The Presidents Who Made America Great

An ahistorical inquiry.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Donald Trump is running to be the person the American people look to in moments of great consequence. So his initial response to the most deadly shooting in U.S. history has been under scrutiny. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he wrote. “I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” His critics think it’s weird that he made even a mass murder about himself and worry that his leadership style would be ineffective.

Yet looking back at the rhetoric of America’s most successful presidents, one sees striking parallels in the leadership that they offered in response to historical events.

“I am much obliged by your felicitations for being right about the subject of my debate with Stephen Douglas,” Abraham Lincoln declared on the battlefield at Gettysburg, “but I don’t want felicitations, I want the world to long remember that I dedicated, consecrated, and hallowed this ground, a final resting place of winners. Sad!”

In 1933, facing economic times as dire as any in the nation’s history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, telling his countrymen, “Thanks for your well wishes on defeating Teetotaling Herbert, a loser, but I don’t want well wishes, I want you to understand that the only thing we have to fear is foreign labor, general strikes, uncooperative Supreme Court justices, and political correctness, among many other serious threats that only I can protect you from.”

President Eisenhower is best remembered for a warning he issued near the end of his tenure. “Congrats for being smart enough to put me in charge on D-Day and then electing me president,” he told Americans, “but what I really want to tell you is that only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can mesh the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals. With that in mind, Eisenhower University will now offer a Military Industrial Complex major.”

While Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, he is generally credited by historians with both improving U.S. relations with China and the political brilliance of his “Checkers Speech,” when he evocatively described the physical beauty of his elder daughter’s body and said he might ask her on a date to play checkers if they weren’t related.

Finally, who can forget President Reagan’s breakthrough gesture to his Russian counterpart while speaking to a crowd in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, what a fantastic wall! I would have gotten the West Germans to pay for it, but still, really impressive!”

As these accounts suggest, all of the various leaders who helped to make America great over many decades approached civic leadership like Trump: by constantly touting their own brilliance, stoking the public’s fears, and making a show of being surrounded by physically attractive women, just as the most trustworthy, self-confident leaders have done throughout history, going back to the Ancients. Voting Trump is no more risky than investing in his steaks, vodka, casinos, or university, and guarantees that whether America is confronted with war, terrorism, natural disaster, or pandemic disease, he will be there, smart phone in hand, Twitter app open, leading us with whatever solipsistic message first pops into his head.