Donald Trump’s History Book

Journalists have written the “first rough draft of history,” but now it is historians’ turn to assess a most unconventional presidency.

By , the BBC’s former New York correspondent.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists during a news conference about his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic at the White House in Washington on July 22, 2020.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists during a news conference about his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic at the White House in Washington on July 22, 2020.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists during a news conference about his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic at the White House in Washington on July 22, 2020. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Journalists seem to have cornered the market when it comes to composing the “first rough draft of history,” the phrase popularized in the early 1960s by Philip Graham, the then-publisher of the Washington Post. This has been especially true of the Donald Trump presidency, when the White House briefing room became something of a publishing cottage industry. Its front row of reporters alone produced titles from ABC’s Jonathan Karl, CNN’s Jim Acosta, and CBS’s Major Garrett. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, who was perched just behind them, brought out a brace of Trump titles, working in collaboration with his colleague Carol Leonnig.

Inexorably, Bob Woodward, that veteran bard of the Beltway, has weighed in with three tomes of fly-on-the-wall instant history: Fear, Rage, and Peril, the latter of which he co-wrote with his then-Post colleague Robert Costa). The New York-based writer Michael Wolff has also published a Trumpian trilogy, starting with Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which made a splash when it came out in 2018.

Since the presidency of George W. Bush, Princeton University Press has published a series of books offering “a first historical assessment” of the occupants of the White House. Maybe they should be seen as an attempt by academic professionals to reclaim their turf. The series editor, Julian E. Zelizer, a professor at Princeton, has assembled a squadron of scholars to give us their hot historical takes. As Zelizer notes in the introduction: “Unlike the work of journalists and writers whose focus has been on telling the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day events that consume any White House—the ‘fire and fury’ of the moment, as the journalist Michael Wolff called it—these essays are all about putting events into a long-term perspective.”

Journalists seem to have cornered the market when it comes to composing the “first rough draft of history,” the phrase popularized in the early 1960s by Philip Graham, the then-publisher of the Washington Post. This has been especially true of the Donald Trump presidency, when the White House briefing room became something of a publishing cottage industry. Its front row of reporters alone produced titles from ABC’s Jonathan Karl, CNN’s Jim Acosta, and CBS’s Major Garrett. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, who was perched just behind them, brought out a brace of Trump titles, working in collaboration with his colleague Carol Leonnig.

Inexorably, Bob Woodward, that veteran bard of the Beltway, has weighed in with three tomes of fly-on-the-wall instant history: Fear, Rage, and Peril, the latter of which he co-wrote with his then-Post colleague Robert Costa). The New York-based writer Michael Wolff has also published a Trumpian trilogy, starting with Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which made a splash when it came out in 2018.

The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment, ed. Julian E. Zelizer, Princeton University Press, 488 pp., .95, April 2022

The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment, ed. Julian E. Zelizer, Princeton University Press, 488 pp., $27.95, April 2022

Since the presidency of George W. Bush, Princeton University Press has published a series of books offering “a first historical assessment” of the occupants of the White House. Maybe they should be seen as an attempt by academic professionals to reclaim their turf. The series editor, Julian E. Zelizer, a professor at Princeton, has assembled a squadron of scholars to give us their hot historical takes. As Zelizer notes in the introduction: “Unlike the work of journalists and writers whose focus has been on telling the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day events that consume any White House—the ‘fire and fury’ of the moment, as the journalist Michael Wolff called it—these essays are all about putting events into a long-term perspective.”

This contemporary history brings together 19 essays, written by 18 different historians, which cover a spectrum of topics, both foreign and domestic. Just a cursory glance at the chapter headings brings home the extreme nature of Trump’s presidency: “Militant Whiteness in the Age of Trump,” “The Crisis of Truth in the Age of Trump,” “‘Nut Job,’ ‘Scumbag,’ and ‘Fool’: How Trump Tried to Deconstruct the FBI and the Administrative State—and Almost Succeeded.”

