To Hawthorn Friends & Family
Even knowing – and, in many a case, grateful – there is only one Donald Trump, political historians look for models that can help us understand and predict this political tsunami. Yesterday, The Hill published my comments on some of the possible Trump predecessors from 20th century American politics. It follows, below.
The Donald: Trumped by history?
By John Ashford
While there is, indisputably, only one Donald Trump, students of political history still struggle to find his historical model. It seems reasonable to ask to whom we should look to understand the extraordinary rise and – to date – triumphal ride of The Donald. Is he:
Ross Perot of 1992?
Granted Perot was another billionaire who had never sought public office until he won almost 19 percent of the popular vote against President George H.W. Bush’s 37.5 percent and Bill Clinton’s 43 percent and therefore, in the view of many, splitting the Republican vote and thereby electing Clinton president.
Similarities noted, I don’t see Trump running as an independent. First, and without exception, independents lose. And Trump doesn’t see himself as a loser. It is antithetical to everything he claims to be. The best showing by a third-party presidential candidate was Theodore Roosevelt, who got 27 percent of the vote as a “Bull Moose” in 1912, costing William Howard Taft the White House and helping elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Independent candidates do not win national elections in the United States and Trump doesn’t want to “elect” someone else. He also lacks Perot’s focus, discipline and network required to get through the tedious ballot access process in 50 states.
No, Trump is NOT Ross Perot. So, is he:
Joe McCarthy of the 1950’s?
Like the anti-Communist scourge from Wisconsin, Trump is every bit his equal as a braggart and bully, a xenophobic nationalist. Trump is also equally superficial, with a McCarthy-like stunning disregard for truth and substance. But, as far as we know, while also a megalomaniac, Trump is unlikely to pursue McCarthy’s path of self-destruction as he ruined everyone around him. Before Trump spews his venom too much longer, hopefully he will meet “his” Joseph Welch, who famously challenged ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’ during the Army-McCarthy hearings: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir. At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
As with McCarthy, it is fair to ask of a too often cruel and reckless Trump –“at long last, have you no sense of decency?” Clearly, he doesn’t. He has only a sense of being Donald Trump. But he’s still not quite Joe McCarthy. So, is he:
Wendell Willkie of 1940?
This may be the best historic fit. A business titan, Willkie had never run for public office, as late as 1939 was a registered Democrat, was known (but never disclosed) by the news media for living out of wedlock with the female book editor of the New York Herald Tribune, had strong support from the media moguls of his day, was rumpled and charismatic. He was strongly anti-establishment, running against New York district attorney Tom Dewey (the losing GOP presidential candidate in ’44 and ’48) and U.S. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio (“Mr. Republican”) for the nomination.
Willkie’s momentum – driven by popular grassroots support and media coverage – continued to build toward the convention. He ran third on the first ballot, but by the sixth swept the GOP nomination. Willkie went on to give FDR a somewhat tough fight for president in a world convulsed by the opening salvos of World War II.
Wendell Willkie – who had achieved greatly, campaigned spectacularly and upended the Establishment –was my favorite historic parallel to Trump –– until I talked with a Willkie expert who said, “You’re right about Willkie, but isn’t a better example of a billionaire who ran and won Michael Bloomberg given his three victories as mayor of New York.” He’s right. Bloomberg did win, albeit not at the presidential level. So, is he:
Michael Bloomberg was twice elected Mayor of New York, then bought and paid for a change in the city charter so he could run for and win a third term.
Again, not at the presidential level (but mayor of New York is not an inconsequential office/campaign), Bloomberg won nominations and elections. Can billionaire insurgent Donald Trump do the same?
For the sake of America, one hopes not. But while there is no shortage of pundits saying his outrageous entertainment-based appeal will wane, where is the proof, at least so far? Maybe America will become bored with Trump, but as H.L. Mencken said, “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
What is absolutely clear is that any other politician would be dead and buried if he or she had said and done what Trump has said and done. But Trump is not “any other politician.” He is not a politician at all.
Who knows if or when an America mesmerized by the Kardashians will lose interest in Trump? Maybe as he hires political staff, issues position papers and acts more and more like a candidate . . . maybe, just maybe, his magic will fade. For now, no data suggest it. One can only hope America’s “sense of decency” will reawaken.
This country’s most brilliant journalist writing on China, Evan Osnos, focused on America in “New Yorker” this week, writing a great profile of Trump, including, “From the pantheon of great demagogues, Trump has plucked some best practices – William Jennings Bryan’s bombast, Huey Long’s wit, Father Charles Coughlin’s mastery of the airwaves – but historians are at pains to find the perfect analogue . . .”
Osnos is correct. We have NOT found the perfect analogue. What we HAVE found is a flawed political misfit this country needs about as much as it needed Bryan, Long, and Coughlin. Hopefully he, like they, will have his “day in the sun,” will make his contribution to the process and then will exit the stage before doing real damage.
Ashford, chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group, a public affairs and public relations firm in Alexandria, Va., is a former journalist, now a political and corporate communications consultant who has been covering, working in and observing political campaigns since the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign of 1968.