Donald J. Trump: One of America's Greatest Presidents?
By Paul S. Gardiner
What to make of President Donald J. Trump? On the one hand, many people of the political Left and Right as well as numerous independent voters believe Trump to be anything but “presidential,” totally unfit for the office he holds, and sometimes a vulgar, boisterous individual. On the other hand, many people of the political Right also, along with many independent voters, believe him to be a genuine lover of America, defender of the Constitution, religious liberty, and the middle class, along with being a keeper of campaign promises.
Having said, this article argues that President Trump may eventually be viewed as one of America’s greatest presidents. However, as explained herein, much depends to a significant degree on 1) the results of the ongoing impeachment investigation of the president and 2) the results of the ongoing criminal investigation of Attorney General William Barr and federal prosecutor John Durham into alleged wrongdoings and an alleged “silent” coup conspiracy involving multiple ex-senior leaders and staff at several federal agencies and perhaps in the Obama White House.
While many Americans despise some of the things President Trump says, scholars and historians generally rate presidents mainly according to their achievements and their ability to sense what the public needs and wants, and their ability to act to satisfy these needs and wants. Less importance is placed on a president’s words, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies.
Regarding the words, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies of America’s presidents, it should be remembered that some of the nation’s most highly regarded presidents today were not uniformly viewed in their day as great or exemplary presidents. For instance, George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Abraham Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” Lincoln was routinely ridiculed for his lack of education and refinement. Several Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth murdered him. Lincoln was called a coward, an idiot, and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of the Union armies, George McClellan.
Harry Truman was rated as the seventh-best president of the United States in an Associated Press poll taken in 2009. Yet, while serving as president, Truman was widely criticized for using strongly racist language toward African-Americans and Orientals as well as regularly using profanity during his press conferences and other public appearances.
In 2014, a book was published entitled The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. A review of the book reveals that the unusual title is basically meant to convey the idea that truly great presidents occur only when the nation is involved in a tremendously horrendous war or other major crisis situation that no rational person would want to experience.
The book’s author and presidential scholar, Dr. Aaron David Miller, defines presidential greatness as “incomparable and unparalleled achievement that is nation or even world-altering.” Dr. Miller further states that presidential greatness is a matter of how a president “overcame a truly nation-wrenching challenge or crisis” and used “his crisis moment to fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves as a nation and the way we govern ourselves too, and in doing so, changed the nation forever for the better.”
Dr. Miller postulates that, thus far, only three men truly satisfy this definition and deserve being viewed as truly great, indispensable presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Washington, of course, was America’s first president and Revolutionary War commander-in-chief. As such, he was absolutely indispensable in so many ways to the formation of the American nation and its unique constitutional republic. Lincoln led the nation through the horrific Civil War, thus saving the Union and eventually forever ending slavery in America. Roosevelt served four terms and was absolutely indispensable in leading the nation to victory during World War II, thus establishing America on the world stage as the leader of the free world.
As part of his analysis and study of various presidents, Dr. Miller identifies three elements common in varying degrees to all occupants of the White House: crisis, character, and capacity. “Crisis” refers to an event or events that severely threaten America and may set the stage for historic change. “Character” refers to effective leadership resulting from a unique combination of public and private aspects of one’s behavior. “Capacity” refers to the capability, particularly in crisis situations, to get important things done, choose effective advisors, manage Congress and the press, and create a basis for transformative change.
All three of the truly great, indispensable presidents mentioned above demonstrated truly effective leadership (character) during times of great crisis and trial for the nation, and they were able to get truly important things accomplished (capacity) that had lasting change for the better.
Given all the above, how does the presidency of Donald J. Trump (as of today) compare with the records of other presidents? What is the caliber of his “greatness” at this particular time in history, and are there factors that could increase his rating as a president in future years?
Since taking office in January 2017, President Trump has made numerous notable and important achievements in several areas of American life and internationally. But simply to list these accomplishments without describing the context in which they were achieved would not be fair to him nor fair to readers of this article. In order to fully appreciate the presidency of Donald Trump, one needs to have a full understanding of his operating environment.
Americans who pay attention to national news realize that Trump has been under continual investigation for one action or another ever since he assumed office and even before. It is alleged that these investigations have been and remain instigated by people who desire to remove the president from office. In fact, the various efforts to remove the president from office have recently been called a coup by attorney Mark Zaid, who represents the anti-Trump Central Intelligence Agency “whistleblower” in the current impeachment hearings. Zaid’s tweet from Jan. 30, 2017 — barely a week after Trump’s inauguration — states: “Coup has started. First of many steps. #rebellion. #impeachment will follow ultimately. #lawyers.”
Thus, all the accomplishments of Trump and his administration have to be viewed in the context of continual investigations by people desiring to remove a duly elected president by means of a coup. It is alleged that participants in this coup included senior leaders at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Department, various intelligence agencies, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and even people working in the Obama White House. As mentioned earlier, there is an ongoing criminal investigation into this matter.
It can be argued that conspiring to remove a duly elected president from office by means of a “silent” coup truly constitutes a constitutional crisis, something that America has never experienced. Moreover, this situation qualifies as a bona fide crisis of huge significance not only for America but also for other democracies and allies of the U.S.
This crisis notwithstanding, Trump has demonstrated great courage and effective leadership in accomplishing many important actions including: 1) confirming more circuit-court judges than any other new administration; 2) protecting Americans from terrorists with the travel ban, upheld by Supreme Court; 3) lifting almost 3.9 million Americans off food stamps; 4) creating over four million American jobs; 5) yielding the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for Americans without a high-school diploma; 6) moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; 7) withdrawing from the highly questionable Paris climate accord; and 8) constructing a barrier wall along the U.S. southern border.
In conclusion, Trump ultimately may be viewed as one of America’s greatest presidents due to his courage and effective leadership, accomplishments, and steadfastness while enduring a bona fide national and constitutional crisis. He continues to combat the efforts of an unprecedented conspiracy and coup (alleged at present) to remove him from office. Needless to say, the results of the impeachment proceedings and the coup criminal investigation led by Durham will be most interesting and important to the ultimate rating of Trump.
Paul S. Gardiner is a retired Army officer, Vietnam veteran, and avid lover of America. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Alabama, and the Unites States Army War College.