How Will History Judge Trump?
No presidential transition is the same, but all must proceed in full awareness of the one that came before. Most U.S. presidents have claimed such an awareness of the past. In most cases, their claim exceeded the history they knew (like Truman) or understood (like Carter). In others, it reflected their experience (like Eisenhower and Bush 41), curiosity (like Clinton), or values (like Reagan or even Carter). Few presidents fully understood the history they knew from the start, like, say, Nixon and Bush 41; and even fewer were able to learn and absorb what they did not know well initially, like, say, Obama.
Trump, however, stands like no other president before him. He maintains a distant relationship with facts, which he replaces with what he himself has called “truthful hyperbole,” and “an innocent form of exaggeration.” He has little time for history, which requires a curiosity he lacks. He is not much of a strategic thinker, which would require a consistency that does not fit his impulsive temperament. He is neither an interventionist like Kennedy, nor an abstentionist like Carter, and neither a multilateralist like Obama, nor a unilateralist like Bush. Call him a bilateralist, meaning a transactional one-on-one leader—one deal per issue, and one issue per deal.
That being the case, can the moment nevertheless reveal Trump as the ahistorical and instinctive deal maker he claimed to be while campaigning? To fear that time is running out on the Trump moment is also to fear that time is running out on us all. During the Cold War, Americans, who had been initially indifferent to the growing war in Vietnam, rallied to end it when it became morally and politically unacceptable. The same can be said of the war in Iraq in the 2000s, which they had initially supported, but abandoned when it turned into a strategic failure—no less than a moral one. In each case, it was late, but not too late: next, Americans elected presidents, Reagan and Obama, who made many of them feel good about themselves, and much of the world think well or better of America. Now, we have a president who feels exceedingly good about himself, while the world thinks increasingly badly of him. How that turns out will play itself out for a bit more time, as History, somewhat puzzled and even offended, reveals whether so much of Trump will become embedded in America as to make his moment into an era.
Simon Serfaty is professor and eminent scholar in U.S. foreign policy with the Graduate Program in International Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair (emeritus) in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.