Historians' first verdict on Trump: You're fired! But there's more to it than that

"The Presidency of Donald J. Trump" offers a wealth of valuable perspectives — but fails to measure the danger

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published April 23, 2022 12:25PM (EDT)

Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to the crowd during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to the crowd during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"The Trump presidency was not an aberration but the culmination of more than three decades in the GOP's evolution." So writes historian Julian Zelizer, seeking to answer the question of "how the 'Party of Lincoln' had become the 'Party of Trump." That also sums up the shared perspective of more than a  dozen historians contributing chapters to  "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment." 

Trump's presidency "was not some one-off that will automatically result in a course-correction," Zelizer writes, "but a period of deep-seated conflict that profoundly wounded our  polity. When his term was done, the Trump presidency cemented some of the biggest fault lines in the nation." 

This book comes as a welcome corrective to the news media's eternal puzzlement over Trump: It's a rich collection that significantly expands perspectives, beyond the familiar media frames, across a wide range of topics. But two crucial elements are missing. It lacks a blunt account of how conservatism's decades-long policy failures opened the way for Trump, and it doesn't provide a nuanced account of the ways Trump's presidency was both a historical culmination and a potential breaking point, shifting America to a form of competitive authoritarianism — in which elections still occur, but are not significant in determining who holds power.  

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That hasn't happened yet, and it's arguably not a historian's job to address the abyss that still lies ahead. As Zelizer explains, this volume is intended to be a first draft of history, "part of an ongoing conversation" that "will continue to evolve in perpetuity." But if American democracy continues to crumble, that conversation will inevitably take a darker turn.

Zelizer describes the book's chapters as falling into four groups, six that "focus on the institutional and coalitional foundations on which the Trump presidency was built," five that "explore the roots and impacts of Trump's domestic policies," three that do the same for his foreign policies, and four that "look at the political and policy forces that checked and weakened" Trump's  presidency — and ultimately ended it.

Setting the stage: What made Trump possible?

Zelizer's chapter in that first group sketches a broad evolutionary argument, stressing how "increasingly conservative voices tied to a grassroots movement pushed their way to the top of  the party," with many Trumpian elements — the personalized attack politics of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich, the contempt for expertise of the George W. Bush administration — largely in place long before Trump took center stage. It's a solid beginning for the book that follows, but what's notably missing is the role of elite funders and the institutions and organizations they created to shape, nurture and mobilize that movement. The role of the radicalized religious right is also notably absent, which is a surprising omission considering the role of white evangelical support and Christian nationalism (e.g., dominionist leader Lance Wallnau's book "God's Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling") in cultivating support for Trump. 

He says little about conservative media, too, but that side of the story is well covered by Nicole Hemmer ("Messengers of the Right"), whose chapter, "Remade in His Image: How Trump Transformed Right-Wing Media" is one of the strongest for its combination of historical scope and nuanced detail. Hemmer begins in the 1950s with publications like National Review and radio shows like "The Manion Forum," whose host promised, "Every speaker over our network  has  been 100 percent right-wing. … No left-winger, no international socialist, no one-worlder, no communist will ever be heard." 

The ideological purity and isolation of that statement set the tone for so much that followed, with the rise of populist right-wing talk radio, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Hemmer's account reflects how seamlessly Trump's manipulations fit into the larger dynamic in which media figures radicalize their audiences through feedback loops that have grown exponentially more powerful, marginalizing those who are unwilling or unable to keep up.  

Angus Burgin's related chapter, "The Crisis of Truth in the Age of Trump" is descriptively apt, noting that Trump "promised from the outset to deal with a slew of fictitious problems….  And he promised his audiences a fictitious future." But Burgin is needlessly constrained when he agonizes that "the central concern raised by the crisis of truth in the age of Trump was not — despite his obvious admiration for those in positions of despotic power — about an excess of authoritarianism but rather about a possible excess of democracy. ... [H]ad the evolution of our media environment created a need for heavier-handed regulation?" 

