Upping Jamelle Bouie’s piece today. Trump is not an aberration in American history, except for arguably his personal behavior. Otherwise, everything about him is something that other presidents have also done.
Put differently, there is very little about Donald Trump that doesn’t have a direct antecedent in the American past. Despite what Joe Biden might say about its supposedly singular nature (“The way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from, is absolutely sickening”), the president’s racism harkens right back to the first decades of the 20th century, when white supremacy was ascendant and the nation’s political elites, including presidents like Woodrow Wilson, were preoccupied with segregation and exclusion for the sake of preserving an “Anglo-Saxon” nation.
Trump’s indifference to the pandemic is, in the same way, an echo of the Hoover administration, which stood by as the country was crushed by economic depression and the immiseration of millions of Americans. It is impossible (for me at least) to think about child separation without also thinking about chattel slavery and the nation’s vast trade in enslaved people, conducted over decades under three generations of American presidents, including men like James Polk, who bought and sold human beings from the White House.
The president’s personal corruption is somewhat unique — there’s never been someone in the White House so committed to the most petty forms of graft — but his lawlessness (and that of his administration) is the direct outgrowth of a contempt for accountability that stretches across four decades of Republican presidencies, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. The same William Barr who helped cover up Iran-contra for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with his support of pardons is now attorney general under Trump, ready to abuse the law for the sake of the president’s re-election.
Trump isn’t the first president in recent memory to let Americans suffer and die in the face of a deadly hurricane — that distinction goes to the aforementioned George W. Bush. And he’s certainly not the first to let a plague kill thousands of Americans — that distinction goes to Ronald Reagan (of course, for his dull response to the flu pandemic in 1918, Wilson deserves that distinction too).
I’ve thought of Trump as the worst possible combination of Harding’s corruption, Andrew Johnson’s racism, Jackson’s misogynist race-baiting political base, W and Hoover’s indifferent to people suffering, etc. Yeah, he’s very terrible. I’d argue the worst in American history. But he is an extremely American person, not an outlier.