he keeps failing in that moment because, except for rage, he seems to lack genuine human emotion.
Donald Trump comes very much from a place of not having much empathy. He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.
Consider the presidential inauguration. It is always a sacred moment when you transcend the partisan divides, heal the divisions of the presidential campaign and then the American people are willing to look at you in a new light.
Reflect on Trump's "American carnage" inauguration speech for a moment. There was no poetry or beauty there. It really is one of the most divisive, polarizing and just atonal, un-lyrical inaugural speeches in American history. There is a certain lack of grace in the man. But again, is it celebrity Trump or real Trump? I think he's been playing that role for so long on the public stage that he may not even know who the real Donald Trump is anymore.
As those of us who follow professional wrestling would say, in many ways Donald Trump is "living the gimmick." He is a person who actually starts to believe his persona; the fictional character is real. Where does the person begin and the celebrity end? These stories usually don't end well. This word is overused, but can Donald Trump's rise to the presidency be correctly described as "unprecedented?"
The degree to which you have the president of United States running against the country's institutions -- including the Constitution -- is problematic and probably unprecedented. But there is something else going on as well: One of the things that Donald Trump is teaching us is that the Constitution works.
It's much easier for me right now as an American historian to explain to my students the separation of powers than it was a year-and-a-half ago.
What is the place of incrementalism or of pursuing the virtues of moderation in this moment? Is that even possible in this type of political environment?
I wrote a book in 2008 about why moderates make the best presidents. Before the book was accepted, I received a wonderful rejection from one editor who said, “I read your thesis, I completely agree,” but his lament explains why no one is going to buy the book. He was quite accurate. I was trying to make a countercultural argument that we actually do need moderation. Clearly, there are so many structures now that mitigate against that. You start with the internet, the news media and how no one even tries to be objective in the way that Walter Cronkite did back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then you get the partisan gridlock. In Capitol Hill you get the death of the kinds of relationships that we used to see between an Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy, for example.
To get to the core of your question, there’s no place for incrementalism in that kind of hyper-partisan "all or nothing" politics. American politics often was about big moves but also little compromises.
How would you counsel Republicans and other conservatives who know that Trump is a disaster for America but for whatever reason stay silent, only complain in private, or if they are elected officials decide to vote with him or otherwise provide cover? How will history judge them?
I would tell them that history can be very kind but it can also be very, very harsh. I think when we write the history of this time we will find the people who stood up and said "no" and we’ll also find the Democrats who said, “Wait a minute, we are going too far.” We’ll also find the Democrats who said, “Wait a minute, we have to work together.” The addiction to Fox News and MSNBC and making headlines is also worsening the situation.
It took 20 years, but there are many people who are finally embarrassed by the degree to which they enabled Bill Clinton and an environment in the White House that was truly a hostile environment for women. I’m someone who, in the late 1990s, when I did criticize Bill Clinton, was called all kinds of awful names. I was just simply saying, “Wait a minute. What message are my women students getting by the way Bill Clinton treated Monica Lewinsky? With the way many of the men around Bill Clinton facilitated that?” Now I’m equally critical of Donald Trump, and we need those consistent voices, because life isn’t just about partisanship and politics. Ultimately, we have to be thinking about how we build a society together and nurture the ability to disagree amicably and civilly.
We have our cultural problems. We have family breakdown. We have social divisions. We have political gridlock. We have a president who makes too many Americans feel marginalized and not welcome.
I’m not denying any of the anguish and trouble in the country. But there are many, many more success stories on the American streets, in the American home, in American offices, in American universities, and even in Washington, D.C., than we’ll read about and notice on CNN or The New York Times. We should be grateful for that, even as we go through a very difficult passage in our politics.