Burgin notes that Jürgen Habermas has "expressed an enduring faith in the prospects for reasoned debate in an age of information abundance," but does not connect that such faith with recent work being done to vindicate it, such as Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism" and Philipp Lorenz-Spreen's paper on promoting online "truth, autonomy and democratic discourse." 

Three chapters on substantive demographic politics follow. The most crucial is Kathleen Belew's on "Militant Whiteness in the Age of Trump," followed by Geraldo Cadava's "Latinos for Trump" and Leandra Zarnow's chapter on "Trump's feud with feminists" and the "triumph" of conservative women. Belew explains a  key source of Trump's strength, while the two others explore why Trump and the Republican Party's alleged demographic weakness is not quite what many liberals and leftists imagine. Crucially, Belew illuminates  the relationships between white power, white nationalism and white supremacy: 

White power refers to a branch of  the larger militant Right, a coalition that also includes some violent conservatives who say they are not motivated by race. White power is both white supremacist and  committed to violence. White nationalism, on the other hand, can refer in common usage to two very different things. One is the idea that there is something about America that is, and should be, intrinsically white, and that people pursuing policy making  should ensure that this remains so.... The second use of the term refers to people seeking a white homeland (also sometimes called white separatism).

That sets the stage for explaining what happened under Trump: 

[T]he Trump years featured both a white nationalist policy project helmed by people in the administration and a white power social movement that believed many of the same claims about whiteness but wished for a white ethnostate, ideally through the overthrow of the country. … White power and white nationalism both fall under a broader category: white supremacy. This refers not only to people who have racist belief systems (overtly or covertly) but also to a broad array of systems, histories, and infrastructures that continue to contribute to racial inequality even when individual racism is absent.

This kind of analysis is crucial to understanding not just what Trump and his allies were (and are) actually doing, but also how to respond to backlash obfuscations like the "critical race theory" moral panic, which intentionally collapses the distinctions Belew carefully draws.

Trump's outreach to Latinos, although misunderstood by many liberal observers, may be "the most ordinary part of an extraordinary presidency, drawing on a GOP playbook going back to Ronald Reagan.

Cadava calls Trump's Latino outreach "perhaps the most ordinary part of an extraordinary presidency," drawing on a GOP playbook dating back to Reagan's 1980 campaign, when a trio of Mexican-American advertising and media executives identified four things as core characteristic of the Hispanic Republican: "religious devotion, a tireless work ethic, anticommunism, and the related belief in free market capitalism as the best path to prosperity." While Trump certainly differed from Reagan in many important ways — most notably on border and immigration issues —  this playbook remained essentially intact. As Cadava writes, "the understandable and justified media coverage of the outrages of the Trump era obscured the more mundane but effective ways that Trump built Latino support with his persistent focus on immigration, the economy, religious freedom, and the supposed rise of socialism within the Democratic Party." 

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Zarnow's chapter begins with the worldwide Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration, which may have begun with white women's gut reactions on social media but matured into a sophisticated centering of diverse, marginalized identities. After setting the stage, however, she echoes Cadava's historical parallels: 

No president since Ronald Reagan offered right-wing women more opportunity to be political insiders with a direct channel to the West Wing. For this personal success, they were grateful and devoted. "I've never felt anything but respected and empowered by him to do my job," professed Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Zarnow goes on to note that the "language of empowerment Sanders uses here, like color blindness, has been deployed by conservatives as a device to counter how much the mass feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s successfully shifted the gender landscape in the United States." That's true, of course. It's equally true that Trump has a long history of employing and promoting women, precisely because they're almost universally undervalued and are a great source of underpaid labor, as are the undocumented immigrants he has often employed at his various projects and properties. Neither Zarnow nor Cadava appears to notice that telling comparison.

