Shenger Zhou is a resident of Shanghai and an undergraduate student of politics and history at Boston University.
With the second Trump impeachment concluded, the (first) Trump presidency is officially confined to history. How should history understand the Trump presidency? Right now, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the contemporary consensus that Trump shattered the norms of the presidency itself. Hovering like a specter over historical analysis, that consensus obscures other significant innovations that Donald Trump brought to the presidency. Understanding his political strategies will help historians and political scientists generate further insights into the nature of power inherent in the office of the President and the structures that enabled him.
We know that Trump’s presidency was consequential. He single-handedly changed the presidency in several ways, from altering relationships with the press, to hollowing out bureaucracies, and garnering unprecedented media attention from all over the world. What makes Trump different however is the unusualness of his style and methods. Take his use of social media as an example, effective as it was in boosting his own political standing by stirring chaos through entertaining and inflammatory remarks on Twitter. His Twitter account ultimately did not serve the interest of the country (as Twitter itself determined in the wake of the January 6 attacks on the Capitol, with the controversial decision to suppress the President’s access to the platform). And yet no doubt future presidents might adopt similar strategies to more traditional ends (what’s without controversy is to hope they use the Twitter pulpit to pursue national interests rather than personal ones.)
Another controversial president who could demonstrate the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency is George W Bush. Although few people draw comparisons between the two, Bush – like Trump – was plagued by historical low approval ratings and controversies, from his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to his handling of the US economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Are both presidents destined to be remembered horribly?
The Bush and Trump presidencies could not have been more different, as Bush, though awkward in conducting foreign policies, more plausibly rooted his intentions in what he believed was the morally righteous thing to do. By contrast, Trump was a tactician who applied unconventional methods in fulfilling his own political gains regardless of the nation. Concerning Bush, it was his policies that were out of touch with reality. He was simply not savvy enough to understand the political and military complexity of invading the Middle East. Though he perhaps had a point in assuming the danger of terrorism, given the shock that the nation endured with 9/11, his false judgment in invading Iraq, a nation with no credible evidence of preserving weapons of mass destruction, was of his own making. Like Trump, he handicapped himself by politicizing his own intelligence bureau, and the nation paid the price. Unlike Trump, Bush also paid the political costs.
Bush was often depicted as a “war criminal” for the destabilization of the entire Middle East. In retrospect, at least it seems that Bush was reacting to a truly national emergency. Based on his course of actions, we can assume that Bush was simply inept. The nation suffered from the opposite problem with Donald Trump, who apparently never acted in the interest of the nation but who was so adept at controlling media narratives that he remains king of the Republican Party (where is George Bush, these days?). By repeatedly calling the news media fake news, he discredited negative stories. This tactic is effective in a rational choice framework if we were to disregard the implications of it all.
If we were to use the criteria that presidents should be judged by how they employ the most rational choice and effective strategy in fulfilling their political interest within a set of limited options, it should be noted that while Bush did react out of proportion to the crises that he inherited, he did not necessarily use those crises to his own advantage. Bush used the resources of his office in a more traditional sense, though at the time of his presidency many thoughts about his tactics ranging from the opening up of Guantanamo Bay to the invasion of Iraq are approaching the borderline of the power of the American presidency. Though many might argue that his winning of reelection in 2004 indicated the successful selling of his “wartime president” status, this victory prolonged the festering of the existing crisis he manufactured himself in Iraq.
More money and time were wasted in the Middle East, creating a financial drain on the country that cemented his status as a controversial president or “war criminal” by the time he left office in 2009. As it should also be noted those were arguably bad political tactics; though Bush won reelection in 2004 as a “wartime president,” he left office with low approval, and saw his own party move away from his leadership through the Tea Party. Trump, on the other hand, while unsuccessful in winning reelection, used a new method of conducting the presidency that made every scandal conducive to his own personal interest, retaining the loyalty of his base and command of the Republican Party.
Compared to Bush, Trump played the role of presidency unconventionally by being able to manufacture crises to his own advantage, completely changing the way presidency is conducted and, possibly, basic expectations about its function. However much controversy Bush stirred, his controversial legacy nonetheless pales in comparison to Trump’s. And yet, the Trump presidency might be the point of inflection for the country, and a moment for historians to recalibrate how they judge future presidents.