TRUMP’S TRASHY TRANSITION IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
America’s presidential transition is a magical democratic moment. A gift from our secular democratic gods -- the Framers – this healing timeout eases the shift from the brutality of campaigning to the civility we need for governing. It helps the incoming president adjust, set the tone, popularize a defining image, and fashion a mandate.
Then came the Trump transition.
Trump’s Transition failed. Trump hired key staffers. But the popularity boost every incoming president but one – Ronald Reagan – enjoyed since 1960 didn’t happen: 2016’s sourness has bled into 2017. Meanwhile President Barack Obama scrambled to cement his legacy – trying to shackle his successor to the old order.
There have been worse transitions: Seven Southern states seceded after Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans won in 1860. The Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt handoff was so fumbled it inspired the Twentieth Amendment, shortening the transition by six weeks from March to January 20. Hoover denounced Roosevelt’s “astonishing,” “foolish,” sadistic refusal to cooperate as hundreds of banks failed. Roosevelt waited to take power in 1933, to pitch his “Bank Holiday” with New Deal reforms. (Note, however, the strategy worked politically. After winning 57.4 percent of the popular vote, Roosevelt enjoyed a 69 percent approval rate when inaugurated).
When Thomas Jefferson unseated President John Adams in 1800, this first Constitutional transfer of power from the ruling party to the opposition was peaceful but stressful. Adams didn't even show up for the inauguration, leaving town at Adams saddled the new administration with “midnight judges.” Jefferson’s attempt to undo them triggered what became the landmark decision asserting the Supreme Court’s right of Judicial Review,Marbury v. Madison.
Obama tried handcuff his successor, John Adams-style. Obama jabbed Israel, commuted a record 231 sentences , banned oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast, and transferred 10 more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Obama also made more than 100 sudden-death appointments.
Nevertheless, Inauguration Day, 1801, proved redemptive. Jefferson’s gracious inaugural address proclaimed: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Forgetting Federalist pranks like removing the clangers in bells to silence the celebrations, historians have hailed Jefferson’s peacemaking.
Alas, Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” address did not reach out to the majority of Americans who voted against him – and continue to oppose him. The inaugural speech kept to the tone of the troubled transition. Trump failed to reshape the narrative. The man who deftly hijacked story lines during the campaign, apparently missed the transition-and-inauguration memo.
The transition is a second campaign, or an “uncampaign,” with the president-elect shaping perceptions through real actions and defining symbols. It is also a chance to reconcile, to help Americans adjust perceptions, because most wish to “fall in like” with their leader.The transition often injects humanizing tidbits about the new leader emerging, nuancing the campaign narrative. John Kennedy’s magical transition in 1960 created the model. Reporters boosted the Kennedy legend: the youth, the Harvardian eloquence, the Irish-Catholic wit, the famous family, the young kids – especially after John Junior’s birth on – and Jackie. Sixteen years later, Jimmy Carter’s transition triggered a peanuts-and-grits fest charming the country with the downhome Southernness of the first president elected from the deep south since Zachary Taylor before the Civil War.
If as consumers Americans occasionally suffer from “buyer’s remorse,” as voters Americans usually experience “patriot’s delight” – or, more cynically, “groupie’s slavishness.” Ronald Reagan was the only president since 1960 not to enjoy at least a ten point popularity jump, because he first tried turning his razor-thin victory in 1980 into a broader “mandate.” Still, he laid the foundations for future popularity by appointing a surprisingly moderate cabinet (although surviving an assassination attempt in March, 1981 generated his first big popularity boost).
Donald Trump’s crackling, combative “I’m a germaphobe” press conference highlighted his failure. Trump didn’t improve his image, Kennedy- or Carter-style. While Trump’s celebrity-status made rebranding more difficult, he failed to satisfy American’s curiosity about the new leader – which, when sated, can soften perceptions. He didn’t change tone, reach out, or heal. Similarly, Trump ignored Reagan’s example, not bothering to mollify critics. Many Democrats seem even angrier – with Trump’s impulsivity and brashness confirming their fears. Rather than inviting second looks, Trump reached Inauguration Day with Democrats still resisting, encouraging futile calls to boycott the new president.
Trump, ultimately, must learn the lesson Reagan taught in managing his own conservative supporters. When they grumbled that he turned wimpy, Reagan showed he was going to be the president of all Americans not just his fans. Trump keeps doubling-down, playing to his core, refusing to stretch. The result was a trashy transition, a polarizing inauguration, and a new president who has yet to appear presidential. A true nationalist would not just shout “America First,” but first would heal America.
The stakes for Trump have increased. Having squandered the traditional transition break, having kept his aggressive tone on Inauguration Day, can he reframe perceptions during the First Hundred Days? Or, as many fear, is he just the Donald Trump he has always been, more P.T. Barnum and Richard Nixon than George Washington and Ronald Reagan, more carnival barker and thin-skinned demagogue than magnanimous statesman?
Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.
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