Do you ever wonder how history will view Trump? Disney World is giving us a preview:
This makes my skin crawl, but it doesn’t surprise me. Trump, like all American presidents, will undergo a gigantic makeover in which his flaws and bad acts will be neatly and quietly airbrushed away. At most, textbooks will blandly describe him as “controversial” or “polarizing,” words that in no way capture the sheer reptilian awfulness of the man and the insidious dangers he and his followers represent. If he only serves one term and doesn’t do too much obvious damage, he’ll simply be ignored. He’ll be chucked down the memory hole with Millard Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison, Warren Harding and Gerald Ford.
More likely, the disasters he creates will be interpreted as well-intentioned mistakes or honest miscalculations. Whenever possible, they will be blamed on forces beyond his control (which includes the perfidy of foreigners).
You could call this the Meet the Press school of historical writing, in that it shares the same assumptions as the people on that show (and most mainstream pundits as well). Namely, that American presidents, and American politicians generally, are well-meaning statesmen who genuinely and selflessly act in the country’s best interests. They do not commit misdeeds, only mistakes. When confronted with undeniable proof that this isn’t true, all of society is blamed in a vague, sophistical way. This is the case with the Iraq War and the Wall Street crash, both of which were conceived, implemented and carried out by greedy people with bad intentions. The Meet the Press school sweeps away this untidy fact by holding us all equally guilty: Everybody thought Iraq would be a cakewalk! All the experts thought Saddam had WMDs! Nobody, but nobody, saw the housing crash coming!
Of course, blaming everybody is the same thing as not blaming anybody, which is why this is done. Individual bad actors are let off the hook, the status quo is maintained, and the beloved national myth that we are decent people who live in the best political system ever invented is preserved.
It’s possible that the opposite could happen. Trump could turn out to be so obviously harmful, so blindingly and undeniably villainous, that he’ll be held up as an outlier, a horrendous aberration that makes his predecessors look better by comparison. George W Bush’s former henchmen are already working this beat, as are conservatives of the David Brooks/George Will variety. For a while this happened with Nixon, who was definitely declasse when I was a child in the seventies, but in the end he received full absolution from our media elites and the thinking classes. I distinctly remember seeing him on such venues as C-Span and Nightline in the late eighties and early nineties, very much in the role of the Wise and Respected Elder Statesman and Foreign Policy Expert, all whiff of scandal politely forgotten. Now he’s remembered for opening up China, not Watergate.
I think the same think will happen to Trump. When his crimes and follies have faded into history, he’ll be euphemized as a bold, if flawed, entrepreneur who’s genuine desire to Make America Great Again foundered on the shoals of … partisanship? intransigent allies? a bad economy? (Which, as we all know, aren’t caused by people; they just sort of happen in nature, like earthquakes, dust storms and head lice.) Insert whatever Forces Beyond Anyone’s Control you wish to name. You’ll always be able to find some sycophantic journalist or hack historian willing to write it if you pay him enough money and throw in a few perks that appeal to his vanity, such as an invitation the White House Correspondents Dinner or an autographed photo off Melania Trump in which she refers to him as “hun.” Maybe Rich Lowry will be up for the gig after his passion for Sarah Palin fades.
But don’t worry. Future generations of Americans, assuming there will be such, will be just as indifferent to history as their ancestors. Trump hagiographies will be stacked, unread, in boxes at the Salvation Army, next to Nikki Haley’s autobiography and everything written by Tom Friedman, David Brooks and Deepak Chopra. Animatronic Trump will babble in a void while the people stand in line to watch Wonder Woman, eating deep fried Twinkies and posting selfies on Facebook.