As president, which chief executive from America’s past will Donald Trump most resemble?
There are many lenses through which one can view this question, of course. If you’re a Trump supporter, you could perhaps compare him to a recent Republican icon.
“Like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump has the honesty/bluntness to confront the challenges facing the American people from his 1st day in office,” tweeted Vice President-elect Mike Pence back in September.
Opponents are thinking more along the lines of Warren G. Harding, an ineffective president fond of poker and other amusements whose appointees looted the Treasury via the Teapot Dome scandal.
If it’s Mr. Trump’s populist appeal to the white working class you’re matching, maybe Andrew Jackson is close. President Jackson famously presided over the passage of some political power from elites to more ordinary voters.
If sheer pugnacity is the key, it’s either Jackson – who killed a man in a duel – or another 19th century President, John Tyler. As a 10-year-old, Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster. Tyler’s second wife was a woman 30 years his junior. Like Trump, Tyler was not averse to alluding to his virility.
Past is prologue
But perhaps what should be indicative here are not personal qualities but cycles of time. Maybe the 44 (so far) US presidencies can be grouped into repetitive political patterns.
If that’s the case, Trump might the Theodore Roosevelt, on the upside. On the downside, he might be Benjamin Harrison. Or maybe he’ll be Jimmy Carter.
The theory of political time is the brainchild of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek. In a path-breaking book first published in 1993, he held that five “reconstructive” US presidents – Thomas Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan – have launched wholly new governance eras. (George Washington is in a category by himself, FYI.)
These reconstructors are followed by various other kinds of presidents, from successors who agree with and simply articulate the prevailing ideas (think George H. W. Bush), to opposition figures who can’t preempt existing ways of doing things (Bill Clinton), to disjunctive presidents, the last in the line, who preside over the crumbling of the old regime (James Buchanan, who watched the nation slide towards Civil War).
Trump as a bold reformer
In this framework, Trump might be Teddy Roosevelt, says William Adler, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. Roosevelt was someone who accepted the existing Republican regime, at that time dating back to Lincoln, as Trump is the inheritor of the existing Reagan GOP. But Teddy bent that regime in new directions, as Trump is threatening to do today.
There was no Twitter in those days but Roosevelt was a pioneering communicator in the Trumpian mold, going over the heads of Congress to speak directly to the people about his policy proposals. He bargained directly with the heads of banks and other private sector entities in what he framed as the public interest. He was an aggressive executive.
“Thinking of Trump as akin to TR makes him a potentially much more groundbreaking president, who smashes old ideas about the presidency and reframes our notions of presidential power,” says Professor Adler in an email.
Trump as a fluke
But it’s also possible Trump is less Teddy than Benjamin Harrison, a late-19th century president today considered a second-rater. Like Trump, Harrison was a narrowly elected president with a slim congressional majority presiding over a divided nation, points out Adler in a post on the Mischiefs of Faction political blog.
Harrison raised tariffs, as Trump has talked about doing, and increased federal spending. That didn’t prove enough to keep him from losing his reelection bid.
“Thinking of Trump as Harrison would make him a blip – a fluke president who barely ekes out a victory and is little-remembered today,” adds Adler.
Trump as the last Reaganite
Trump might even be Jimmy Carter.
Personally, Trump and Carter could hardly be more different, points out Julia Azari, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University, in a Mischiefs of Faction post on the subject. One’s a buccaneering developer/TV star with multiple marriages and the other’s an ex-Navy officer and Sunday school teacher who sold his peanut farm to avoid conflicts of interest as president.
But Carter was a loner who orbited outside his own party and had poor relations with top members of Congress. His “Georgia Mafia” was a tight-knit group of staffers who’d been with him for years and fought constantly with what they felt were the effete snobs who passed for Washington insiders.
Meanwhile, Trump’s ideological underpinnings remain unclear. His “Trump Mafia” of family members appears to be his most trusted group of advisers.
Carter was a “disjunctive” president, someone whose rigidity and inability to manage his political situation led to his own reelection loss and the downfall of an entire political time cycle regime, begun under Franklin Roosevelt. The guaranteed congressional majority/New Deal legacy Democratic Party passed away.
Trump, in this comparison, becomes the last of the Reaganites, the president who presides over the crumbling of the Gipper’s era and prepares the way for the rise of an as-yet undefined Democratic replacement.
Thus the cycle of political time may keep turning. It’s not just the presidential personality that determines a chief executive’s achievements, in this theory.
“The president’s relationship to the dominant party and the health of that party’s ideology and coalition influence the success and legacy of the administration,” writes Professor Azari.