Few presidents, if any, have been so vilified in the mass media and by the political opposition as Donald Trump. To be sure, much of this is self-inflicted, what with his incessant “tweets,” poor language, rude behavior, “business”-type personality and overall demeanor. While this may seem to some as superficial and personalist, to his opponents, it typifies the worst in character and behavior that makes the man himself “unfit” for the office.
Thus, the impeachment process, openly and without apology, actually began before he even took office. The result was a verdict based upon overall and generalist behavior, “abuse,” and “contempt,” minus the judicial criteria of a criminal case. The verdict also remains completely symbolic, as there is no possibility of Trump being removed and every indication that it may even help his re-election.
A Look Back
History is, again, instructive. Many presidents in history have behaved both in “contempt” and with “abuse” of Congress and the opposition in general. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus and arrested thousands without charge, Franklin Roosevelt blatantly tried to “pack” the Supreme Court, many (including W Bush) went to war without authorization, and many as well, especially Wilson and Obama, circumvented the Constitution on a regular basis.
Trump has also been called the “liar-in-chief,” and “fact checkers” from the media have tabled over 10,000 lies from his lips. But whether it is one, ten, or 10,000, the history of politics is, in a way, a history of lies. It also depends upon the magnitude and extent of the lie. For Obamacare, the Administration promised that patients need not replace their physicians, an untruth that affected millions.
In World War I, the U.S. declared “neutrality,” while, simultaneously, billions of dollars of aid and assistance went to the western allies and practically zero to Germany. This was one great lie and led to the U.S. declaration of war and subsequent American involvement in all facets of world politics.
The Washington Post, the chief accuser of Trump lies, has just released the Afghanistan Papers, showing a history of official falsehoods stretching back decades on the American war in that country. Earlier, The New York Times, a “lie co-conspirator,” published the infamous Pentagon Papers (1971), that revealed the history of official distortions which enabled the Vietnam War and all the tragedies surrounding its millions of deaths.
But perspective cannot help the Trump presidency; it is almost unsalvageable. Nor do many care. Even if he wins in 2020, his personality and that of the “nevers” will stubbornly remain. His “unpopularity” will be a constant, but this, too, is not without precedent. Lincoln won in 1860 with 39% of the vote, while his name did not even appear on the ballots of 15 states. He was reconciled to defeat in 1864 until the “soldier vote” turned the tide.
What saved Lincoln was Grant and the Union cause, and what gave the Union a “cause” was the Emancipation Proclamation, a form of “doctrine” that gave Lincoln a moral, rather than a purely political cause.
Neither army in the Civil War fought for or against slavery. They fought for “country,” as each defined it. What elevated the American cause was Lincoln’s announcement of the end of slavery, the “proclamation.”
What Trump needs is something equally dramatic and equally appealing: a cause that is both morally right and universal.
Legacies and Doctrines
Presidents are remembered by what is called “legacy,” a term that means “transmitted from the past.” James Monroe has been memorialized by his “doctrine” of 1823, not “officially” terminated until 2013 by Secretary of State John Kerry. Nearly 200 years, that’s quite a legacy for an otherwise obscure president.
Nor does “doctrine” need, necessarily, to be effective. Monroe warned Europe to stay away from the Western Hemisphere, a few years after the British Army burned the Capitol City (1814). If we couldn’t save Washington, how on earth could we save Rio? The Monroe Doctrine, furthermore, was both ignored in Europe and misused by subsequent presidents. James K. Polk used it as an excuse for the annexation of Mexican land, while Theodore Roosevelt used it to intervene throughout Latin America, especially in Panama. Woodrow Wilson did the same against Mexico, 1914, 1916.
Yet the “legacy” of an “American hemisphere” became a key factor in the U.S. worldview, even employed by Franklin Roosevelt throughout World War II and by John Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis (1962).
Other doctrines have had their own legacies, effective or not. In 1899, the U.S. announced the “Open Door” doctrine (“notes”) warning against further aggressions against China. Most of the world went into China anyway, especially Japan, but the American stand remained – right up to Pearl Harbor itself.
In 1947, President Harry Truman declared probably the greatest doctrine of all, his own “Truman Doctrine,” that outlined an American role in the world that stands to this very day. And it is precisely this doctrine that Trump opponents have charged him with either endangering or ending.
An American Doctrine
Here is where the President must (should) make his peculiar contribution to history. Making America “Great Again” remains an open and empty proposition with neither direction nor purpose. Bumper Stickers and hats do not a doctrine make. There has to be substance to Trump’s rhetoric, and it has already become passé.
Trump, and America, needs a doctrine, the time for political debates over personalities and the weather should come to an end.
The particulars of the occasion cannot engage us here, suffice that it should be sufficiently broad to satisfy those who think that the world is ending and that freedom is finished with those who think that the American Revolution is still vibrant.
That means that it must be American at its core. As with past doctrines, positive, enduring, and appealing.
If nothing else, at least a legacy.