At 12:02 pm on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president, my friend Eric texted the following: “I’m seriously considering calling it fucking quits and moving to some country to teach English and live off the land.” I was in the middle of eating an entire pizza, and I wrote back, “We’ve had a lot of shitty presidents. I’m not happy, but I don’t think our civilization is over.” Then I started pondering all the shitty presidents we’ve had.
I was a nerdy kid who prided myself on memorizing the causes of death of every president. I grew into a nerdy adult who tried to get a Ph.D. in American history. (I dropped out before the end but got a Master’s degree as a parting gift.) I know more than most people about, say, Franklin Pierce. And for every hateful promise Trump has made, for every hideous principle he holds dear, for all the bile gurgling in his heart, I can think of a historical analogue.
So I decided to spend 2017 writing 43 essays about the terrible things the other presidents said or did.
The point is not to normalize Trump. To be clear, if history teaches anything, it’s that he’s aberrant and abhorrent. History also helps us understand the dangers that he poses. The fight over what this country is and should be is very old, and today we’re stuck trying to answer fundamentally the same questions Americans have been asking since 1789. Sadly, this is not the first time we’ve hated immigrants (and others), gagged journalists (and others), or neglected the sick (and others). As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
On the positive side, we’ve elected disasters before, and still we’ve found ways to express love and nobility alongside stupidity and cowardice. If we citizens work at it, progress can be made under the thumbs of some bad hombres. This is why I believe a review of our putrid presidential parade is an optimistic, patriotic undertaking.
I hope you enjoy it.