Challenging the Premise of the 'Trump Time Capsule'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the 70-plus installments collected here, I’ve been recording (some of) the ways Donald Trump differs from people who have previously come so close to the presidency.

Here are two readers who disagree with the premise of the series, from a long-term-historical perspective and a more recent one. I’ll quote them each and then explain where I agree, and don’t.

First, from an American overseas:

I am a U.S. citizen currently living in Seoul. While I do not support Trump, and although I will vote Democrat come this election, I do not believe Trump is as unprecedented as some of the other readers seem to believe. In this case, I am writing to you with specific reference to the President Obama’s remarks against Trump’s temperament, and Trump’s talk of a rigged game. Both have clear analogues to the 1824 electoral cycle.

Andrew Jackson, as I am sure you know, horrified the Democratic-Republican elite. He paved the way for Common Man candidates by slowly expanding suffrage and embracing the Jeffersonian ideal of a Yeoman America. Thomas Jefferson, a former president at the time, had this to say about the prospect of a Jacksonian presidency:

I feel much alarm at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief. His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator, and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings, and as often choke with rage.

Truly, Jefferson was not the active president, but I think that a quibbling detail. He was the author of the constitution and the founder of the ruling party. I support our president, but Obama’s prestige now could not contend with Jefferson’s then. But notice the same critique: Like Trump, Jackson was seen as unfit for his temperament, not his ideas. His passions were so intense as to disqualify him from office.

And of course, like Trump, Jackson saw power in conspiratorial terms. His Bank Veto still reads like an Industrial Workers of the World manifesto. And, as I’m sure you know, in 1824 Jackson saw his electoral loss as a conspiracy, a Corrupt Bargain where Clay and Adams stole the White House from him. Jackson, by fundamentally undermining the electoral process and the legitimacy of the new president, was tapping into the zeitgeist and leading it towards victory four years later. Trump is doing the same.

Jackson is not my favorite president, and I suspect a President Trump would wreck synonymous havoc on minorities and the American economy. But America survived Jackson, who was an obvious danger to our democracy. We will survive Trump, although he may change us—or kill us all in nuclear fire.

On this comparison, I’m happy to stipulate that so much is so dramatically different between the America of the 1820s and the America of 2016 as to bring any “unprecedented” judgment into question. (For instance: back then there was no electricity or real-time communication; there still was slavery; only certain white men could vote; etc.) So I’ll more frequently say “unprecedented in modern times.”

But while recognizing that historians talk about the revolution of Jackson’s arrival, and that temperamentally Jackson may be closer to Trump than any other real-world president, the differences between them as plausible national leaders are still immense.

By the time he was elected president in 1828, Jackson had: been elected to the House once; been elected to the Senate twice; served as military governor of Florida; and won more popular and electoral votes for the presidency than any other candidate in 1824, only to lose to John Quincy Adams when the House of Representatives decided the outcome. All this is apart from his experience as battlefield commander.

If Donald Trump had had any elective-office experience whatsoever (for instance: Green Party candidate Jill Stein was elected a Town Meeting Seat in Lexington, Mass.), or had ever held any public or military office of any kind, it would be easier to suggest some likeness.

After the jump, the more contemporary dissent from a reader:

***

Judy Myers explains why she is growing uncomfortable with the Time Capsule approach:

I share your fear of what is happening in our society that would allow Trump to become the elected candidate of a major party. I hope the Time Capsule accomplishes your intended goal.

As you may have expected, there is a “but.” It is your tone of amazement that these things are happening, and what I see as your over-reach in describing some of them as horrifying in their uniqueness.

Take your Capsule number 69. Why did Mr. Rucker conduct his interview with a television facing the interviewee? Why did you not list the Trump interview with Bob Woodward, which I think was the best Trump has done?  (It seemed to me that Woodward was trying to have a discussion with Trump, not sandbag him.)

I accept that your intent is to document the Trump campaign, but it would be just as easy to do to Hillary Clinton what you are doing to Trump. Mrs. Clinton has important weaknesses, and it would be just as easy to characterize her in the way that you characterize Mr. Trump. To take just one example, she is having just as impossible a time explaining her email problem as he is having in addressing what we see as his defects.

I live surrounded by Trump supporters. Many are giving up on Democratic leadership as being ineffective in supporting regular people trying to live a regular life. Some of these people see President Obama’s election as a cataclysmic event that destroyed their belief that other Americans shared their view. (Many others have written about this, so I won’t.)

I suggest that it is not just Trump; that you are claiming objectivity but your bias is showing. I suggest that Bush 43 was seriously unprepared for the presidency. I suggest that his attention span and depth of knowledge and understanding of presidential issues was not that different from Trump. I suggest that Clinton is just as resistant to outside information as Trump, and in fact most people who reach such heights of power are similarly resistant. I suggest that Trump has raised important issues to the point that we are talking about them—letting business and power take so much is hurting workers. Comparing him to Clinton, his opposition to the TPP as it was constructed when it became a campaign issue, I want to oppose parts of it too. Yes, he is a self-involved blowhard. No, I don’t want his hand of the nation’s tiller.

