How Will History Remember Donald Trump and His Sycophants?
I was recently reminded of how memory can get blurred over time.
When I mentioned to a young woman several months ago that I was eager to see the off-Broadway musical Cagney, she looked puzzled and asked, “Who is Cagney?” Then she thought a minute and said, “Oh, wasn’t he a famous gangster who killed a lot of people?”
Memory and history matter in other ways, too.
Here’s an example from the recent HBO film All the Way. In a remarkable scene in the Oval Office, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, lobbying for the passage of his 1964 Civil Rights Act, thrusts his face close to that of Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and says: “We’re making history here, Everett. And you have to decide how you want history to remember you.”
Dirksen was vigorously opposed to the bill, and wanted to water it down with 40 amendments. But he took to heart LBJ’s advice about his legacy. Dirksen and other Republican senators — some of whom Dirksen persuaded — voted to end the filibuster blocking the bill, enabling the historic law to pass in the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27.
On the other hand, Donald Trump and his army of sycophants don’t seem to care about how history will remember them.
Trump’s supporters and enablers may be blinded by their skill in rationalizing their lies and hypocrisies with deceptive arguments that their base relishes. But history will not be so generous.
When it comes to history, words matter a great deal. Book authors know that. If an editor questions the meaning of one of their statements, an author may offer an explanation: “What I meant was…” To this, the editor responds: “But your written words didn’t say that. And unfortunately, you do not come with the book. Your words must stand on their own.”
So how will the words of Trump and company fare in the absence of spin and distortion? Not well. When statements and actions are placed side by side in history books, they will scream out as extreme examples of political corruption and of Republican politicians placing party above country.
Consider Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s condemnation of Trump before he later endorsed him: “[Donald Trump] is a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag. … a speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.”
And here are the words of Texas Senator Ted Cruz before Trump won the nomination: “[Donald Trump] is a pathological liar. … he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. The man is utterly amoral. You know, morality does not exist for him.”
But the lure of power didn’t stop Cruz from supporting Trump — an “amoral” man, who now controls our nuclear codes.
The reality that words matter also eludes Vice President Mike Pence.
After Trump’s May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily (for a G-7 meeting) — and despite a lukewarm response at best to Trump’s tour from the international community — Pence bragged that America was back, great again, and finally respected by the world.
History will record much the opposite: that Trump damaged America’s reputation in Europe, the Middle East and across the globe. And Pence will not be there to offer an “alternative explanation.”
The history books will report that members of Pence’s own party scratched their heads after Trump’s trip. To many of them, his conduct was deeply at odds with the history and character of the United States. The record will show that commentators here and abroad, including world leaders, ridiculed Trump and expressed dismay about America’s shrinking role on the world stage.
They will cite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lament that Europe could no longer depend on America. They will quote political commentators who observed sadly that in just 140 days, Trump tore down the prestige, trust and high regard for the US that it took hundreds of years to build.
And what a field day historians will have when they describe Trump’s first meeting with his full cabinet on May 12, 2017. After the president bragged at length about his administration’s great accomplishments, he then forced the cabinet members to take turns showering him with tribute — along with effusive gratitude for allowing them to be part of his team and participate in his outstanding leadership and agenda. One can only wonder what sort of pressure was exerted on them to glorify their “leader” in this embarrassing fashion. The only thing missing: each bowing down to kiss the Don’s ring.
And now Republicans are pulling their hair out over Trump doubling down in blaming both sides for the recent neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. Trump, in public, proudly equated the fascist, white supremacist and antisemitic demonstrators with the people who opposed them. This was a mind-boggling equivalency
And how will congressional Republicans and other devotees react to Trump’s August 22nd rally in Phoenix, where he reversed himself on his scripted speech the day before once again promoted divisiveness? In an immediate response on CNN, James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, called the president’s rant “scary and disturbing,” and questioned his fitness for the Oval Office.
Will Trump’s army of sycophants wake up and change course? Or will history remember them as the quintessential political buffoons of the 21st century?
We don’t yet know the answer. But we do know that Trump himself may be a lost cause, since he shows no respect for facts, is uninformed on almost all issues and displays an arrogant lack of interest in learning anything. If you know it all, why waste your time gathering information, much less guidance, from others?
With the Trump administration floundering, submerged in ongoing chaos and near daily shakeups, with business leaders and others defecting from his councils and advisory positions, his loyalists seem reluctant to risk rejection by telling the truth — no matter the cost to our nation, the world or their own legacies.
Trump’s supporters and enablers may still have a brief window of time to preserve their legacy and the way they are remembered. To do so, they will have to reclaim the moral cores that they have abandoned, and then take bold action. It would also be wise for them to meditate on the words of LBJ to Everett Dirksen: “You have to decide how you want history to remember you.”
And the fate of late former President Richard Nixon should remind them that “all the president’s men [and women]” are subject to the judgment of law and history.
Bernard Starr holds a PhD in psychology from Yeshiva University in NYC and is a professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. He is also a past president of the Brooklyn Psychological Association and the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”