One of the first questions future history textbooks will have to answer is: was Trump’s election and subsequent style of presidential leadership truly unprecedented? The answer is multifaceted.
Trump vs. Trump: If you ignore Hillary Clinton, Obama, Ted Cruz, and all the other politicians and just compare Trump with himself, his 2016 campaign and presidency aren’t unprecedented. He’s been lying and manipulating the truth his entire life. For decades, he’s ripped off contractors; he’s flip-flopped on the issues; and he’s fabricated falsehoods about his business and brand.
Trump vs. the Presidency: When you compare Trump with his predecessors, however, his legacy (through 2017 at least) is in fact unprecedented. The leaks; the tweets; the denials; the lack of solo press conferences; the staff terminations; the refusal to release his tax returns … one can go on and on. From the start of his political career, Trump broke all the rules and he continues to break them. As The New York Times put it, “Mr. Trump is redefining what it means to be president,” turning “a test of how to lead a country” into “an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation.” Perhaps to a greater extent than any president since FDR, Trump will be remembered less for his legislative achievements than his redefinition of the institution.
Trump vs. the World: Compared with other heads of state, Trump looks less unprecedented. Trevor Noah had a point when he joked that Trump was running on the wrong continent, and political pundits encourage such parallels all the time when they say something along the lines of “what’s happening in Washington right now is something you’d normally only see in a third world country.” Winning an election under controversial/suspicious circumstances is not unprecedented: it happened in Russia, Uganda, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Iran, among other countries. Neither is stretching the facts to accommodate one’s political agenda: politicians in China, Africa, and the Middle East are notorious for bending the truth to match their ideological narrative.
Since none of these three is necessarily better or worse than the others, future history books will need to decide which lens is most appropriate for its readers. Narrow in on Trump, and he’s not unprecedented. Widen the scope to include all US presidents, and he’s very unprecedented. Widen the scope even further to include the rest of the world, and his level of unprecedentedness falls.