The book begins with what journalists would call an exclusive: an interview with none other than Donald Trump himself. In the previous works of this series, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama accepted an invitation from Zelizer to assess their own presidencies. Trump, by contrast, volunteered to take part, having read about the project in the New York Times. The former president appeared in a Zoom call, which started with a half-hour presentation boasting about his record and ended with a classic Trumpian payoff: “I hope it’s going to be a No. 1 best seller!”

In his introductory essay, Zelizer reminds us that Trump is not an outlier or aberration, which is hardly a fresh observation but one worth restating nonetheless: “Although frequently described as a lone wolf, Trump instead must be seen to be at the center of conservatism in the current era.” Subsequent essays show how the Trump effect has reshaped U.S. politics by hurling a brick through the Overton window, that gauge of mainstream acceptability, and trashing traditions and norms. The age of Trump, alas, is also the time of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other fringe groups that wreaked such insurrectionary havoc, at the president’s behest, at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Over the past six years, Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, has become a go-to guide on the rise of the American far-right, elements of which were in the vanguard during the storming of the Capitol. In a trenchant essay on militant whiteness, she shows how “the Trump years featured both a white nationalist policy project helmed by people in the administration and a white power social movement that believed many of the same claims about whiteness but wished for a white ethnostate, ideally through the overthrow of the country.” Just before Trump left office, the Department of Homeland Security published a new threat assessment, warning that white extremist violence was more dangerous than radical jihadism or left-wing activity. But the Trump White House sought to muffle its impact by delaying its release.

Nicole Hemmer, an academic at Columbia University, has also become required reading. Having chronicled the rise of media outlets such as Fox News in her 2016 study Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, here she charts the emergence of the “further-right pro-Trump media,” which includes Newsmax and the One America News Network. She reminds us of the backlash against Fox News after the network called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, which meant that, for the first time in two decades, it slipped behind MSNBC and CNN in the ratings. With Fox also coming under commercial pressure from the “further-right” outlets, the network promoted the “big lie” election conspiracy as it “competed to see who could be the most faithful” to Trump, Hemmer writes.

In the foreign realm, James Mann, the author of Rise of the Vulcans, that seminal study of George W. Bush’s national security team, provides a useful primer on Trump’s approach to China. It captures a defining characteristic of Trumpian foreign policy: the former tycoon’s personalized approach to international affairs, where he thought his individual magnetism could countermand the national self-interest of negotiating partners. “Trump was seeking to do with China what he also attempted with North Korea,” Mann writes, “to try to resolve complex, longstanding problems by somehow persuading the top leader of another country to reverse course through personal contact with Trump himself.”

In outlining Trump’s Middle East legacy, Daniel Kurtzer, who served as a U.S. ambassador in Egypt and Israel during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, also highlights the former president’s narcissism: “Trump had no strategic vision or sense of American national interests. He cared only about himself, his own needs and vanities, satisfying his political base, and enhancing the prospects for his reelection.” It was “Trump first” more than “America first,” and based on a “particular brand of transactionalism, driven by securing short-term wins … at the expense of long-term strategy.”

The great strength that academics can bring to bear is their ability to place contemporary events in their rightful historical context. Mae Ngai, a history professor at Columbia, achieves that in an insightful essay on immigration policy under Trump, which argues that nativism is more the product of economic structural transformation—what economists call sectoral change—rather than cyclical discontent and unemployment. To prove her case, she traces a line from modern-day nativism, which stemmed from globalization and automation, to the Chinese exclusion movement in the late 19th century, which was fueled by the opening up of the west and the nationalization of the economy after the Civil War, and the restrictionist movement against Southern and Eastern Europeans at the turn of the 20th century, which was a backlash to urbanization and industrialization.

