Trump, history, and uncharted waters

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Folks, we are REALLY getting into uncharted water these days with the news about Russia’s involvement in our election, a president-elect openly challenging the credibility of the intelligence community’s information, and a call for the Electoral College to be briefed on all this info before making their decision. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are breaking from their president-elect, calling for an investigation.

Yes, we’ve heard people say that this could be bigger than Watergate, but the truth is that we are getting into events that seem surreal because there simply are not any strongly legitimate historical parallels. The Watergate break-in occurred before the 1972 election and clouded it somewhat, but it was only after Nixon’s landslide victory (which was a true landslide) that the investigations destroyed his presidency. Might that happen again? If so, the connection to Watergate would become stronger, although at this point we don’t have anyone accusing Trump of trying to cover anything up or being involved in the plot.  Yet I think Carl Bernstein’s comment that Trump has a “bigger disdain for the truth” than did Nixon (he would know) is a legit assertion.

Because this is all so uncharted, we are living through a series of events that as a historian I find extremely fascinating. Don’t you? Oh, and lets throw in that the president-elect wants to continue producing a reality TV show while in office (which even Newt said was “weird,”) and seems to enjoy poking China with a stick even before getting inaugurated. He also doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings, because he is “like, a smart person.” (He should look into the Kennedy administration’s history to see how daily briefings prevented a nuclear war). AND, we have this victory lap thing he is doing, which no president-elect has done before. The man has participated in more of these post-election gloating events than he has intelligence briefings! (That is a fact, look it up).  I defy you to give me a legit historical parallel in our history for all this.

All I can say is to keep watching and take notes. If the Hamilton Electors movement is successful at getting this thing thrown to the House of Representatives (which I think is their most realistic hope), we will have some historical parallels again, but not with these kinds of issues swirling around. Russia helping to determine our election? I mean that is beyond anything that happened in the Cold War.

Oh, and by the way, let’s stop referring to the Hamilton Electors  as “faithless electors.” I agree with Geoffrey R. Stone, Distinguished Professor of Law at Chicago University, when he asserts in Time that if they deny Trump the presidency, that would actually be “faithful” to the whole reason for the Electoral College in the first place (and to their country). If somehow this actually happens (it is still a major long-shot), won’t it be fun to watch those that advocate for strict interpretation of the Constitution and “original intent” try to criticize the Electoral College for actually serving the function for which it was originally intended in the Constitution? We would also see Trump criticize the Electoral College for subverting his election, when in fact without it he would not be the president-elect in the first place. Crazy.

The best that history can do right now is reveal how much Trump is acting in ways different than anything we have seen before (such as his dealing with China and Taiwan). One angle that I found particularly interesting to consider is that Trump is breaking with traditions established by George Washington in creating his cabinet. While putting together what would be the wealthiest executive department heads in history, Trump has shown little interest in diversifying his appointments in ways that would help smooth over political divisions and tensions, and in fact, is only exacerbating them.

Lastly, in response to all the Russia news, Trump and his surrogates have been going around saying that he won in an electoral college landslide that is “historic.” Um, no. Not so much. His electoral college victory actually ranks as the 46th largest out of 58 presidential elections. What is historic is the size of his popular vote loss despite the electoral college win.  At 2.8 million votes, Trump’s deficit is by far the largest for any candidate who won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. So he’s got that going for him.

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