In a tumultuous first two weeks in office, President Donald Trump has broken with norms and precedents of his office, spawned dozens of lawsuits, generated historically low public approval numbers and some of the largest protests in U.S. history.
Historians and political scientists in North Carolina agree the Trump presidency is, in many ways, without precedent. They are also expressing concern about Trump’s impact on the institution of the presidency, the functioning of the nation’s government and the standing of the U.S. in the world.
CHARACTER AND TEMPERAMENT MAKE A PRESIDENCY
William Leuchtenburg is one of the nation’s most respected historians. A professor emeritus of history at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he is the author of more than a dozen books on American history – a number on U.S. presidents. The latest, 2015’s The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, looks at the making of the modern presidency. However, Leuchtenburg said, the modern era has produced few presidents one could easily compare to Trump.
“We really have no precedent for a chief executive with this sort of temperament – so careless about his statements, so quick to take offense,” Leuchtenburg said in an interview this week. “There is concern not just here at home but abroad, as I know from letters I’m getting from historians particularly in Europe. There is great alarm about how irresponsible the man seems.”
The most obvious comparison to a modern president is to Richard Nixon, Leuchtenburg said – a president whose erratic behavior and illegal actions led to a constitutional crisis and him and his resignation from office in disgrace.
“Among other things Nixon would sometimes espouse the ‘madman theory,’” Leuchtenburg said. “That if he convinced his foes overseas that there’s almost anything this man might do, they might be willing to make concessions. He was talking mostly about the Vietnam war at that time and it’s an unsettling thought for any head of state. But beyond that, it just didn’t work. The Russians and the Chinese were no more responsive to Nixon than they had been to Lyndon Johnson before him.”
One of the largest concerns about Trump’s temperament is the power of a president’s words. To a greater extent than almost any world figure, a U.S. president’s statements can have vast ramifications. Single comments can impact world financial markets, spark reaction from global allies and adversaries, lend aid to foreign governments or fuel rebellions.
President Franklin Roosevelt was an innovator in his communication with American citizens through his series of “fireside chat” radio addresses. At a time when relatively few Americans had ever actually heard a president speak, Roosevelt’s talks brought the presidency into American homes and made them feel connected to the president and the government in a much more personal way.
But Roosevelt’s addresses were carefully considered, measured in tone and relatively rare. He resisted calls to make them more frequent because he feared the President’s words would lose their impact if such talks became more commonplace.
Trump’s reliance on Twitter to regularly vent personal frustrations, attack political opponents, criticize businesses and individuals is unprecedented, experts agree – and could harm the power of the presidency.
“We’re really in uncharted territory,” said Carrie Eaves, assistant professor of of Political Science at Elon University. “This level of publicly lashing out is certainly unique. As President you’re going to take a certain amount of criticism, and how you respond to that is a matter of character. President [George W.] Bush reportedly didn’t really care what people thought of him and didn’t address it publicly. That isn’t the case with Trump.”
Charles Prysby, a professor of Political Science at UNC Greensboro and co-author of the 2014 book Candidate Character Traits in Presidential Elections.
Trump’s defensive and vitriolic use of Twitter was unusual even for a candidate, Prysby said – nevermind a president. His continuation of that behavior in office could have serious consequences for how the presidency is seen by Americans and other world leaders, Prysby said.
“When Trump speaks, it’s possible it’s not going to be treated in the way we have when other Presidents speak,” Prysby said. “Maybe it won’t have the same kind of impact because past Presidents weren’t tweeting every day. His words may not be considered to be as significant and there may be a fair amount of discounting what he says.”
“Often things he says will be contradicted by a subsequent tweet or comment,” Prysby said. “Obviously, it’s going to be difficult for him to really be consistent when throwing out that many statements all the time – so that may lead to people just not putting as much weight in what he says.”
David Holian, an associate professor of Political Science at UNC Greensboro, is Prysby’s co-author on the 2014 book on the character of presidential candidates. Holian said Trump has taken advantage of – and helped to create – an environment wherein an American president can behave in such unprecedented ways.
“I think any other president would be felt to be bound by what they have said in the past – particularly what he’s said publicly in the past,” Holian said. “But we’re kind of through the looking glass in terms of someone who will stand up and say absolutely the opposite of what we know to be true.”
“He has the ability to act like this because of media fragmentation, because he knows that his supporters already don’t trust mainstream sources of news,” Holian said. “They opt-in and get their news from sources that aren’t really news in the traditional sense but are polemical – ideological or nationalist.”
Prysby and Holian agree a President’s temperament and how they communicate is important both symbolically and materially. But it is most important in policy, they said – and how it is carried out.
POLICY AND NORMS IN THE PRESIDENCY
“Temperament can be very important to domestic and foreign policy,” Prysby said. “If a person with a different temperament had been elected in 2000 maybe we wouldn’t have gotten into the Iraq war – but Bush had a temperament where maybe he was willing to rush into something more quickly.”
President Barack Obama was known to be more contemplative about foreign and domestic decisions, Prysby said – sometimes to the frustration of both the political left and right.
