While We the People are busy battling it out on social media unfriending, blocking and retweeting our way to Election Day, historians will undoubtedly duke it out for decades to come trying to explain to future generations how the same nation that produced Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight Eisenhower devolved to this—Donald J. Trump versus Hillary R. Clinton. The worst choice since the airlines offered us chicken or fish.
By definition every presidential election is “one for the history books.” Uniquely, the 2016 campaign features two candidates who entered the race with historic problems, or to be more precise, problems with history: Hillary Clinton, because she has too much history; and Donald Trump, because he lives in a history vacuum.
There have been so many lines crossed and traditions trampled by this GOP nominee it’s not surprising that little attention has been paid to what Trump has not said: virtually nothing about the United States Constitution, zero references to the Founding Fathers and practically no mention at all of the 43 men who preceded him in the office he seeks—not even the obligatory (for a Republican) attaboy to the Gipper. The only presidents on Trump’s radar are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, political piñatas, to be verbally flayed at rallies to the thunderous approval of his supporters.
As the founders of the first nation in the New World, our ancestors made a conscious decision to break with the past. Unlike citizens of almost every other country, Americans are not shackled to traditions and ancient antipathies. Let’s face it; the entire Middle East is one gigantic Hatfields and McCoys. So Trump’s live-in-the-moment worldview might make him the ideal candidate in the Age of Instagram, but it renders him spectacularly ill-prepared to hold an office inexorably built upon the work of its previous occupants.
If we delete John Quincy Adams or Grover Cleveland from American history there’s no guarantee we get Theodore Roosevelt or JFK. The Obama bone is connected to the George Washington bone. But Trump doesn’t care. Despite the millions of words he’s spoken and tweeted since entering this race he’s yet to tell us which past administration, if any, he would emulate.
Does Donald Trump admire any president… other than Vladimir Putin?
I can’t say definitively that Trump is ignorant of history. I’ve only spoken to the man once, and not surprisingly, Reconstruction and the Wilmot Proviso didn’t come up. So it’s possible, in private, he skips around Trump Tower singing the entire first act from Hamilton. What I do know is that publicly, he’s shown zero interest in anything that came before him. It’s as if he and the world were born the same day.
A basic understanding of American history provides the context for current events and future policy. That Trump wants to take us into the future with only a hazy nod to some Golden Age when “America was great” is like learning how to dive without learning how to swim. If his buildings were built on foundations as shaky as his politics they would have toppled over in the first light breeze.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is haunted by her own past, both public and private.
Speaker after speaker at the Democratic Convention labored to reintroduce Hillary Clinton to the American people, with Bill Clinton telling us about the “real Hillary,” the Hillary only he knows. The problem is that ship sailed 25 years ago. We already know everything about Mrs. Clinton, some of it admirable, a lot of it not.
Mrs. Clinton’s Brian Williamsesque Bosnia whopper could be written off as a one-time brain-fart if it weren’t for the enormous catalogue of other truth-challenged doozies she’s fed us over the decades. And let’s never forget that Bill Clinton employed Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser, who used his unique access to the National Archives to stuff highly classified documents down his pants, including the Millennium Alert After Action Report (MAAAR), believed to include President Bill Clinton’s handwritten notes calling off a military strike that could have taken out Osama bin Laden years before the September 11 attacks.
Unless you believe Berger took this initiative on his own, it not unreasonable to speculate that an important piece of our naton’s history was stolen to scrub Bill Clinton’s history.
But that’s Bill, not Hillary, right?
Wrong. With the Clintons it’s always buy one get one free. Like her husband, Hillary’s career has been characterized by ethical lapses and legal hairsplitting. As Carl Bernstein said, “The vast right-wing conspiracy didn’t put the private server in her basement, she did.”
Should Mrs. Clinton become our next president, we can only hope she bones up on one of our lesser known presidents, a fellow New Yorker who stumbled his way into the White House courtesy of a madman’s bullet. Chester A. Arthur was a tool of the corrupt Roscoe Conklin machine, a political hack who did not want to be remembered as a crook. Rather than go along to get along, he ushered in the nation’s first meaningful civil service reform purifying the system that produced him. Today Arthur is remembered, if at all, for his fantastic sideburns. That might not be much but it’s better than being remembered as a thief.
This election, like most, will not hinge on the past. Politicians always talk about the future, but we vote on the present. Presently, events favor Trump. Every cop that gets shot, every truck that plows through a crowd in France, every time a new supposedly lost forever email surfaces the news cycle supports Trump’s narrative that our system is hopelessly broken and needs to be bulldozed. A case can be made.
The problem is Trump wants to remake America in his image, an image at odds with every president going all the way back to 1789. In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland, Trump declared he’s the only person—the ONLY person—who can save America.
History tells us otherwise.
George Washington refused a third term to prove we are bigger than any one man. This is a lesson Trump has not learned.
As if there weren’t a thousand other reasons to be concerned, this alone should disqualify him from the presidency.