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The Donald Trump phenomenon is nothing new in American politics

5 September 2016

11:36 AM

5 September 2016

11:36 AM

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion about Donald Trump. But it’s worth lowering the emotional temperature for a moment, taking a step back, and looking at him through the eyes of history. Has there ever been a presidential candidate like Trump? Here I’ll confine myself just to the last twenty-five elections (1916-2012), during which time the Democrats ran eighteen different candidates for president, and the Republicans seventeen. So apart from the soundbites is there anything really different about the Donald?

First, Trump has never run for office. The last time a major party ran a candidate who had never entered an election was in 1952 when the Republicans nominated Dwight Eisenhower. A war hero, commander of the D-Day forces in 1944, Eisenhower was so widely admired that both parties wanted him as their candidate. Far from being an outsider, he had been in government service for decades. The only other candidates of the last century with no previous electoral experience were Herbert Hoover (Republican candidate who won in 1928) and former Secretary of Commerce, and Wendell Willkie (Republican candidate who lost in 1940), a lawyer and corporate executive.

Second, Trump became a celebrity through a popular television show, ‘The Apprentice’, and appeared on the political scene with an instantly recognisable face. The obvious comparison here is with Ronald Reagan (in 1980 and 1984), who became a movie star in the late 1930s and then made the transition to television in the 1950s and early 1960s. Reagan, unlike most beginning politicians, never had to overcome the problem of obscurity — his was already a household name when he first ran for office (as governor of California) in 1966.

Third, Trump has had a turbulent person life — married three times and divorced twice. The first divorced presidential candidate was Adlai Stevenson (Democrat in 1952 and 1956), at a time when divorce still carried a stigma, and it hurt his chances. Since then, several other divorced men have run for the top job, including Bob Dole (Republican in 1996), John Kerry (Democrat in 2004), and John McCain (Republican in 2008) but only one, Reagan, has won. Incidentally, this doesn’t mean that earlier candidates were paragons of marital fidelity. Warren G. Harding (Republican candidate in 1920) was famous for trysts in the White House broom closet with his mistress Nan Britton; Franklin Roosevelt (Democrat candidate in 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944) sometimes strayed from the narrow path; and John F. Kennedy (Democrat in 1960) was probably the executive office’s most reckless philanderer.


Fourth, Trump is a lot older than most, but not all, candidates. In June of this year he celebrated his seventieth birthday; he’s about eighteen months older than Hillary Clinton and, if he wins, will be the oldest man elected to his first term. Bob Dole was 73 when he ran unsuccessfully against Hillary’s husband, and so was John McCain when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. Ronald Reagan was sixty-nine during his first successful bid (1980) and seventy-three when he ran successfully for re-election. At the other end of the scale Kennedy was just forty-three when he entered the White House and Bill Clinton (Democrat in 1992 and 1996) was forty-six. Obama, in 2008 was 47.

Fifth, Trump made a fortune in business. Similarly, Herbert Hoover made millions as a mining engineer and consultant before turning to government service. Alf Landon, the Republican candidate in 1936, became a millionaire in the Kansas oil business. Mitt Romney (Republican in 2012) made tens of millions of dollars at Bain Capital, Massachusetts, in the 1980s and 1990s. At the other end of the business scale, Harry Truman (Democrat in 1948) opened a Kansas City haberdashery store in 1919 with an old army buddy, but it went broke just three years later.

Famously, sixth, Trump is a billionaire. Can any presidential candidate rival him for wealth? Not in the last hundred years, or indeed in the whole history of the republic. The next closest is George Washington, the first president, whose combined wealth in property and slaves, translated into today’s dollars, probably amounted to half a billion. On the other hand, nearly all the candidates have been members of the top one percent. Poor folks just don’t get into the White House. The closest we came in the last century was with Harry Truman. He used to collect spare change and send it through the mail to his wife Bess, who didn’t like Washington and spent most of her time back in their home state of Missouri.

Finally, which candidate was most unlike Trump? I think the answer is Calvin Coolidge (Republican), who inherited the presidency when Warren Harding died in office, in 1923, then won re-election in 1924. Where Trump is an ostentatious, bustling extrovert, Coolidge was a puritanical, tight-lipped introvert, nicknamed ‘Silent Cal’. He could face down lobbyists and job seekers with an impenetrable wall of silence, and he once remarked: ‘The things I don’t say never get me into trouble’. It’s hard to imagine a candidate like that winning today, but perhaps Trump could learn something from Coolidge’s dedication to self-restraint!

Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory College in the United States

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