“Unprecedented” has become one of the most popular terms to use when discussing President Trump. On any given day since January 20 2017, the odds are good that a person can turn on their televisions or browse through a news story to encounter some pundit discussing how President Trump’s actions are unlike anything we have ever seen before.
As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.
For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.
If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.
Another truly unprecedented part of the Trump presidency that doesn’t get much attention anymore has to do with the massive conflict of interest that exists in this Oval Office. When the president made a decision in January to avoid erecting a strict firewall between his family business and the presidency, he set the democracy on a dangerous path that we have not yet experienced. Never have we had a businessperson with such vast economic holdings as president. To have our leader be the titular head of a sprawling global company with property interests all over the globe, even with his two sons “running the business,” creates obvious problematic situations where the line between making money and making policy is permanently blurred.
The Washington Post recently reported how the private prison company GEO Group decided to hold its annual conference this year at Trump’s Miami resort rather than near its headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. The company and its top executives have donated a considerable amount to the president. The decision by the company, which has ramped up its lobbying operation in Washington and whose business is booming this year, was in part a result of signing a contract to build an immigration-detention center, and will now be bringing good business to one of the Trump properties—which have already enjoyed endless free advertising every time the president spends his golfing weekends at one of these resorts.
There are other times, however, where using the term “unprecedented” masks the ways in which Trump is simply exploiting the way that we have allowed our government institutions to evolve.
Take his rampant use of presidential power to dismantle climate-change regulations put into place by former President Barack Obama and his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act through a slow, administrative death. The risks of expanding presidential power over the course of the 20th century have been well documented. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had been a supporter and part of several Democratic administrations that strengthened the executive branch, warned of the “Imperial Presidency” when Richard Nixon was in office. Democrats were furious about how many of Ronald Reagan’s appointees in the 1980s, like James Watt at Interior or Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, refused to enforce the programs for which they were responsible.
Democrats were likewise outraged when President George W. Bush used signing statements and executive orders to aggressively conduct the war on terrorism regardless of legislative restraints, while Republicans were outraged by the way that President Clinton used the same power to protect the environment or President Obama to expand protection to the children of illegal immigrants. President Trump has been following in their footsteps, often in more dramatic fashion than we have seen, paying very little attention to legislating and using the executive power that he inherited to achieve his domestic aims.
Of course, even the evidence that President Trump has been willing to push the boundaries of what is permissible by abusing his presidential authority, such as when he fired FBI Director James Comey to get rid of that “Russia Thing,” he replicated the kinds of behavior we saw under President Richard Nixon with the Saturday Night Massacre and his efforts to stop the investigation of the FBI or, possibly, President Reagan when his national-security team conducted an illegal operation to provide assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras—despite a congressional ban on doing so. When the public frets that we can’t have someone as president who is so out of control given the power they hold, particularly to launch a nuclear war, we need to remember that this is a risk we have already encountered, including Nixon’s dark days toward the end of his presidency.
When President Trump spews off insults about “Little Rocket Man” or blasts the Iran nuclear deal, threatening military actions against adversaries and promising that America will do whatever it takes, with the implied use of military action, to achieve its goals, many observers tremble. And they should: not because Trump is doing something so unprecedented, but just the opposite. He is partaking in a well-established tradition of hawkish bluster coming from U.S. presidents that have brought us to the precipice, or brought us directly into, costly military conflicts.
From Cold War presidents ramping up the world temperature through warnings about “puppet” governments in Central America and Southeast Asia to President George W. Bush discussing the mass cache of weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Iraq in 2002, Trump joins a long list of presidents whose words have heightened the tension levels with our adversaries. His brazen style simply does a bit more than some others to instantly expose the risks that can ensue.
Using “unprecedented” with too much ease causes us to miss how some of President Trump’s actions may be unusual in recent times, but in fact tap into darker parts of our political traditions that we might not want to remember. Clearly, one of the most shocking and upsetting moments this summer took place in August when the president resisted offering a strong condemnation of the white racist activists who marched to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statute and killed one counter-protester. Others have been taken aback by his ongoing appeal to hardline nativist sentiment in his repeated attacks on the dangers that immigrants pose to the U.S.