In closing, I ask you to read this, “The Media’s Foolish Moralizing About Donald Trump,” by Damon Linker.

Whatever else is happening, we as a country have an opportunity for conversation now that some of our rifts are being openly discussed. Let's not blow it. To that end, I would like to see your writeup of what you heard in Texas and Kansas. I am down closer to the coast and to Mexico and the area you visited is very different from where I am. I am looking forward to your report on what you saw.

I appreciate Ms. Myers’s careful attention, and her taking the time to write in. Here is where and how I see the world differently from her:

  • It might be worth emphasizing again the journalistic idea behind starting this Time Capsule series. Donald Trump’s rise is clearly an unusual moment in our public history. No one like him has gotten this close to the presidency in modern times—by which I mean, no one with his total lack of elective or public-office experience, no one as willing to dismiss norms of what nominees “can” and “cannot” say. My purpose, as set out from the start, is to lay down a real time record of what it was like as the country decided whether to make him its leader—and in particular, the ways in which he did depart from norms.
                                                                                   
  • As I’ve explicitly said, I’m not imagining that I’m going to change a single voter’s mind. I personally think that Trump’s candidacy has been bad for our civic fiber—“the judge is a Mexican!”—and that a Trump presidency would be worse. But it’s a free country; people can choose as they want. I’m trying to document we know while making that choice.
                                                                                                   
  • On a detailed point, I haven’t asked Philip Rucker, but I’ll bet you anything it was not his choice to have Trump looking back and forth at the TV while Rucker was trying to interview him. (One reason I say so: common sense. Another reason: in the transcript, Rucker keeps trying to draw Trump away from what Trump has glimpsed on TV.) And the reason why than transcript seemed significant is that, like the great majority of other long interviews by Trump, it was notable for its lack of sentence-by-sentence sustained argument or thought. It was also significant, as I mentioned, because it displayed Trump’s hair-trigger reaction to a plane crash he had seen, with an immediate, confident explanation that was probably wrong. This would be a very dangerous trait in an actual president.
                                                                                                   
  • We move now to the realm of the subjective: I have spent a depressingly large share of my life paying close attention to the way public figures talk—when they are being interviewed, when they are extemporizing on the stump, when they’re battling opponents in debates, when they’re delivering formal speeches. There’s an enormous range among them: Bill Clinton would sound mesmerizing in a rally speech, but if you read the transcript, it would just look ordinary. Teddy Kennedy was a magnificent formal orator but could seem tongue-tied or even aphasic in some interviews. Ronald Reagan was amazingly consistent in his tone, discourse, and argumentative structure whether giving a speech or being interviewed. Bob Dole was notably different in his private wise-cracking mode and his stiffer formal presentations.

    They’re all individuals, and they’re all different. But in my experience, Trump is different from any of the rest of them. He knows less—about the government, about the world, about anything other than himself.

    Rick Perry got in trouble for a botched debate answer, but he could talk very well about his plans for Texas. Similarly for Dan Quayle, but I once interviewed him about American defense policy in the Pacific, and he was very erudite.

    I have never met Trump in person. But the transcripts of his interviews seem to belong in one category, and other public figures I’ve known (with their huge variation) in the other. I’m suggesting that he is different from other public figures, because in my judgment he is.
                                                                                                   
  • By extension, I also disagree with the idea that you could apply just the same treatment to George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton. I didn’t vote for Bush, and I think his administration was one of the most destructive in our history. The Iraq war; torture and Guantanamo; the conditions leading to the great crash of 2008, these will always be part of his legacy. But I never doubted that he was a serious man, who took the office (that his father had also held) extremely seriously, and who was doing his best (in ways I disagreed with), and who recognized the gravity of the choices he would make. It was Bush who went to national mosque six days after the 9/11 attacks. It is impossible to imagine him responding to the Khan family the way Donald Trump did.

    As for Hillary Clinton, she is not a very good campaigner, as the world knows. It was foolish of her to set up her own server to begin with, and no one can understand why she doesn’t just say: This was a huge mistake, I’m sorry, let me answer any question about it for the next six hours, and then we’re done.

    But the idea that she is “just as resistant to outside information as Trump, and in fact most people who reach such heights of power are similarly resistant” is, in my judgment, just categorically wrong. The problem of getting honest judgments, bad news and all, once you become powerful is indeed a profound one. Every leader has grappled with it; it’s a theme of the origins of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, of political treatises from Machiavelli onward. But I am absolutely sure that Hillary Clinton would at least theoretically recognize it as a problem. I have seen no signal that Trump is aware of this peril at all.

That’s enough for now. Thanks for reading, and for writing in.