Domestic policies

Three of the five chapters on Trump's domestic policies also emphasize the centrality of race. Two do so specifically, "Immigration Policy and Politics Under Trump" by Mae Ngai and "From Color-Blind to Black Lives Matter" by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Race also figures centrally in "The Rhetoric and Reality of Infrastructure During the Trump Presidency" by Jason Scott Smith, which mentions white supremacy in its second sentence.

Ngai's primary focus is giving shape to Trump's savage, shambolic immigration policies, whose wanton cruelty is more widely understood than their sheer scope and volume. "Altogether, some one thousand changes in immigration policy were made by rule modifications, directives, form changes, memos, certifications, executive orders, presidential proclamations, pending rule changes, and other bureaucratic actions," she writes. 

Ngai also provides concise historical context, first by noting that nativism tends to emerge during "periods of [economic] expansion associated with large structural transformation, or what economists call sectoral change," which "engender[s] anxiety as opportunity looms simultaneously large and elusive for portions of the population."  

Immigrants do not create such change, nor do they generally "replace" native-born workers, but they do tend to work in newly expanding sectors. Ngai also notes that upsurges of nativism are "symbiotically linked — politically and structurally — to contemporaneous surges of racism and racial oppression of African Americans."

But specific episodes require specific analysis. "In our time, racism against immigrant communities of color, especially Latino communities, is the fundamental core of nativism," Ngai writes. "But open racism became impolitic in the post-civil rights era. It became dressed as a complaint against 'illegal aliens,'" providing a veneer of legitimacy unwarranted by facts on the ground: Most Latinos in the U.S. are citizens, and undocumented workers overwhelmingly take jobs that citizens or documented workers don't want. 

"Nativism has been a staple of conservative politics since the 1980s," she writes, but Republican opinion was split between "business interests, which wanted to exploit immigrants, and racial and cultural nationalists, who wished to expel them." By 2016, the latter had triumphed, she notes, but without exploring the reasons why — which goes back to the missing analysis of conservative policy failure. 

Smith's infrastructure chapter follows and is closely related. "Trump's pledge to rebuild the nation's infrastructure was by far his most popular campaign promise, but it was one that went seemingly unfulfilled," Smith notes, leading some conservatives, like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to dismiss Trump. Nonetheless, he continues: 

Trump's rhetorical commitments to infrastructure in fact underwrote a sea change in the legal mechanisms and policing practices of the federal government, changes with profound consequences, particularly for immigrants, asylum seekers, and people of color. … Trump used the language of infrastructure as a strategic weapon, as historian of rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca has perceptively observed: to unite supporters, divide opponents, and avoid accountability for his words and deeds.

Trump's infrastructure plan was his most popular campaign promise, and the one he never even tried to fulfill — except for the piecemeal construction of a border wall.

Gallup found at the time of Trump's inauguration that his infrastructure plan was his most popular campaign promise, rated "very important" by 69% of Americans, compared to just 26% who felt the same about building his border wall. The former promise "to rebuild the nation's network of roads, bridges, and airports" exemplified "Trump's optimistic appeal to an earlier era," Smith writes, while the border wall signified "a turning away from America's founding myth of the open frontier, embracing instead reactionary populism and racist nationalism." Yet it was the one piece of infrastructure Trump actually delivered on, if only in pieces and largely by pilfering funds authorized for other reasons. Smith calls it "a powerful example of how rhetoric successfully transformed reality." 

Taylor's chapter is less about Trump's specific policies on race and more a historical analysis examining "how Trump's ascendance was rooted in the mainstream in the aftermath of the Black movement in the 1960s." She begins by pairing a description of Trump's campaign announcement, with its invocation of Mexican "rapists," with the nearly simultaneous racist murder of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, whose perpetrator reportedly declared, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." The two claims had much in common, Taylor provocatively observes: 

The invocation of rape, by Roof and Trump, was a graphic and brutal envisioning of white men as the feminized victims of rogue outsiders who have taken advantage of a flaccid state ill equipped for war, unable to protect its borders, soft on crime, and generally weak and unable to function effectively, the result being white Americans shoved from the security of their position in the social hierarchy, cast about, and unsure of what the future holds.