Yet he is not the first to play in this sandbox. Nineteenth century U.S. presidents worked within a political system where slavery was an institutionalized part of the economy, and later in the decade, Southern Democrats who defended racial inequality, segregation, and violence commanded immense influence on Capitol Hill. Woodrow Wilson’s checkered history on civil rights was front and center two years ago when there was renewed attention to his views on race. Even the liberal FDR, as the historian Ira Katznelson has reminded us, accommodated the power of segregationist Democrats as he agreed to live with Southern attitudes in exchange for support on domestic legislation.
Rick Perlstein has documented how Richard Nixon, as candidate and as president, made indirect appeals to southern conservatives and white northerners who firmly opposed the civil-rights revolution. Extremist organizations who espoused these views were always on the fringes of the conservative movement, and there were moments when presidents like Ronald Reagan appealed to them through promises of “states’ rights” and attacks on “welfare queens.” On immigration, there is a long list of presidents who have supported hardline restrictions on persons entering our borders, including Calvin Coolidge, who signed the Immigration Act of 1924 that imposed stringent quotas preventing European immigrants from entering our shores. Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies were famously devastating to an entire generation who lost their homes and lives as a result of his administration’s brutal policies.
Excessive use of “unprecedented” can mask the ways in which Trump’s presidency is an outgrowth of deep trends that have been taking hold in recent decades. He is the symptom of our divided, polarized times, rather than the root cause. For instance, the fact that President Trump spends so much of his time “playing to the base” and ignoring bipartisan opportunities should not be a surprise. We have lived through decades where the forces of partisan polarization have hardened. The parties move further and further apart, with the center vanishing.
While recent presidents, unlike Trump, have still attempted to look for points of compromise, the truth is that they have usually failed. Much of what presidents do these days is focus on their party, and in doing so appeal to the activists and organizations who are loudest and most influential within their coalition. Working for Karl Rove in 2004, adviser Matthew Dowd popularized a strategy that appealed to the base. The assumption of Bush’s reelection campaign was that much of the country, those counties in blue, would never be turned, so best to increase the turnout of core supporters.
In congressional politics, appealing to the base has become a standard tactic in an era of ever-present primary challenges. The rhetoric of partisan polarization vilifies opponents, and imagines a political universe where it is impossible to agree with what the other party has spread through the elaborate partisan media that shapes much of our conversations about Washington. In many respects, the way that President Trump thinks about politics is utterly conventional and, in fact, makes sense given how our system works. We have been witnessing partisan polarization for so long that we should have expected a president who would drop the pretense and embrace this reality without hesitation.
Sometimes using the term “unprecedented” is just a mistake and limits our historical vision. When Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake attacked President Trump, warning of dangerous instability in the Oval Office, many pundits were quick to describe a moment unlike anything we had seen before. The truth is that there have been numerous intra-party feuds that unfolded before the public. One of the most legendary of these fights took place between Franklin Roosevelt and the conservative Southern Democrats who ruled Congress in 1938. FDR actively campaigned against legislators like Georgia Senator Walter George in the primaries, hoping to “purge” them from the party. He failed, and there was hell to pay on his domestic agenda in the years to come. The personal and political tension between Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter became severe. When asked by a congressman about a challenge from Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, Carter replied: “I’ll whip his ass.”
When President George H. W. Bush accepted tax increases as part of a 1990 deficit-reduction package, House Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich was outraged. He bolted out of the budget negotiations in fury and publicly castigated the president, never forgiving him for this sin. The president was so upset with his fellow Republican that he refused to shake hands at a White House ceremony. The language of the conflict in these cases was not nearly as personal. But bitter intra-party tensions between presidents and legislators have happened before, and often the damage to the party has been severe.
The temptation to blurt out “unprecedented” will continue to remain strong. President Trump will continue to test our ability to even pause before uttering this word. But it is crucial to show restraint in our commentary, to offer a clear understanding of when President Trump has truly done something that we have never seen before or, rather, when he is exploiting parts of our political institutions and traditions in a manner that exposes the troubling ways in which our democracy has evolved.