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Can History Prepare Us for the Trump Presidency?

Twenty-one historians explain which moments in history are closest to the Trump election - and what we can learn.
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The 45th president had already broken many norms when he took the oath of office: Donald Trump is the first commander in chief never to have served in public office or the military; he enters the White House with historically low favorability ratings; and he won an election despite losing the popular vote, after a campaign marked by scandal and unprecedented foreign meddling. But is the United States witnessing a truly unique moment with Trump’s arrival in the White House, or can history offer models for what 2017—and the four or eight years ahead—might look like? Politico Magazine asked historians to identify which moments in history most resemble this one, and what those moments can teach us about the presidency and the country today. Their answers ranged from the presidencies of Andrew Jackson (“wild and unpredictable”) to Abraham Lincoln (characterized by “geographical division”), from Andrew Johnson (an “outsider determined to bring insiders to heel”) to Richard Nixon (who brought to the White House “a deep distrust of government officials”). Still other historians, however, insisted the Trump presidency will be like nothing America has witnessed before.

The Founding era, 1790s
Joanne B. Freeman, professor of history and American studies at Yale University

It’s hard to focus on one aspect of our current historical moment to compare with the past. We’ve certainly seen individual aspects of it before. Extreme political polarization? Check. Populist surges? Check. Elite-bashing? Check. Anti-intellectualism? Check. Xenophobia? Two checks. In 1828, we saw a transition between a supremely intellectual president—John Quincy Adams—and a supremely non-intellectual president—Andrew Jackson. (One newspaper summed up their presidential battle as a contest between Adams, “who can write,” and Jackson, “who can fight.”) But Donald Trump isn’t Jackson—in many ways. Before becoming president, Jackson had been a politician, serving in the Tennessee constitutional convention, as well as the House of Representatives and Senate. He shifted some political norms, but he didn’t abandon them. For that reason, on the eve of this inauguration, I suppose I find myself thinking about the Founding era, when national political norms were still being formed, the political times felt undefined and unstable, and the future seemed unknown.