[October 4th marks the 200th birthday of Rutherford B. Hayes, a good-looking young man who went on to be a very bad-governing president. So this week I’ve contextualized Hayes and four other under-remembered bad (in the least good sense) chief executives, leading up to this post on the worst we’ve ever had.]
On two AmericanStudies sides to Trump’s truly unprecedented (and yes, unpresidented) badness.
Look, I could write a year’s worth of daily blog posts about the historic horrorshow that was the Trump administration and not come close to running out of new topics. While I know everything in 2022 America tends to be viewed through a partisan political lens, I honestly don’t think that sentence is even vaguely a political one—just a fundamental observation about the facts of the matter, plain as day to anyone who doesn’t believe in nonsense (and tellingly Trump-tastic) concepts like “alternative facts.” I also don’t imagine that I have to spend much time convincing readers of this blog that Trump was a truly lousy president; and if you do have a different take, well…while I’ve consistently and genuinely encouraged disagreement when it comes to all the other subjects I’ve covered in this space (and will always do so—I really love comments of all types, including contrasting views!), in this case I’ll ask you to keep that opinion to yourself. Life’s too short.
But all of that notwithstanding, it didn’t feel right to feature a series on bad presidents in late 2022 and not include the recent and very worst such example. So I wanted here to think about two AmericanStudies sides to Trump’s badness—one more small and symbolic, the other more sizeable and significant, but both I believe quite telling.
1) Historic Ignorance: In part because he apparently doesn’t read, and in part because he’s clearly only interested in things that involve him, Trump was an American President who knew precisely nothing about American history (likely the first such, although who really knows what Chester A. Arthur knew?!). No single moment reflected that historic ignorance better than the rightly infamous Black History Month quote, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Or maybe it was the time Trump seemed pretty blatantly to suggest, in a speech for July Freaking 4th no less, that the Revolutionary War Continental Army “retook the airports.” I’m not suggesting that every president has to be an AmericanStudier, necessarily—but this level of stunning ignorance of every the most basic details of our collective history and story was, at the very least, hugely symbolic of the administration’s fundamental un- and anti-Americanness.
2) History Repeating: Or, to put it more precisely, the way the Trump administration reflected and amplified the worst of America, past and present (including such ignorance and anti-intellectualism). Even before Trump’s inauguration, indeed just days after the 2016 presidential election, a spokesperson for the incoming administration sought to defend Japanese internment and make the case for a similar policy when it came to Muslim Americans. While the administration didn’t ultimately go there, they did make the Muslim Ban—a policy that echoed and extended the legacies of the most xenophobic and exclusionary narratives in American history—one of their very first proposals. And I would argue that every other “idea” put forward by the administration (I mean those scare-quotes very very fully, I assure you) similarly echoed and extended the worst parts of American history and culture, the moments and ways in which America has strayed most fully from its ideals. Which, y’know, is pretty damn bad.
Next Guest Post drops later today,
PS. What do you think? Other baddies you’d highlight?