George Santayana's saying that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is total hogwash. But, I do think that studying the past can help us understand the present. (Since I am a professional historian, this should not be a surprising position.)
With this blog post, I want to very briefly point out (in chronological order) some of the worst traits of past presidencies that I believe are present in the current Trump administration. Every presidential administration in U.S. history has had problems, of course. But I am not sure we have ever seen this many problems in the same presidency (a bunch of Wikipedia and other links are included if you want to read more).
(1) Bigotry against non-whites and cronyism from the Jackson administration
When Andrew Jackson ascended to the presidency in 1829, he was so popular that excited voters essentially threw a kegger in the White House after his inauguration. But part of Jackson’s appeal had a darker side—many voters were excited by the fact that he was outwardly racist toward non-whites, especially indigenous peoples. Indian removals happened at his behest (he even ignored Supreme Court orders to do so, saying, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"). The Trail of Tears is the best known of component of these.
Not as bad as the Indian removals (what is?), Jackson also practiced the “spoils system,” which means that he appointed friends and supporters to political posts instead of appointing deserving people on the basis of merit. This abominable practice eventually led to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 whereby civil servants are supposed to be chosen by merit.
How is Trump like this? I have previously argued that he is a white supremacist, so that fits the first part. And Trump’s appointment of political supporters and family members to a number of top posts easily first the second.
(2) General corruption and scandals of the Harding administration
Warren G. Harding was not a bad man, but he did have a tendency to appoint unscrupulous men to office. There were a number of scandals that occurred during his administration, but the best known is the Teapot Dome Scandal. The Secretary of Interior leased Navy oil reserves in Wyoming to private companies that essentially stole U.S. oil reserves. It was the most significant scandal in U.S. history at the time.
How is Trump like this? Take your pick. Look at all the scandals from Scott Pruitt. In general, Trump's presidency seems designed to get as much money as possible out of the deal for he and his (something previous presidents, particularly men like George Washington or Jimmy Carter, would have abhorred). The Trump International Hotel in Washington is one of the clearest cut cases where Trump is using the office to make money.
(3) Japanese internment during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations
Executive Order 9066, issued shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, did not specifically mention Japanese-Americans, but it still led to the internment of over 100,000 of them, about two-thirds of those being U.S. citizens. The order itself cited “protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.” Specifically, it allowed military officials “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” Clearly racially motivated (no German- or Italian-Americans were interned), the incident remains one of the most reprehensible moments in U.S. history.
How is Trump like this? I am trying to avoid the word “baby jails” here… a recent Vanity Fair headline declared, “THE U.S. IS BUILDING JAILS FOR TODDLERS BECAUSE TRUMP ‘DOESN’T WANT TO LOOK WEAK.’” No matter how you slice it, the United States has been separating immigrant and refugee children from their parents and jailing both for indefinite lengths of time. Trump himself tweeted out that immigrants did not deserve due process because U.S. immigration policy is “laughed at all over the world.”
(4) Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration
A graduate of dook** law, Richard Nixon was not always a bad president. He signed significant environmental legislation, like creating the EPA and the Clean Air Act of 1970. He worked hard to lessen the Cold War by negotiating the SALT I treaty and normalizing relations with China. His prosecution of the Vietnam War was disgraceful, but not his entire presidency.
But Nixon did preside over the greatest political scandal in U.S. history, Watergate. The short answer is that he was so desirous of staying in power that he was willing to spy on his political rivals and steal information from them. For this, he was eventually forced out of office (with impeachment looming, Nixon resigned).
How is Trump like this? It is clear that members of the Trump administration worked with Russians in an attempt to influence the 2016 election, part of which involved stolen emails from the Democratic National Convention. The most significant aspect seems to be a 9 June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower where several members of the Trump campaign, including one of his sons, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager met with several Russian agents. Like Nixon, Trump craves political power and is willing to resort to highly questionable or illegal means to achieve it.
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As I said at the start, the past does not repeat itself. But to ignore similarities between the current presidency and some of the darkest moments in U.S. history is unwise. If it continues on the current trajectory, the 45th president’s term will end up the most despicable, scandal-ridden presidency in U.S. history.
**Reminder that I went to UNC. That’s just how we spell the name of that school.