After being bombarded during Trump’s presidency with so many falsehoods, lies, and so-called alternative truths, it is useful to be presented with plain facts. Despite all his bluster about building a great wall along the southern border and getting Mexico to foot the bill, only 15 miles of new primary concrete barrier had been constructed by the time he left office, Ngai writes. Other statistics speak of the human toll of his presidency. By the time Trump exited out of back door of the White House on the morning of Biden’s swearing-in, 5,500 children had been separated from their parents at the Mexican border, and 628 kids still had not been reunited with their families.

In “Latinos for Trump,” Geraldo Cadava from Northwestern University provides the backstory that helps explain an apparent paradox: why, despite Trump’s racist attacks on Latin American immigrants, more Latino voters backed Trump in 2020 than 2016. Trump utilized a 1980s playbook developed by Ronald Reagan, Cadava says, in which Republican appeals centered on “religious devotion, a tireless work ethic, anticommunism, and the related belief in free-market capitalism as the best path to prosperity.” Trump’s anti-communism obviously chimed with voters of Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan descent. But it also had broader appeal. Cadava reminds us that many Mexican immigrants crossed the border in the 1920s in the wake of the revolution partly to flee the kind of socialism, enshrined in the 1917 constitution, that led to the expropriation of privately owned land and curbs on the Catholic Church.

Sifting through the mudslide of Trumpian verbiage can also turn up the occasional gem. “We are smarter than they are. … We are the elite. You are the elite,” Trump once told rally-goers, a quote that helps Angus Burgin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, make a sharp observation about the former president’s anti-intellectualism: “Instead of merely disparaging ‘eggheads,’ as was common among McCarthyites in the midcentury years, Trump claimed that his own knowledge exceeded that of experts and scientific authorities.”

The essays, unsurprisingly, are overwhelmingly excoriating. On the day before Trump appeared on that Zoom call, C-SPAN released a poll of historians who ranked him 41st in the presidential pantheon—just edging out Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. This book underscores his lowly ranking. Perhaps the most impassive take comes from Merlin Chowkwanyun, another contributor from Columbia, who writes about Trump’s handling of COVID-19. While he offers a damning critique of the president’s myriad failings—which include “his destructive habits of mind and his administration’s abdication of duty”—he suggests that future historians will have to confront the “60/40 question” of determining to what extent states, localities, and “the cultural milieu” were also culpable.

It has been almost seven years since Trump came down that golden escalator, the portal that transported us to a strange new political world. Given all that has been written and said since—the columns, the books, the panel discussions on cable news—it has become hard to come up with fresh analytical takes, to say anything new. On that front, this collection is somewhat of a disappointment. For the most part, it offers useful primers rather than intellectually thrilling new narratives.

Until the Trump presidential library opens its doors—and what doors they promise to be—I suspect that journalists will continue to offer the most riveting reads on the most destructive and unhinged presidency of the modern era. Participant histories from those who worked in his administration, while transparently self-serving, will also add to the historical record. (Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, former Attorney General William Barr, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and onetime press secretary Stephanie Grisham, to name but a few, have already published memoirs). But even in the immediate aftermath of his presidency, historians have a vital role to play in adding to our understanding, not least because the 45th president could feasibly become the 47th president in 2025.

The “faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian,” wrote Marc Bloch, a founding father of the Annales school of history, as he urged his fellow practitioners to be more than a “useful antiquarian.” The American historian Arthur Schlesinger, who believed that contemporary history was not just legitimate but indispensable, made a similar point in 1967, in an essay cited at the start of this book: “The ‘present’ becomes the ‘past’ more swiftly than ever before.” Schlesinger described the 1960s as a “high velocity age,” but the march of history has been quickening ever since. So the authors of these essays should be commended for not letting the Trump years simply flash before their eyes and for putting pen to paper to compose their own first drafts. In The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment, they have carried out an Operation Warp Speed of their own and helped us better understand the most crazed and frenetic presidency of our lifetimes.

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s former New York correspondent and the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present. Twitter: @NickBryantNY

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