Hillary Clinton is the first woman to get a presidential nomination from a major party and stands poised to become our first female leader—she would enter the White House with a spouse who’s occupied it as well. She has been in the national spotlight since 1992, a remarkably long time for any political leader—if elected and reelected, when she finally left office she would have been in the public eye for an incredible 32 years.
Yet somehow, she is not the outlier this election.
Even if you’re a Trump supporter – especially if you’re a Trump supporter – you’d agree no one quite like him has ever made it this far. I’m a bit of a history geek and I’m fairly confident these feats of his are all historical firsts for a nominee.
-Spent much of his life pretending to be Swedish.
-During a party presidential debate, defended his penis.
-Urged supporters to check out someone’s sex tape – Trump later denied doing this but the exact words he tweeted were “check out sex tape” – which, sadly for sex tape fans, did not exist.
And so on. And on. And on. I’m going to ignore the more explicitly criminal matters – such as the potential sexual assaults and charity fraud – to note a concern about Trump I’ve never had about any nominee from either party.
That concern: I genuinely have no idea what Trump believes. This video is from 2008. It’s not just that he praises Hillary and Bill Clinton and bashes anyone attacking them – during another interview he made a point of describing Bill accuser Paula Jones, the same Paula Jones he brought to a debate, as a “loser” – but that Trump seems completely aligned with their political views that he now opposes so loudly. Again, 2008: this is after Bill Clinton’s eight years as President; this is after Hillary Clinton had been elected and reelected as a U.S. Senator.
Was Trump lying then? Is Trump lying now? Did he go to bed one night thinking, “She’ll be a great president” and wake up saying “She’s the devil”, as he has called her during a debate and on many other occasions. (Indeed, at one rally he only alluded to her being the devil – noting that Bernie Sanders made a “deal with the devil” – and fearing this too subtle he quickly added “She’s the devil,” lest anyone miss the meaning.)
You can support Trump as the man to find a new path in Washington – though his decision to have his transition team headed by my home state’s almost comically corrupt governor Chris Christie suggests it will be even more wretched than the one we currently travel – but I’m not certain even Trump himself knows where it’s heading.
I mention all this to note that it’s hard to find historical precedent for Trump, because we don’t know what he actually is. There are certainly superficial connections to be made:
-Like JFK, Trump’s rise would have been unthinkable without his father’s money and (more importantly) connections.
-Like LBJ, Trump is often associated with sexually aggressive behavior. (Allegedly, a female guest of the Johnsons awakened with a light shining in her eyes and heard Lyndon announce: “This is your President: move over!”)
-Like Nixon, Trump was highly connected to Roy Cohn.
-Like Truman, Trump is willing to mix it with the press. (Though, unlike Harry, Trump has yet to promise to punch any of them in the balls.)
-Like James Madison, he sports hands perhaps smaller than the standard pair. (Of course, Madison’s hands were proportional with his body, as he stood only 5’4”.)
The easy answer for his equivalent would be our seventh president, Andrew Jackson
Jackson was always associated with the common man (even though, by the time he took office, he was quite wealthy). He had an endless list of enemies: he remains our only president to say he regretted not killing his own vice president when given the chance. His relations with non-whites were decidedly tense, as a slaveholder and the man responsible for the Trail of Tears. He didn’t get along with foreign lands either, battling the British, Spanish, and various Native American nations. When he lost the election of 1824, he complained endlessly of a “Corrupt Bargain.” His supporters were also viewed as a bit rowdy: indeed, his inauguration saw them literally destroy the White House.
Yet it feels off. Jackson was a man of great temper but also great discipline. He proved a gifted military leader (notably during the Battle of New Orleans, a military triumph soured only slightly by the fact that it occurred after the War of 1812 had ended—no one’s perfect) and his life can be seen as a tribute to the power of focus: opponents knew where Jackson stood on the issues, but he proved so relentless they invariably crumbled.
Likewise, Jackson was unquestionably devoted to his wife Rachel; he remained so even after she died just before he entered the White House. Trump has two divorces, is an acknowledged adulterer, and as, mentioned earlier, all those accusers. Ultimately, Jackson was a man who saw himself as imposing order, while Trump, much like the Joker, both creates and thrives in chaos.
I’d argue Trump’s true predecessor was Franklin Pierce, still the darkest of election dark horses.
On the first ballot for the Democratic presidential nomination, Pierce received precisely zero votes. Indeed, the convention did not turn to him as the nominee until the 49th ballot. Pierce then won the presidency with 254 electoral votes to General Winfield Scott’s 42, in large part due to his relative youth. (Pierce was 47 and Scott was 66 in an era when living past 40 was by no means a given.) And suddenly in 1852, America had a man in charge whose reign had literally seemed unimaginable just a year earlier.
(Let’s not forget how quick so many were to dismiss Trump: nice work again, Nate Silver.)
And how was the Pierce presidency? Quite frankly, a disaster: he and his successor James Buchanan deserve much of the blame for making a Civil War inevitable—he has the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands.
That said, in fairness to Pierce, it’s amazing he was able to function at all. Soon after winning, Pierce watched his son die in a train accident. (None of his three children lived past 11.) During his term, his own vice president died—the job remained unfilled for the remainder of his term. Pierce may be best remembered today for his close friendship with Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Even this ended horrifically, as Pierce was the one who discovered Hawthorne’s dead body in 1864.
Like Trump, Pierce was surrounded by chaos. (Though, unlike Trump, it wasn’t usually of his creation.) Once in office, the chaos overwhelmed and crushed Pierce. There is no reason to think it shall prove any more beneficial to The Donald.
Pierce and Trump have other qualities in common. Both ran for the presidency as noted teetotalers: Trump because he saw what alcohol did to his brother, Pierce because he was what we’d call today a recovering alcoholic. Both often felt they’d been abandoned by their party, with Trump feuding with Paul Ryan among many others and Pierce’s fellow Democrats refusing even to let him seek another term, which reportedly inspired the quip, “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.” (Pierce lived up to his word, drinking himself to death by age 64.)
Again: Pierce got in office through the craziest possible circumstances, yet his rise was not nearly as crazy as what occurred once in office. I plan to vote accordingly.
And on a personal note, I’d like to note I’m trying to contribute more to the Coliseum again, but it’s difficult because I’ve been writing quite a bit for Made Man, on topics ranging from my father-in-law’s imprisonment for a non-violent political protest in Taiwan (and yes, I do think Trump’s suggestion he will use his office to jail a political opponent, beyond being wildly unconstitutional, is plain horrifying) to the joys of having a drink, something I think everyone in America, regardless of political persuasion, will richly deserve come Tuesday night.
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