Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.
Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.
At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.
Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.
One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.
We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.
Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.
As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.
Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.
“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.
This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.
In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.
We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”
What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.
History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.