Perhaps you were distracted by holiday weekend activities. Maybe you were barbecuing burgers and dogs, or taking your first dip in the lake or pool. You could have been in mourning for children slain in Texas, or decorating the grave of a loved one felled in one of America’s battles.
Because hardly anyone remarked on what Donald J. Trump had to say in Wyoming at a rally for Harriet Hageman, his choice in the state’s primary for its lone House seat.
During that rally for the Republican challenger to Rep. Liz Cheney — Trump’s bete noire by virtue of her relentless criticism of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill and her vote to impeach him — he took aim at two of the leading Republican families in modern history.
He said that “the Cheneys are diehard globalists and warmongers” and he attacked what he called the “failed foreign policy of the Clintons, Bushes, the Obamas, the Bidens.”
Let’s put aside for a moment a Republican president criticizing his Democratic predecessors, though that is remarkable enough; Richard Nixon may have criticized Truman-era Secretary of State Dean Acheson (saying he had a “form of colorblindness — a form of pink eye”), but he shied away from frontal attacks on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Warren G. Harding criticized Woodrow Wilson obliquely (that was the meaning of his hope to return to “normalcy”) while avoiding acid-filled ripostes about the man he sought to replace.
But Trump broke new ground in his attacks on the Cheneys and the Bushes, who together gave the Republicans:
— a year and a half as White House chief of staff
— four years as secretary of Defense
— a year as director of the CIA
— another year and a half as envoy to Beijing
— two years as chief delegate to the United Nations
— more than a decade in the Senate
— 20 years in the House
— 14 years in governors’ mansions
— 16 years as vice president
— 12 years as president
— and a trying year and a half as chairman of the Republican Party during Watergate, the party’s lowest point in a generation. Plus five years as Texas land commissioner, a powerful position held by George P. Bush, who, though he did not receive Trump’s endorsement for attorney general of Texas (and failed to win last month’s primary), has spoken approvingly of Trump’s brand of politics.
The Democrats have been reluctant to repudiate their many rogues and deplorable figures. The party began to move away from its racist past in 1948, when Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey of Minneapolis (“The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”) didn’t criticize by name any of the segregationists in the Democratic National Convention audience. Harry Truman, who two weeks later desegregated the armed forces, didn’t criticize Woodrow Wilson, who by any measure harbored racist sentiments.
Even Joe Biden, in heavily and justifiably criticized remarks, had warm words about two of the leading segregationists of the Senate, James Eastland of Mississippi and the onetime Democrat (but later Republican) Strom Thurmond (“We always used to fight like hell. And even back in the old days when we had real segregationists like Eastland and Thurmond and all those guys … at least we’d end up eating lunch together”).
One of the hallmarks of the modern American presidency has been what Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, in their book of that name, called “The Presidents Club,” the remarkable phenomenon of former presidential rivals working out their differences and working together — for philanthropy, for joint statements celebrating good works, as a symbol of comity in a line of work where collisions of policy and ego are the prevailing leitmotifs. Trump is not, in a phrase from the Bush world, clubbable.
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were bitter 1992 rivals, but George W. Bush liked to say Clinton had become the 41st president’s favorite son. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford conducted a tough 1976 campaign, but when Carter was inaugurated, his first sentence as president, spoken from the platform outside the East Front of the Capitol, was, “For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
Some 28 years later, Carter told me, “He had been defeated, but he was a gentleman. When we went to the [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat funeral and came back, just the two of us, we developed one of the closest friendships that ever developed between two presidents.”
This is not Trump’s style, which is why he didn’t join former Presidents Clinton, Obama and Bush 43 in a joint video statement of bipartisan support for Biden at the time of his inauguration. Nor did he join Bush 43, Obama, Clinton and Carter in a video urging Americans to take the COVID vaccine, for which he arguably deserves credit.
But being the lone wolf (and sometimes appearing wolfish), Trump has no apparent desire to be included in the continuum of presidents.
He employed his personal style to win the presidency, and he is using it to remain — sometimes eclipsing the sitting president — the most prominent figure on the American political scene. He did not win the White House by conforming to conventional politics, he did not earn the approbation of his base by making dutiful bows to tradition, and he did not earn a place in history — regardless of whether he runs for a second term or is reelected — by being a traditional political figure. In an age of disruption, he is indisputably the disrupter-in-chief.
Ty Cobb did not become a baseball great by being solicitous of the feelings of teammates and, once established as a sporting immortal, did not suddenly become personable. Trump would forfeit some of his appeal, and much of his base, if he became the Marquess of Queensbury of our time. He’s more comfortable, and more congenial to his supporters, as Leo Durocher (the actual quote from 1946 is “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place”) or, to more contemporary ears, the rock band Green Day (who sang in 1999, “Your sympathy will get you left behind”).
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.