By the time the president completes his typical Sunday rage-tweeting, it is often difficult to pick what was risible and separate it from what was laughable, especially since, in the Venn diagram of Trumpism, those circles are converging. But last Sunday’s show featured a claim that should be remembered precisely because it is so easy to forget. Reacting to a story about his pandemic work habits that appeared in the New York Times—a newspaper he has made a public display of saying he does not read but to which he responds with suspicious frequency—Trump tweeted:
Never mind the “people say” device, or the fact that the only thing more unpalatable to Trump’s critics than him binge-watching Fox & Friends might be what he would actually do if he spent more time in the office.
The real problem is his rush to the superlative: He is eager to measure his actions in historical terms. (The least plausible of Trump’s claims are often made with the most rhetorical force. See “genius, stable.”) The issue is not the fabulism itself—tall tales are part of politics, even if Trump tells, to use his dialect, the tallest ever—but rather the nature of it. Trump operates outside of time in an argot that dissolves the shared memories on which a republic depends. He lives in an eternal now. This may be fine for individuals—or at least for adolescents who have not yet grasped the fleeting nature of man’s existence. But it is an insufficient foundation for constitutional government.
The illustrations are legion. In late December, after Christianity Today endorsed Trump’s impeachment and removal, he tweeted that “no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!” Two of his recent predecessors, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, actually are evangelicals. Two of his other predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, authored, respectively, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the text that became the First Amendment.
Trump’s presidential bearing, he says, ranks second in history only to Abraham Lincoln. Not George Washington?“No president has been able to do anything like” what Trump claims to have done for African-Americans. Not Lincoln?
“No president accomplished more in the first 90 days,” Trump said as he approached the 100-day mark of his administration. Not Franklin Roosevelt, whose blizzard of efforts to combat the Great Depression is the reason presidents are still measured on that timeline?
Trump’s madcap, year-end tweeting last December included sharing a photo montage calling him “the best president of all time” as well as a claim that “no president will ever be as great as President Trump is today.” Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, appeared in an advertisement asserting that Trump had “achieved more during his time in office than any president in history.” This feat, which entailed outpacing not only every prior president but also every future one, did not even require a full term.
People can reasonably disagree about exactly how much Donald Trump has achieved. But the notion that it is so much not only that no previous president has matched it but also that no future president possibly could exceed it is absurd. Not even recent history is spared this ahistorical treatment. Kayleigh McEnany, then the campaign spokeswoman and now performing the same function on the public dime as White House press secretary, suggested that Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination unopposed.
In Trump’s America, three years is a long time ago—long enough, apparently, to obliterate memories of the carnival of Republican challengers to Trump who slipped into his shadow exactly because there were so many of them. When Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Earth’s Holocaust” imagined a world stripped of memory, the first things on the fire were “yesterday’s newspapers.”
Trump is not alone in living in the present without reference to the past. Democrats frequently invoke the adjective “unprecedented” to describe actions by Trump that probably do have historical antecedents. His harshest critics have loosely thrown around words like “fascism” that have real historical meanings that overuse will erode.
Trump is, however, the only one who is president of the United States.
Historical awareness matters because a nation “dedicated to a proposition,” as Lincoln said, also needs the “mystic chords of memory” to bind it. The proposition to which Lincoln referred was the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of a “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal.” Yet while that self-evidence may animate philosopher-poets like Jefferson, even a nation based on an intellectual proposition demands more to give it life.
One reason is that the people participating in the anonymity of mass politics tend not to utilize pure reason. Madison recognized that fact in Federalist 49, which argued that tradition rather than philosophical assent would be necessary to cement the new Constitution in citizens’ minds. The Constitution, he wrote, would need “that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.”
Similarly, in his Farewell Address, Washington advised the country to unify as Americans rather than as partisans of their respective states not only because they shared principles with each other but also because they shared memories of fighting for them. Even Lincoln, an axiomatic thinker who applied Euclid to politics, invoked “every battlefield and patriot grave” in pleading with the union to stay together. His characterization of these “chords of memory” as “mystic” suggests Lincoln’s acknowledgement that reason alone was an inadequate foundation for politics.
It is significant that America’s Founders appealed to philosophy when in revolutionary mode, but to historical experience when governing. John Dickinson, for example, said at the constitutional convention that “experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” The Federalist is rife with historical references ranging from ancient Greece to medieval Europe.
History served two purposes for the founding generation. One was to seal popular commitment to the country and its principles with the emotional attachment of shared memories. The second—which Trump’s disregard for the past also undermines—was that history was a better guide to governing than abstract philosophy alone. Philosophers make mistakes. So, of course, do statesmen, but history provides a better classroom for statecraft.
The issue is the burden of trust we place on abstract reason or the intelligence of any one statesman at any one time. Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the risk. Americans, he wrote, comprised the nation least likely to study the French philosopher René Descartes—famous for concluding that “I think, therefore I am”—but likeliest to follow his individualist precepts. What Tocqueville called “the philosophical method of the Americans” included utilizing “tradition only as information” rather than as authority.
Yet reverence for custom—which evolves, but slowly—is a compelling alternative to the impulses of the moment that so often entrap Trump, while a shared historical memory is likelier than philosophical argumentation to unite a divided country and provide a stable link to the past and future.
Lincoln understood the importance of this intergenerational authority. In his 1860 Cooper Union Address, he proved that the founding generation had opposed slavery. That did not mean we were bound to whatever they had done. Significantly, however, Lincoln counseled a spirit of deference to historical forebears: “What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand….”
In scripted remarks, Trump has paid lip-service to this general idea. In appointing judges, has appealed to the authority of the Founders. In State of the Union addresses, he has evoked national memories ranging from D-Day to the civil rights movement. But in daily practice and spontaneous speech—when he is unshackled to words written for him by others—he lives in a never-ending now devoid of any context beyond himself.
In a sense, Trump’s much-mocked bungling of history is less troubling than his wholesale disregard for it. Knowing that they sit where Washington and Lincoln did might induce humility in presidents. It might also encourage arrogance. But either is preferable to treating the office as though it had been created for, and unoccupied until, Donald Trump.