He hasn’t even been the former president for three months, but already it has started. The historians’ evaluation of Donald J. Trump is underway. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Of course, many commentators and historians made tentative judgments while he still was in the White House. Professional historians aren’t exactly the jury that the 45th president would choose; men and women who teach in universities, who seek to discover facts through research, who tend to be more contemplative than emotive, are not his best focus group. And a Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 2016 voting patterns in counties holding each state’s flagship public university — the 2020 election doesn’t count, because so many students were home because of the virus — showed that Trump prevailed in only 20% of them.
Making quickie assessments has been something of a historians’ tradition; Princeton University Press, which has commissioned this process, produced swift historical evaluations shortly after the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Now the historians are on to Trump, and they cannot avoid questions like these:
Was Trump’s election the result of his own personal appeal, or was his appeal the perfect match of the man and the moment? Or is there a more cynical explanation?
This is a complicated question. Trump — the only president never to have served in either the military or public office — was by any measure an unusual White House nominee. Some analysts compared him to Wendell Willkie, a business executive who, like Trump, moved from left to right, but the Indianan served in World War I and had a far silkier personality than Trump. He also was defeated in the 1940 election, losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in FDR’s third campaign for the presidency.
The question is whether Trump’s ability to speak to the dispossessed and less educated was a manipulative parlor trick performed by a wealthy graduate of an Ivy League university, or whether he was at base an outsider, much like his base, spurned by the fancy people of Manhattan whose approbation he failed to win and dismissed by the coastal elites of which he was never a member, despite his New York home. It is possible that both are true, but that debate will rage long after the Princeton press sets its volume in type.
Was Trump a transformational president producing a fundamental realignment, or were the 2016 and 2020 elections purely the result of his presence as the Republican nominee?
The answer will not be known until the 2024 election, or perhaps 2028, but the historians will have to confront this question in 2021. If his victory in 2016 and his strong but unavailing performance in 2020 were due principally to his own personal appeal, then he is a less consequential historical figure than he would be if the reverse were true. But if he has performed in the second decade of the 21st century what Roosevelt achieved in the fourth decade of the 20th, then he will be remembered as a far more consequential figure.
The FDR coalition of workers, immigrants and intellectuals dominated American politics, and also dominated American culture, for a half-century and spawned imitators and pretenders alike, plus formidable figures such as Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale. The New Deal was followed by Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, and it wasn’t until Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that the “era of big government is over” that the legacy began to peter out — though the $1.9 trillion Biden COVID relief package and the prospect of a $3 trillion infrastructure initiative suggests there is life in the old notions after all.
If, however, the sort of people who were attracted to the New Deal and who, beginning in 1968, began to drift rightward, first as Democrats for Nixon and then Reagan Democrats, are consolidated as conservatives because of Trump, then he will be remembered as a far more significant presence in the American story.
Did Trump overhaul and then take over the Republican Party?
We don’t yet know the answer to this, either, but the tentative verdict suggests he did. It’s difficult to cite a modern analogue, though Theodore Roosevelt comes close as someone whose progressivism transformed the early 20th-century GOP, as does the unlikely figure of Warren G. Harding, whose siren call for “normalcy” shed the last remnants of the TR ethos in 1920. We remember Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as signature figures of American conservatism, but in historical terms, how different in domestic politics were they from, say, Calvin Coolidge?
What is the future of the GOP in a country and era of rapid demographic change?
The party’s 2012 autopsy, warning that the prospect of a majority-minority America and the aging out of white male conservatives posed a mortal threat to the GOP, has been dismissed by some Republican theorists. Those believing that a healthy Republican Party is an essential element of a healthy American body politic worry that verdict may yet be relevant. Part of the answer will come from how potential presidential candidates like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, both challengers of the 2020 election results, package themselves in 2024, and whether Trump runs again.
What was the true nature of the Jan. 6 rebellion?
This, too, awaits the passage of time, but the tentative conclusion does not put the president in a favorable light, as the private (and in the case of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, the public) ruminations of many Republican leaders suggest. And if that riot is followed by another, or by episodes of homegrown terrorism unrelated to the 2020 election, fresh questions about domestic tranquility will be unavoidable.
And how rugged are American democratic institutions anyway?
Part of the answer will come from the evaluation of how fundamentally Trump challenged those institutions. But some will come from reflections, and perhaps revelations, on how close the Jan. 6 rebels came to taking over the Capitol. Historians seek answers to the conundrums they identify in the past. But this time around, many of the answers will come in the future.