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It is not hard to find Americans (and non-Americans) fervently hoping for the end of the Trump presidency in 2020 whether via impeachment or a Democratic presidential election victory. Ron Pruessen writes that the appeal of removing Trump from office should be set against the backdrop of the darker impulses of American history and culture – traditions which Trump embodies.

In the days of the Donald, there always seems to be some mad move or stunning shocker waiting just around the corner. As I began to write this piece about the Trump impeachment process, for example, the drone strike killing of Qassim Suleimani suddenly dominated the news. Even that dramatic development has not wiped impeachment off the radar screen, however.

Not that I think there will be a sudden end to the Trump presidency. We are not living in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – or a Hallmark Christmas movie. The character of the current US Senate (“character” as in composition rather than integrity) would alone guarantee this. House Democratic leaders were more than likely trying to do the “responsible” thing by gathering evidence, holding hearings, and drafting their indictment – grimly rather than optimistically assembling a legacy record that might (might) have relevance in 2020 or to history.

So how does Trump get away with it? Why has there been tolerance enough to allow him to keep sailing from 2016 to 2020? (It hasn’t been a smooth ride, of course, but the president relishes churning waters, like a child stomping through puddles.) Why has the American political system revealed its sclerotic (even necrotic?) tendencies this time around? As always with a country as large and diverse as the United States, there is no simple explanation – nor a simple remedy.

The current model of the Republican Party is one factor, of course, serving as the most immediate protector of the collusion-prone and obstructionist narcissist in the White House. GOP. leaders have been bought off by Trump’s aid in securing grossly skewed tax cuts, bloated defense contracts, xenophobic and brutal immigration initiatives, and turn-the-clock back assaults on reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights (among many other things). Rumors of Republican discomfort with Trump do keep surfacing, but hypothetical doubts have not grown enough to undo the Faustian bargain that has ensnared most of the party leadership for three years.

Terrible behavior is not always stupid behavior, alas – at least in the short-term. Trump’s Republicans seem to believe that his policies and personality have enough popularity to give him a 2020 election edge over deeply divided Democrats. Some polls and the frenzy of the president’s perpetual rallies lend support to such hopes – as could vibrant threads woven deep in the fabric of American history and culture.

‘Meanwhile, in The Mission #donaldtrump #jackass‘ by davitydave is licensed with CC BY NC 2.0

For instance: Time and again, citizens in large numbers have passionately responded to leaders rowdily representing anti-elitist sentiments (or seeming to represent them).  Andrew Jackson, wealthy planter though he was by the 1820s, was seen as the champion of the “common man” confronting the dubious superiority of the Adams dynasty and other avatars of homegrown aristocracy. Huey Long had redneck credentials (and charm) during the Great Depression, with a popularity that worried the urbane (also charming) Franklin Roosevelt. Joe McCarthy boorishly railed against the “striped pants boys” of the State Department (with unsubtle innuendoes about “lavender” sexuality) – among other targets – plaguing both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

The routinely crude style of anti-elitist leaders was (and is) sometimes ugly, destructive, and demagogic – witness the wrecking ball wallop of McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn (warranting a nod here because he became one of Trump’s mentors). Viciousness notwithstanding, on the other hand, some Americans were reasonably enough attracted to the spearing of galling pretensions. Elite arrogance (bad enough in itself) could regularly come with side orders of greed and corruption – and “the best” proved over and again (long before David Halberstam’s dissection) that they were not always “the brightest” as policy makers.

Hence the tolerance and even celebration of a line of presidents whose rough-edged style did them little harm in the political arena (even if their policies eventually sapped their legacies). Feisty, plain-talking Harry Truman, explaining that “I fired him [Douglas MacArthur] because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president….I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals.” The regularly raw Lyndon B. Johnson, displaying midriff surgery scars for the media or grumbling about the way thirty years of experience with military brass led him to fear their advice about Vietnam: “I don’t want them just being some change-o’-life woman running and up and saying that, by God, she was being raped just because a man walks in the room!” George Bush, self-styled as “misunderestimated,” treading – sometimes almost endearingly by 2020 standards – far beyond presidential eloquence: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

Trump’s crudeness, then – golden though he gaudily plates it – is not at all unique, even if he does far greater violence than others to the rule of law as well as rules of decorum. Nor is it irrelevant that a front-running 2020 rival has an “average Joe,” Scranton-born style, complete with Biden calls to “beat the hell out of” dubious characters back behind the high school gym (or challenges to pushup competitions).