This was fantastical, of course, and Taylor proceeds to trace what happened in reality: First the trajectory from Nixon to Bush by which "conservative politics pushed the bounds of racist innuendo, framed as color blindness," and then the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. In that period, "more than 240,000 Black families lost their homes," while the Occupy Wall Street movement "sharpened the focus on systemic crisis, pivoting away from the fixation of the political class on the behavior and morality of the poor and the working class."

That also dovetailed with the publication of Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," which "drew the public's attention to the systemic factors fueling young Black men's disproportionate arrests and incarceration," and coincided with a wave of videos showing the police killings of Black men. That led to the Black Lives Matter movement which marked, Taylor writes, "the emergence of a new Black Left" and coincided with the rise of a broader "new left" that created "pressures not only on liberalism but also on the Right to more sharply rebuke new demands for expanding government after years of neglect": 

A space beyond the color-blind innuendo of the post-civil-rights era emerged for more direct and racist attacks on entire groups of people, cultures, and religion as a way for the Right to more clearly distinguish itself. This was not necessarily in reaction to these new movements, but developed in reaction to the Obama presidency, which became a dress rehearsal for a later brand of Trumpism.

Two more chapters on domestic policy have distinctly different flavors. Bathsheba Demuth's "Against the Tide: The Trump Administration and Climate Change" juxtaposes the international scientific community's call for "urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual" with the scant attention given to climate issues in the 2016 campaign, even facing the hottest year on record, intensified climate activism and 15 domestic weather events that each caused over $1 billion in damage. Demuth situates Trump's climate denialism in the framework of GOP anti-regulatory politics, paired with intensifying youth climate activism, epitomized by the Sunrise Movement and the climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. It isn't just Democrats or liberals who are concerned with climate issues, Demuth notes: In 2019, two-thirds of registered Republicans under age 35 "described themselves as worried about climate change, an 18-point increase over five years."

Demuth observes that the Trump administration's last-minute sale of Arctic oil and gas leases — which actually occurred on Insurrection Day, Jan. 6, 2021 — was supposed to bring in almost $1 billion to help pay for Trump's 2017 tax cuts. But major fossil-fuel companies declined to bid, and the sale netted less than $15 million. In many ways, she writes, this "was a fitting summation of Trump's climate change stance: hasty, unpopular, a policy relic from a different century.... It was emblematic of how out of sync Trump, and many in his party, had become."

A last-minute sale of Arctic oil and gas leases — which actually occurred on Insurrection Day, Jan. 6 — was meant to bring in $1 billion to help pay for Trump's tax cuts. It was a total bust, netting just $15 million.

In her chapter "The Gilded Elevator: Tech in the Time of Trump," Margaret O'Mara chronicles an epochal shift from the period when tech had been celebrated to one where it's criticized from all sides. Although Trump's use of social media clearly makes him a central figure in this narrative, O'Mara contextualizes him as very much a product of his environment, particularly the focus on "engagement," which is most effectively activated through fear and rage. 

There have always been significant contradictions in the tech realm, as explored in Paulina Borsook's classic "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech," but they have remained remarkably well-contained until recently. "America's high-tech regions may have been some of the most Left leaning in the country, but the industry itself was built by Reaganomomics, growing large in a four-decade era of tax cuts, deregulation, pro-employer labor laws, and  a laissez-faire approach to anti-trust enforcement," O'Mara notes. 

"These companies had long branded themselves as a nobler strain of capitalism, able to make money and do good at the same time," she continues, but that image crumbled during Trump's term. "Because of their market-gobbling business models and the fractious politics of Trump's America, these moguls and their companies faced stiff political headwinds from both the progressive left and populist Right," yet ended the Trump years "richer and more entrenched in American life than ever."

