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Opinion: What Trump can learn from past presidents

David Shribman
President Donald Trump

One of the many casualties of the modern age is the substitution of Presidents Day for the annual celebration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and of George Washington on Feb. 22—two dates that every American schoolchild once knew, marking the births of two presidents every American schoolchild once revered.

As a consequence, on Monday we celebrate automobile and department-store sales rather than salute the president whose dignity and restraint helped create the country and the president whose compassion and vision ended the scourge of slavery. But what is worse is that this generic Presidents Day provides equal approbation for William McKinley and for Theodore Roosevelt, for Herbert Hoover and for Franklin Roosevelt. To say nothing of how Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan can claim coverage by the antiseptic holiday Americans have celebrated since 1971.

All of which brings us to the current incumbent, who on Presidents Day might pause from the momentary impact of Twitter to consider the long-term implications of history.

Donald J. Trump’s detractors and supporters alike might agree that the 45th president does not possess the instinct for introspection, but that may be too facile a judgment.

Consider for a moment his reverence for his father—not occasionally but constantly. And consider how Trump measures himself against his predecessors—not humbly but obsessively, even on the most trivial of matters. Just last week, in discussing his administration’s responses to the crisis in Venezuela, he said, "I have great flexibility. I probably have more flexibility than any man who’s ever been in this office."

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—one a flamboyant showoff much praised for his intellectual agility, the other a sneak-intellectual much derided for his perceived intellectual shortcomings—both spent eight White House years reading presidential biographies. They wanted to understand the office they occupied, to be sure, but they also wanted to see how history measured presidents. Two men whose opponents besieged them searched for the keys to greatness and historical redemption.

So do not blithely dismiss the notion that Trump may be considering his legacy, maybe not by reading Robert W. Merry’s biography of James K. Polk (a surpassingly successful president) or by dipping into Amity Shlaes’s life of Calvin Coolidge (whose record has more to say for itself than Coolidge had to say himself).

That’s not Trump’s way, though as president an earlier populist and disruptor, Theodore Roosevelt, read Plutarch, Aeschylus, Euripides, Macaulay, Gibbon, Carlyle—and his friend Owen Wister, whose novels might actually appeal to the current president, and Jack London’s "Call of the Wild," whose title and contents surely would entertain Trump, including this quote:

"During the four years since his puppyhood he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical."

Presidents customarily are preoccupied with their place in history, and this preoccupation usually sets in during the second half of their term; they don’t, after all, know whether they will get a second four years. It was this preoccupation that led Richard Nixon to travel to the Soviet Union and China in 1972, essentially repudiating his status as a committed and, in election years, cruel Cold Warrior. It was this preoccupation that led George H. W. Bush to embrace the 1990 budget accord that included new taxes, baldly repudiating his read-my-lips nomination speech delivered in 1988.

Both men—Republican presidents, though Democrats have made similar mid-course corrections—worried that the politics of the moment would look small in the large view of history and opted to be farsighted rather than nearsighted.

For one of those presidents, Nixon, that vision paid off, and he won a second term. For the other, Bush, the price was far harsher: a GOP rebellion led by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia that undermined Bush’s moral authority for the short term, though outside of movement-conservative circles he largely has been redeemed in retrospect.

In both cases, a conservative president did not so much abandon his base as seek to lead that base in a different direction, trusting that the verdict of history would redeem him. 

Is this something that Trump might attempt?

Not likely, because though Trump has changed parties (Democrat to Republican) and abortion views (favoring legalization to opposing), he has not altered his essential personality or character.

And not likely, if he thinks that his base will rebel, for it is his devout conviction that these voters delivered the White House to him and the cultivation of their support is the key to re-election. He might be right, for he might say to those who seek to change his style, language and comportment what George H. W. Bush once said to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat: ‘’If you’re so goddamned smart, how come you’re not the president of the United States?’’

In his biography of Rostenkowski, who died nine years ago, James L. Merriner quotes the onetime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee telling President Bush: "If you lead, they’ll follow." That’s a calculation Trump must consider as well.

Here’s why: The election map in 2020 may differ substantially from the one in 2016, which colored Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Republican red. Democratic gubernatorial candidates won all three states in midterm elections last year.

Trump must shore up his support in all three of those states, where his net approval ratings—measured by subtracting his disapproval ratings from his approval numbers—are 10 percentage points or lower. He also must broaden his appeal for election insurance. Indeed, his net approval ratings in important states such as Florida (22 points), Texas (20) and Ohio (14), according to the Morning Consult data consultancy, are big enough that he may have room for some policy or stylistic adjustments.

That’s the short-run landscape. The longer-run landscape is far less promising for the president, because the people who form the historical consensus are not Trump’s normal constituency, and indeed they find him colorful and idiosyncratic at best, repellent at worst.

The historical jurors are historians. Conservative commentators are correct when they complain that university campuses are dominated by liberals—far more so, perhaps, than the mainstream news organizations that the president believes are his tormentors. In their hands—on their keyboards and screens—are the verdicts of history.

David M. Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.