Crude or/and insightful, furthermore, the routine power of common man/common woman politicking is grounded in cultural and social traditions older than the Republic. “Frontier” styles and sensibilities have perpetually wrangled with the “refined” behavior of the “upper crust.” Benjamin Franklin’s down-to-earth demeanor and “Poor Richard” common sense (18th century street smarts?) helped make him a deeply venerated founding father. (When he wore his beaver hat in Paris, signaling a more woodsman look than he would have bothered with in Philadelphia, he even set off a fashion craze among French aristos.) Fast forward to the wry takes of Huck Finn/Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens on the foibles of more “well bred” Americans and Europeans – or the inside-the-tent jabs of Edith Wharton. Fast further forward to the subversive Cinderella charms of Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman and Melanie Griffiths’ Working Girl (or dozens of other film and television variations on the prototype).

Of course, US history also reveals regular bounces from unpolished to disorderly, from highbrow/lowbrow banter to battery and melees. Sometimes the shift to wilder behavior is appealingly innocent or even comic. From the knockabout partying of Andrew Jackson’s inaugural celebrations to the madcap escapades of the Keystone Cops, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and Robin Williams, joy can be found in measures of Dionysian silliness and excess. Not at all infrequently, however, release has turned destructive and ugly. Tar-and-feather punishments and vigilante lynchings have alternated with violent protests and riots, spurred by racial tensions, economic injustices, and contested wars. The Haymarket (1886), Detroit (1918, 1943, 1967), Watts (1965), Chicago (1968), Charleston (2015): these and many others mark the way another kind of “joy” has been found in the form of sheer destructive rebellion. Trump’s appetite for zealous disruption – of diplomacy, decorum, constitutional norms, moderately truthful narrative, etc. – makes him both a representative and an enabler of this far more problematic thread in American history. He savors the role of “shit disturber,” to use a behavior model often spoken of in my Brooklyn childhood, and he feeds those hungry for just this kind of breakout (or breakdown).

The hypothetical appeal of removing Trump from office – through impeachment or an election now less than eleven months away – should be contemplated against the backdrop of the nation’s history and culture. (What a surprise to find a historian writing these words!) The man is reckless, dishonest, avaricious, and narcissistic – of course – as dangerous a leader as the United States has ever seen in the White House. But his very presence in the Oval Office and the not-dismissible possibility that he may be re-elected should remind us that the country itself is the most important beating heart of the 2016-2020 story. I am thinking of former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent revelation that Rex Tillerson and John Kelly (when they were Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff) tried to secure her help in circumventing presidential impulses: they were “trying to save the country,” they told her. What’s missing in Haley’s recounting – and in much commentary about Trump – is sensitivity to the way “the country” needs saving from some of its own worst impulses and traditions as well as its president. This is a moment to remember Walt Kelly’s still resonant cartoon, penned for the first Earth Day celebration in the United States: his (and my) beloved Pogo is surveying a beautiful landscape inundated with garbage, musing that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the author

Ron Pruessen – University of Toronto
Ronald W. Pruessen has served as the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Director for International Partnerships & Research and is former Chair of the Department of History, University of Toronto. His primary research and teaching interests are in 20th century US foreign policy and international relations. Early work focused on the Cold War (e.g., John Foster Dulles: To the Threshold, 1888-1952) and he recently co-edited (with Soraya Castro) Fifty Years of Revolution: Perspectives on Cuba, the United States, and the World.  His current book project is called Cakewalking with Tigers: Americans Choosing War and Making Mistakes, From James Madison to Donald Trump.