“Trump seems to be an individual who is willing to make quick and rash decisions without thinking through all the things,” Prysby said. “That can have consequences.”
The most obvious example so far, experts agreed, was the chaotic and unpopular way in which Trump’s executive order creating a travel and refugee ban was carried out.
“You can talk about a number of incompetent rollouts under previous presidents,” Holian said. “You could point to the rollout of Medicare Part D under Bush or Whitehouse.gov and Obamacare under Obama. But this flurry of executive orders from Trump, especially on refugees and immigration, the way it’s carried out has just been a complete disaster.”
A huge part of the problem was that the order wasn’t vetted by the very people who would need to carry out the directives, Holian said.
“So we have mass confusion at airports, we have the possibility that court ordered stays were not adhered to,” Holian said. “So ten days into an administration we have to ask – was the ignorance of court orders by design? Or was just such confusion sown that we had border control folks who had legitimate questions about what their jobs were given these presidential directives that weren’t thought out and didn’t seek input from the people on the front lines who would need to carry these things out?”
“There was no safety net for thinking about unintended consequences and people who clearly did not deserve to be caught in this net, were – green card holders, people who have already been cleared by a very thorough vetting process for medical purposes, educational purposes.”
The result: criticism from congressional leaders of both parties, unprecedented dissent from more than 1,000 professionals at the state department and broad public agreement the order will not make America safer.
“This kind of thing is precisely why you have a vetting process,” Holian said. “The state department, the people who have lifetimes of experience doing these things, would say that you’re going to have problems not just constitutionally with this, but also diplomatically. And all of that was completely ignored.”
That’s not just a political problem for a president, experts agreed – it may have a catastrophic effect on American foreign policy and the nation’s place in the global community.
Gunther Peck, an associate professor of History at Duke University, studies the history of immigration policy in America. Trump’s order and the way it was
carried out reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of refugee policy in American history under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
“Refugees, to put it in a crass way, have always been assets to American policy,” Peck said. “They are a way that we respond to world events, achieve diplomatic ends and honor our commitments.
From World War II to the Cold War and through to the global war on terror, Peck said, presidents have embraced refugees as an essential tool. In the rare cases where we have rejected refugees, it has almost always resulted in a stain on the legacies of presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s scaling back of European refugees and treatment of Japanese Americans and immigrants.
“We took a lot of refugees from Hungary in 1956 because they were fleeing communism,” Peck said. “In the 1970s refugees that we took in from Vietnam and Laos…these folks were from a war we had lost. The reason Democrats and Republicans embraced it was because it was a way of honoring our commitments.”
“Ronald Reagan embraced refugees, expanded the number of refugees,” Peck said. “He saw it as a key way of fighting a global cold war. It highlighted our moral superiority, he claimed, and they tend to be some of the most highly skilled, productive citizens.”
In the current climate, Peck said, refugees are understood by most diplomatic and military experts to be incredible assets in the war on terror.
“They speak the native languages, they understand the culture, they know things,” Peck said. “They also understand why Democratic ideals matter. They are victims of the absence of that. That’s why they are refugees. For Trump to see them primarily as potential terrorists is a huge mistake.”
State department officials and career diplomats making that argument have not only been ignored but met with hostility – the administration making it clear that those not on board with the Trump agenda should leave their government positions.
“He’s inviting them to resign,” Holian said. “He’s inviting a brain drain, a drain of institutional memory and expertise.”
DISTRUST OF GOVERNMENT, DISTRUST OF EXPERTISE
Holian said that sort of attitude may be a natural consequence of an administration whose executive has no government or military experience – and who appears to view with distrust anyone with long experience in government.
“We’re on a decades long journey of people feeling less and less connected to the government, less and less like the government is on their side, less that it is on their side and more that it is a foreign institution that has been captured by elites and not for the good of regular folks,” Holian said. “Trump does seem to represent that.”
That attitude is not unprecedented in American history – though few expressing it have actually risen to the Oval Office. Even Reagan and George W. Bush, both billed as outsiders, had been governors of California and Texas respectively. Both relied heavily on advisors with long histories in government and largely respected American norms of government and governing.
For an apt comparison to a previous president, experts said, we may have to look much further back in American history.
“Trump has made these references that he’d like to model himself off of Andrew Jackson,” said Eaves. “He put a portrait of Jackson in the Oval office.”
Jackson is a controversial historical figure not just because of his treatment of Native Americans and naked racism but because of the way he governed.
“He was very antagonistic, saw himself as the guardian of the common man and he relied on the spoils system, rewarding those who agreed with him and gave him favorable press coverage,” Eaves said.
“We really look with concern on Jackson’s temperament,” he said. “He sets in motion what becomes the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee, he hung British subjects when he was a governor in Florida, he was hot headed and killed a man in a duel.”
“Trump adopting Andrew Jackson as a historical figure to be admired is not encouraging,” Leuchtenburg said. “But unhappily, it may be the best comparison.”