International affairs and foreign policy

Two of the three chapters on global matters are strikingly different, due partly to the subject matter — China and the Middle East — while the third, Jeffrey Engel's "No  More Mulligans: Donald Trump and International Alliances," mentions but fails to develop a crucial theme that arguably could undergird this entire book: Trump's 1990 admission to Connie Chung, "I'm a non-trusting person."  

Engel contrasts this with Dwight Eisenhower, who once said, "Patience, tolerance, frankness, absolute honesty in all dealings, are absolutely essential." Trump's fundamental distrust of everyone not only informed his foreign policy ("Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies," "We must as a nation be more unpredictable" and so on), but everything else he has ever done — which is a crucial part of his appeal. It's axiomatic that you can't run a healthy society on this basis, still less forge successful international alliances. America's post-World War II success relied on leading broad coalitions, Engel notes, and "Trump's approach to international alliances and international organizations, therefore, eroded the very cooperative ethos that made the America of Trump's youth the world's greatest power in the first place."

After surveying the chaos Trump sowed, Engel concludes: "The world might have been willing to give the United States a new chance to revert back to the mean in 2009," as signaled by Barack Obama's utterly unearned Nobel Peace Prize, but "is unlikely to so fluidly offer a new chance this time around."

James Mann's "Trump's China Policy: The Chaotic End to the Era of Engagement" offers a clear structural framework — there were three phases to Trump's policy and three factions of China hawks among his advisers (as well as some free-traders) — while Daniel Kurtzer's chapter on Trump's Middle East legacy describes an episodic "series of tactical maneuvers without an underlying strategy." In both cases, Trump was driven primarily by wanting to repudiate prior policies, but different timeframes are highlighted: From Richard Nixon onward, in the case of China, and the post-9/11 period in the Middle East. 

That latter decision avoids many of the darker complexities of America's history in the Middle East, or its ludicrous claims to support democracy. Kurtzer concludes with an unsurprisingly negative view of Trump's record, writing that he "left behind a more dangerous Middle East, in much worse shape than what he inherited," but does nothing to connect those failure to the longer trajectory of flawed American policy in the region.  

In the case of China, Mann observes that "Trump often operated with bipartisan support" on policy questions, "because  American views on China were changing." At the same time, "Trump's pronouncements on China also set loose some of the darker forces that he displayed elsewhere: demonization, conspiratorial thinking, and a strain of racism, along with some self-dealing for the family business." 

Mann divides Trump's policy into three phases: a year of tentative maneuvering with the Chinese regime, followed by two years of negotiations which were abruptly upended by the COVID pandemic. His advisers were split between free traders who represented the waning continuity of bipartisan policy and three distinct factions of China hawks: those focused on trying to end China's restrictive trade practices; more political advocates "focused less on specific policy actions than on nativist rhetoric"; and the less visible but often more influential national security hawks at the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and Commerce Department. 

Of course there was one more faction: the Trump family itself, particularly Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, whose "role and influence on China policy waned, after reports were published of some of their business dealings." Mann's framework makes more sense of Trump's China policies than anyone could reasonably expect and helps situate it within the broader reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship. 

Countervailing forces and the end (for now)

The book's chapters dealing with the "forces that checked and weakened" Trump are necessarily more diverse — but perhaps not diverse enough. Beverly Gage's chapter, "'Nut Job,' 'Scumbag,' and 'Fool': How Trump Tried  to Deconstruct the FBI and the Administrative State," is focused on Trump's battles against the FBI, for example, though it does provide some historical background along with a few references to his broader attacks on other federal agencies. But there's no discussion of Trump's widespread practice of appointing acting officials in order to wreak havoc both within the executive branch and in terms of congressional oversight.  

Merlin Chowkwanyun's chapter on Trump's response to the COVID pandemic is carefully considered, but ultimately in a way that implicitly lets our ex-president off the hook. "I situate Trump's inaction in three contexts: state and local autonomy, cultures of antiexpertise, and resource misallocation and inequality," Chowkwanyun writes, and that proves to be a sensible analytical framework. He offers a sensitive nuanced treatment of the ways that anti-expertise culture can be constructive, as with the rise of the women's health movement or HIV/AIDS and environmental justice activism.

