As the first year of the Reign of Trump grinds to a halt with the patently absurd New York Times interview being on everyone’s lips, from political pundits to coffee shop baristas, it is time to get some perspective on not only Trump’s first year, but the first years of other administrations. Politico Magazine:
Imagine how future historians might try to summarize 2017: A U.S. president, his family and his political aides came under investigation by a special counsel for possibly helping a foreign government meddle in the election. Talk of impeachment swirled through Congress, where the fracturing Republican Party was in the midst of an identity crisis—and the Democrats were, too. Twitter became a source of official U.S. policy. A wave of sexual harassment allegations took down U.S. senators and congressmen, top judges and reporters, and high-profile political candidates—but not the president, who had been caught on tape admitting to grabbing women “by the pussy.” We learned that the Pentagon has secretly been studying UFOs. All while the leaders of North Korea and the United States exchanged threats to rain down nuclear “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
So far, the Trump presidency has been noisy but unproductive. A young conservative justice added to the Supreme Court, yes. And now a tax bill, probably. But either of these would have happened under any Republican president with the current Congress. For Trump the campaign circus continues; the presidency has hardly begun.
Several other first years have been crazier, if that means surprisingly eventful. In Lincoln’s first year the Union fell apart and the North and South went to war. In FDR’s first year the welfare state was born. In George H. W. Bush’s first year the Soviet empire started to crumble. In George W. Bush’s first year, the 9/11 attacks introduced America to global terrorism.
Twelve historians were interviewed for this article, and they give a synopsis of different administrations from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson. To get things in historical perspective, this is the piece to read.
In ordinary times, crazy is not a useful variable of social science or a helpful framework for historical analysis. But of course, ordinary historical time ended 13 months ago (and counting, day by day, hour by hour, tweet by tweet), and the question arises: Is this the craziest year in our nation’s political history? The working historian can readily identify other years that were patently more momentous, and we can justify their importance by invoking all those factors that we spend our scholarly years studying. But in the realm of craziness, 2017 has no contenders.
Why is that the case? One could argue, for example, that the new Republican mode of lawmaking, which involves drafting legislation behind closed doors, with no serious discussion, to fuel some madcap rush to get a vote, represents a crazed alternative to the Madisonian model of serious prolonged deliberation. Or one could hold that it is a crazed model of governance to experience one traumatic weather emergency after another, yet turn our institutions of environmental regulation over to a crowd of climate change deniers and big business chumps.
In my view, however, the real craziness of 2017 is best expressed in terms of constitutional theory. Our Constitution vests the entire executive power in a single individual. No worse joke has been played on the American people than the very fact that tens of thousands of eighth graders have a far better grasp of the Constitution than Donald Trump, even though he swore a sacred oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” it on January 20, before the record crowds he deluded himself to see assembled before him. That’s not just political craziness; it’s truly meshugah in every sense of the term. Just try to imagine a conversation with Jefferson, Madison, either Adams, or Abraham Lincoln—strong constitutionalists all—on one side of the table, and the current chief executive on the other. That would be crazy, too!
Happy New Year and God bless us all, as we prepare to slug through 2018.