Donald Trump Is Making the Great Man Theory of History Great Again
The president-elect’s unpredictable rise is forcing historians and social scientists to rethink their most basic assumptions about how the world works.
But if personality and character were not the major factor deciding the 2016 election, the Trump presidency will likely be a very different story. Not only is Trump becoming the leader of the most powerful state the world has ever seen, but thanks to Republican control of Congress — and soon, quite possibly, the Supreme Court — Trump has the potential to become the most powerful president in American history. And he is one of the most radically unpredictable men ever elected to that office. He is not guided by a distinct, systematic ideology, and he is not, to say the least, constrained by humility or self-doubt. In foreign policy, he has surrounded himself with advisors like Michael Flynn and Frank Gaffney who give credence to conspiracy theories and see Islam — not just radical jihadism, but Islam itself — as an existential threat to the United States. In domestic policy, he has assembled a team whose ties to international business and the “swamp” of Washingtonian corruption contradict much of his own populist rhetoric.
Despite the vast power at the disposal of the American president, most occupants of that office, even when commanding congressional majorities, have felt constrained by a host of structural conditions of one sort or another. They want to avoid spooking the stock market, damaging their party’s chances in future elections, upsetting carefully negotiated diplomatic agreements, and so on and so forth. They almost certainly have a lower estimate of their own power than almost anyone else. But these constraints, which change far more slowly than a president’s moods, make the actions they take more predictable and therefore more easily subject to social scientific analysis.
Donald Trump, however, is so willful and thin-skinned, so convinced of his own abilities, so enamored of his own unpredictability, and at the same time so unable to concentrate on any particular issue, that he is far less likely to appreciate the constraints that have weighed so heavily on his predecessors or even to understand them. He is also far less likely to listen to his advisors, and these advisers themselves are, overall, far more ignorant of their supposed areas of expertise than any other group of high-level administration officials in American history.
Even in crisis situations, U.S. presidents have generally done their best to follow predictable, well-established decision-making protocols. The television shows that present a president making hugely consequential decisions under pressure, from the gut, with only a handful of close aides in the room, eliminate from the picture the vast bureaucratic operations that exist to provide information, to evaluate the reliability of that information, to analyze it, and to game out the possible consequences of different courses of action. Up to now, presidents have generally respected these bureaucracies in most cases. They know how important it is, in a world of nuclear weapons, for there to be steady, predictable protocols for resolving crises. They remember all too well that during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, only the steadfastness of a single Soviet military officer kept a submarine commander from launching a tactical nuclear weapon against an American destroyer, possibly provoking nuclear war (if you don’t know the story, read this). Donald Trump, alas, is almost certainly less likely to follow established protocols than any of his predecessors. In a crisis situation, how is he likely to react? Can anyone know?
As 2016 draws to a close, the world still seems, thankfully, to be far removed from the sort of crisis situations in which the characters of Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill mattered so deeply. The civil war in Syria, dreadful as it is, remains a regional conflict with little potential, at least at present, to spark any sort of wider confrontation. There is no shortage of scenarios — a major terrorist attack in the West, a collapse of the nuclear agreement with Iran, renewed Russian aggression in its “near abroad” — that could present an American president with deeply consequential decisions to make.
In these decisions, Donald Trump’s personality could assume, difficult as it is to apply these words to him, world-historical importance. As a consequence, the personalities of other leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, could also come to matter in critical ways, as they come into conflict with Trump. If impersonal forces lead to Trump’s personal rise, it’s now all too easy to imagine his troubled personality leading to his country’s collective fall.
Top photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration