History won't forgive Trump's transgressions, presidential historian says
TORONTO -- If presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg updates his 2008 book in which he evaluated the legacy of presidents up to Bill Clinton, he’s certain Donald Trump would come out near the bottom because of his mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and his lack of personal character.
In an interview with CTVNews.ca from his home in Florida, Felzenberg said he hasn’t yet come up with a new list for a second edition of The Leaders We Deserve (And a Few We Didn’t), but he’s confident Trump will rank among current basement-dwellers James Buchanan, who is blamed for not confronting the issue of slavery or the looming civil war, and Andrew Johnson, who was also impeached.
The question of Trump’s legacy is an interesting one because he has been a president like no other in modern history. Has he broken the mould or has he been merely a crude aberration when it comes to how a president speaks and acts?
Trump, elected on a platform to “drain the swamp” in Washington and who celebrated his status as a political outsider, spent four years brashly attacking political opponents, allies he felt hadn’t been properly loyal, bureaucrats, intelligence and justice officials, scientists, the post office, the entire voting system, the media, and public health leaders.
Repeatedly described by insiders as a narcissist with a fragile ego and a short attention span, Trump displayed often boorish and petty insolence on Twitter, which he used frequently and to great effect. He has now been permanently banned by the platform.
Perhaps most damaging and lasting, said Felzenberg, is Trump’s alleged role in manipulating some of his devoted followers with divisive and inflammatory rhetoric that incited a Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol that killed five, shocked the world, and triggered his second impeachment.
Whatever comes of holding Trump accountable for the attempted insurrection, Felzenberg said that event has “tarnished any future attempt of any revisionist historian to try to make a positive take on him.”
His stoking of extremists through repeated false and unsubstantiated claims of a fraudulent November vote and refusing to admit defeat has left many Americans worrying whether the country’s democracy could survive.
“This has scared a lot of people. Bad things have happened elsewhere when democracy is undermined and regimes fall,” said Felzenberg.
In his book, Felzenberg ranked each president on his vision for the country, personal character and competence in handling the policy issues of his time, among other factors.
The country’s 45th president did have a vision, said Felzenberg, including scaling back the United States’ involvement in world affairs, renegotiating free trade deals that he said weren’t fair to American interests, and arguing that allies were exploiting the country’s military might and not paying their share for global security.
For instance, Trump led a renegotiation of NAFTA – now called the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement or CUSMA in Canada – which, among other changes, provides American farmers with more access to Canada’s dairy market and reduces duties for Canadians buying and shipping items from the United States and Mexico.
On some matters of foreign affairs and trade, history may judge Trump as having been right, Felzenberg said, but he’s mishandled relations with China, weakened global alliances, and alienated allies. He’s also set back the American cause of furthering freedom, equality and human rights around the world.
“He’s shown sympathy for autocrats and made jokes about Russians killing journalists. His outright hostility to journalists has been appalling.”
At home, he would have received strong marks for his work on the economy but his bungling of the COVID-19 crisis, which has killed close to 398,000 Americans and sickened almost 24 million as of Monday, has undone any of that, he said. He’s hampered and politicized the response, shown a disregard for science, and displayed a lack of empathy for the virus’ many victims, said Felzenberg.
“I actually think that without COVID he would have won the election. But he didn’t address the major issue facing the nation,” said the longtime lecturer at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Throughout history, a president’s response to crises has defined legacies. Things like World War II and secession and the Cuban missile crisis have made great presidents. But crises have also destroyed legacies, too.”
If George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Trump has the opposite problem.
According to the Washington Post’s fact-checking team in October, Trump averaged more than 50 false or misleading claims a day on the campaign trail and was on track to tell more than 25,000 lies since he took office.
For that reason and others, Trump doesn’t score well on Felzenberg’s measure of personal character.
“Lying is a way of life, he’s been monetizing the presidency, and he doesn’t act based on what’s good for the American people, but on what’s good for Donald Trump.”
Many critics have accused Trump of using his powerful office to promote developments abroad and to direct government contracts to his business allies after he refused to give up control of his real estate holdings after being elected. He backed off on a plan to host a G7 summit at one of his Florida golf courses only after it kicked up a widespread firestorm.
Felzenberg said historians often argue that a president has to be out of office for years so that a more complete and deeper understanding of his impact can be assembled.
“I don’t think anything will change with this president. He’s the first president to declare war on the country. He’s had a scorched earth policy since his loss. Americans forgive a lot, but I don’t think that’s happening here.”