On Sunday, ahead of the President’s Day holiday, the editorial board of the Raleigh News and Observer implored Donald Trump to “contemplate what it means to be presidential.”
“Sometimes, it seems, America has just been lucky,” they wrote of America’s history. Lucky with George Washington, lucky with Abraham Lincoln, and lucky with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In an attempt to provide hope even for a miserable dipshit like Trump, they cited Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush as presidents whose legacies were tarred when they left office but have become more highly-regarded as time has passed.
That asking Trump to be more like FDR came on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans for the rest of World War II, was probably an unfortunate coincidence. But in asking the new president to be more like a conventional president, it accepts a framing that Trump himself used to great effect during the election. Making America “great again” means returning to the leaders of yore: a white man, usually coming from the upper-class to ascend to power and then wield it to the ruin of the working class, people of color, and immigrants.
This ideal of the American presidency, as it has existed until now, is nothing to aspire to. As Mother Jones‘ Shane Bauer covered in this Twitter thread, even those presidents we generally remember as great did absolutely depraved things, some of which have provided cover for Trump.
Eisenhower is just one example of many. “Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” Trump said in November 2015 during a Republican debate. “Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.”
The plan Trump was referring to was Operation Wetback. As Slate’s Louis Hyman and Natasha Iskander wrote of the program:
Papers also ran photos of apprehended men held in crude holding pens set up in city parks and in the parking lots of processing centers, of men marched as captives through border towns, of men packed onto charter buses and of lines of those buses waiting to cross the border. In movie theaters across the nations newsreels showed Mexican immigrants rounded up and made to stand in the hot sun as their bodies and their belongings were searched.
What the newsreels didn’t show were those same detainees, now with shaved heads, crammed onto trains or trucks bound for the middle of the desert, where they were left 15 miles across the Texas border on the highway. A leader with the largest Mexican labor organization (Confederación de Trabajadores de México) described the transportation of these deportees as being like “truckloads of cows.” In one instance, near Mexicali, across the California border, 88 deportees died of exposure in the 112-degree heat. Others—about a quarter of those deported—were shipped to Mexico by boats from Port Isabel, Texas. Congressional investigators, historian Mae Ngai has written, likened the boats “to an ‘eighteenth century slave ship.’ ” The press coverage also failed to capture the many instances in which immigrants were roughed up, detained, and summarily deported without due process, often with no chance to notify their families that they had been swept up in raids on factories, fields, boarding houses, and even the same movie theaters that showed the newsreels. Mexican Americans had to prove that they belonged. INS agents dismissed the legitimacy of draft cards or Social Security cards, insisting on birth certificates, which few people carried around on their person. Mexican Americans who couldn’t produce birth certificates quickly enough were deported.
What the N&O means, obviously, is that Trump should be a steady hand in the time of crisis, something he is obviously incapable of doing. But historically, what it means to be an American president is to be inhumane, from the earliest days of Washington’s republic to mass deportations and support for Saudi Arabia’s potential war crimes in Yemen in Obama’s empire. Idolatry of past presidents, even those who did great things throughout their tenure, won’t save us.
Trump, of course, is a lost cause; the only limits to his monstrosities will be the ineptitude of himself and those in his inner circle. But looking to the first forty-four presidents for guidance does more harm than good. It provides justifications for Trump’s hatred of dissent, his nativism, his authoritarianism and his cronyism.
Making America great means making it a free, inclusive, equitable, and humane society the likes of which we’ve never seen. That requires a shift from our present circumstance greater than what any one president, or maybe even generation, is capable of. Remote as they seem now, however, these ideals give us a better roadmap than the actions of past presidents for the kind of leaders and society we should aspire to have.