There's no way to separate Trump's culpability for the pandemic from "larger social forces," because he amplified and exacerbated those forces at every turn, making it impossible for others to act responsibly.

That nuance is absent at a higher level, however. After identifying the three contexts, Chowkwanyun introduces "the 60/40 question: If you had to apportion culpability, how much would you lay at the feet of Trump and how much at the larger social forces in which he operated?" In fact, there's no way to separate Trump's culpability from the larger social forces because he repeatedly amplified, intensified and exacerbated the worst of those forces at virtually every turn, making it difficult if not impossible for others to act responsibly. A better question might be: How much did Trump do to exacerbate existing problems, and how many did he create on his own?

The first section of Michael Kazin's chapter, "The Path of Most Resistance: How Democrats Battled Trump and Moved Left" is tellingly entitled "Herbert Donald Trump?" Kazin begins in the late 1970s, when "the Democrats' nearly half-century reign as the majority party ended." (Neither party has held a consistent majority since.) From that point onward, "the election of a Republican president and large GOP gains in Congress had always persuaded [Democratic] party leaders to shift rightward." 

But Trump differed from his GOP predecessors by being uninterested in "developing a coalition that could forge a new Republican majority," preferring to cultivate his MAGA movement instead. This kept his popularity numbers in the low 40s, where "he could not scare Democratic politicians" into echoing him. Instead, many identified with the anti-Trump "Resistance," whose "inchoate nature became a strength instead of a liability," allowing for a wide range of expression. 

Translating this into electoral politics was more complicated, of course. In the end, for Democrats the 2020 election "spelled relief instead of deliverance from the dilemma of how to build an enduring new majority," Kazin writes. If there is a winning formula for Democrats in the years ahead, he suggests it must lie in a rearticulation of "moral capitalism," a touchstone of successful Democratic Party politics throughout its history.

In "Impeachment After Trump," Gregory Downs notes both the supposed ubiquity of reverence for the Constitution and the harsh reality of constitutional destruction. Trump's Senate trials, he writes, 

were, by and large, paeans to the Constitution, although often homages to quite different constitutional interpretations. Democrats voted for conviction to save the Constitution from abuse. Republicans claimed their acquittal honored the Constitution's high standard for impeachment.

In the end, Trump's acquittals "raise the specter that future political leaders will know that they have almost complete impunity as long as they retain the support of their base, no matter what the Constitution says." 

The underdeveloped back story here is that since Nixon and Watergate, the GOP has increasingly become an anti-democratic party. Downs' account of how things have changed avoids stating that clearly, with both-sides commentary that is factually true but misleading: There was increased talk of impeachment under both Bush and Obama, with roughly similar polling support — but Bush was accused of fraudulently leading the nation into a disastrous war, whereas Obama was falsely accused of having been born in Kenya. In the Trump era, Downs writes, "It was clear that impeachment talk was central to U.S. politics and that actual impeachment might never work." In other words, the Constitution has been amended — if not nullified — without making any changes to its text.

This points to the larger problems that surround the Trump presidency. American democracy as we've known it is suffering a fundamental breakdown, unlike anything seen since the Civil War. While this volume provides a rich collection of historical insights, I was haunted by what's missing that might help address that threat: For instance, the broader comparative perspective found in Federico Finchelstein's "From Fascism to Populism in History," the longer cross-cultural historical perspective of Edmund Fawcett's "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," the psychological dimensions found in Ian Hughes' "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" or Steven Hassan's "The Cult of Trump," and the social, cultural and economic dynamics in Peter Turchin's "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History." 

While "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump," has important insights to offer, it should be read alongside these works and others like them, if we truly want to engage with the most basic questions about whether our nation can long endure.

Read more on America's 45th president and his numerous fans:

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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