Zooming with the historians

Trump has been trying to tell historians what to say about him.

As an academic historian, I never expected to find myself in a videoconference with Donald Trump. But one afternoon last summer—a day after C-SPAN released a poll of historians who ranked him just above Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan, our country’s worst chief executives—he popped up in a Zoom box and told me and some of my colleagues about the 45th presidency from his point of view. He spoke calmly. “We’ve had some great people; we’ve had some people that weren’t so great. That’s understandable,” he told us. “That’s true with, I guess, every administration. But overall, we had tremendous, tremendous success.”

Point missed. He was “not so great.” He hired the not so great people. He was the record-breakingly bad president.

I am the editor of a scholarly history of Trump’s term in the White House, the third book in a series about the most recent presidents. A few days after The New York Times reported on the project, Trump’s then-aide Jason Miller contacted me to say that the former president wanted to talk to my co-authors and me—something that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had done. For someone who claimed indifference about how people in our world viewed him, Trump was spending an inordinate amount of time—more than any other ex-president that we know of—trying to influence the narratives being written about him. My co-authors and I weren’t the only people he reached out to. According to Axios, Trump conducted conversations with more than 22 authors, primarily journalists, who were working on books chronicling his presidency.

Of course he did. He’s a narcissist, and he’s clueless. Put the two together and you get this absurdity.

But if anything, our conversation with the former president underscored common criticisms: that he construed the presidency as a forum to prove his dealmaking prowess; that he sought flattery and believed too much of his own spin; that he dismissed substantive criticism as misinformed, politically motivated, ethically compromised, or otherwise cynical. He demonstrated a limited historical worldview: When praising the virtues of press releases over tweets—because the former are more elegant and lengthier—he sounded as if he himself had discovered that old form of presidential communication. He showed little interest in exploring, or even acknowledging, some of the contradictions and tensions in his record.

He’s both evil and stupid. There’s nothing covert about it.

He seemed to measure American politicians primarily by how they treated him. Even many of those elected officials who criticized him in public sang a different tune, he insisted, when the television cameras were off. Trump vented about governors who continually expressed during private meetings how impressed they were with his COVID policies (“I hope you can get the tapes,” Trump said) yet proceeded to “knock the hell out of me” in public: “So unfair.”

It occurs to me to wonder how this plays out in real life. I’ve known some vain self-centered people, as we all have, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anyone who carried on as grotesquely as Trump does as a matter of course. It’s just so odd. It’s as if he has the tiniest amount of awareness of other minds of anyone in human history – just no idea that everybody doesn’t love him the way he loves himself. Person woman man camera tv.

5 Responses to “Zooming with the historians”