Home schooled evangelicals routinely claim God sent Trump. If God did, it was as a plague or, at best, a test. Do you ever wonder how history will judge Trump? Is a statement that he was indisputably the worst "president" in history-- with dubious legitimacy-- enough? Does he need a special category as someone who was placed in the White House by Putin so not a real president, just a four-year occupant? Are a panel of historians even the best judges of Trump's presidency? Shouldn't it be a panel of psychiatrists who specialize in severe pathologies?
Yesterday, writing for The Atlantic, Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer-- whose latest book, The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment, will be out next week-- told a story about how Trump invited historians to hear his side of the story. Professor Zelizer heard it-- and was more convinced than ever how unfit Trump was for office.
Trump tried spinning the historians and began by reading from a prepared statement that "overall, we had tremendous, tremendous success." Zelizer provided the video of the video-call and it showed exactly what you would expect: Trump lying to the historians about everything, as though he were talking to the morons who attend his rallies. "For someone who claimed indifference about how people in our world viewed him," wrote Zelizer, "Trump was spending an inordinate amount of time-- more than any other ex-president that we know of-- trying to influence the narratives being written about him. My co-authors and I weren’t the only people he reached out to. According to Axios, Trump conducted conversations with more than 22 authors, primarily journalists, who were working on books chronicling his presidency."
[O]ur conversation with the former president underscored common criticisms: that he construed the presidency as a forum to prove his dealmaking prowess; that he sought flattery and believed too much of his own spin; that he dismissed substantive criticism as misinformed, politically motivated, ethically compromised, or otherwise cynical. He demonstrated a limited historical worldview: When praising the virtues of press releases over tweets-- because the former are more elegant and lengthier-- he sounded as if he himself had discovered that old form of presidential communication. He showed little interest in exploring, or even acknowledging, some of the contradictions and tensions in his record.
...He seemed to measure American politicians primarily by how they treated him. Even many of those elected officials who criticized him in public sang a different tune, he insisted, when the television cameras were off. Trump vented about governors who continually expressed during private meetings how impressed they were with his COVID policies (“I hope you can get the tapes,” Trump said) yet proceeded to “knock the hell out of me” in public: “So unfair.”
...For the historians who were writing a first draft of his presidency, Trump had a message: The best and brightest didn’t always know what they were talking about-- unlike hardworking people who lived by common sense, as he did.
Our entire meeting suggested that Trump sometimes does care about expertise, despite his vitriol toward the academy. After all, he was the one who had decided to reach out to a group of professional historians so that we produced “an accurate book.” As he has done many times before, Trump proudly mentioned his uncle who was a professor at MIT. While talking to us, Trump was working to influence the narratives that were told about him-- as he’d done repeatedly during his time in the Oval Office. Indeed, he had even closed out his term peddling the case that he was not a failed one-term president, like Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter, but someone who had victory stolen from him.
When the Yale historian Beverly Gage brought up the president’s relationship with the FBI and the intelligence community—the subject of her chapter in our book—he eventually turned to the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021. According to his memory, the expert opinion was off. The “real story,” Trump argued, “has yet to be written.” When Congress met to certify the Electoral College results, Trump told us, there had been a “peaceful rally,” more than a “million people” who were full of “tremendous love” and believed the election was “rigged” and “robbed” and “stolen.” He made a “very modest” and “very peaceful” speech, a “presidential speech.” The throng at the Capitol was a “massive” and “tremendous” group of people. The day was marred by a small group of left-wing antifa and Black Lives Matter activists who “infiltrated” them and who were not stopped, because of poor decisions by the U.S. Capitol Police when some “bad things happened.”
During our hour together, Trump didn’t have many questions for us. Even in his attempt to correct the record, Trump mostly didn’t acknowledge or engage with informed outside criticisms of his presidency. He did, however, admit to having sometimes retweeted people he shouldn’t have, and at one point he said, “when I didn’t win the election”—phrasing at odds with his false claim that the 2020 vote was stolen.
But his goal was to sell a group of historians on his side of the story. “I’m looking at the list, it’s a tremendous group of people, and I think rather than being critical I’d like to have you hear me out, which is what we’re doing now, and I appreciate it.” In preparation for the meeting, his staff had already supplied us with documents that portrayed him as a conventional president with a moderate record.
He seemed to want the approval of historians, without any understanding of how historians gather evidence or render judgments. Notwithstanding the C-SPAN polls, our goal is not to rank presidents but to analyze and interpret presidencies in longer time horizons. We want to understand the changes that take place to public policy, democratic institutions, norms of governing, and the relationship between White House officials and political movements. Though we are always eager to read oral histories by participants—and hear directly from a former president—these sorts of comments play only one small part in works that are checked and cross-examined with other contemporaneous sources. In practice, professional historians gather their evidence by reviewing essential written and oral documents stored in archives-- which is why so many in my profession shuddered upon learning that boxes of material were initially carted off to the former president’s home at Mar-a-Lago rather than given directly to experts at the National Archives.
Trump could help historians evaluate his presidency by sitting for public questions from people other than Fox News hosts and Conservative Political Action Conference audiences, and preparing a thoughtful, revealing, and honest memoir-- one that might offer historians insights into his personal and political evolution as well as key decisions made in his time in office.
After answering our questions for half an hour, Trump ended the conversation by thanking us: “I hope it’s going to be a No. 1 best seller!” It was certainly an upbeat way to sign off, though I wasn’t quite convinced he meant it. A few days after our meeting, Trump announced that he would stop doing interviews with authors, because they had been a “total waste of time.” He added: “These writers are often bad people who write whatever comes to their mind or fits their agenda. It has nothing to do with facts or reality.”