Have We Ever Had a President Like Donald Trump?
He is the presidential candidate with no filter, a man compelled to reveal all the thoughts that pop into his head—no matter how violent or crude—including his sexual fantasies about his own daughter. While many have accused Donald Trump of having an abnormally large ego, the opposite is true: His ego happens to be so small that it is barely able to control any of the rumblings of his own id. Whenever Trump feels slighted, he finds it necessary to start a holy war—with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, or even Pope Francis himself. Simply put, he does not bond with the rest of humankind. He may know everyone who is anyone, but he has few real friends. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough recently told The New York Times, “I have known this guy for a decade and have never once had lunch with him alone?” Trump trusts hardly anyone besides his third wife, his children, and his lackeys. He’s a suspicious loner who has convinced himself that he has little need for advisers. As he said earlier this month, before finally naming a handful of unfamiliar, press-averse foreign policy advisers, “I’m speaking with myself.”
Have Americans ever placed anyone with the curious characterological make-up of the Donald in the White House before? To find comparable presidents, we have to go back to the nineteenth century: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler. While these four nineteenth-century presidents were all more qualified than Trump to set foot in the White House—each had previously served in a high-elective office—they did share his reckless temperament. This history lesson should make Americans wary of Trump, as three of the four were doomed to unsuccessful one-term presidencies.
Though John Adams was an intellectual powerhouse, his fiery disposition caused him problems throughout his political career. As biographer John Ferling has noted, “Adams’s great failing seemed to be his volcanic temper, which could explode with such suddenness and so little provocation that some of his colleagues feared that passion occasionally eclipsed reason.” At the Continental Congress, fellow delegates liked to pick Adams’s brain, but they saw him as too unstable to be a leader. Thus, the admission of Adams’s character in the musical 1776 that he was too “obnoxious and disliked” to draft the Declaration of Independence hews closely to reality. As president, Adams exhibited a Trump-like contempt for his cabinet, most of whom disagreed strongly with his policies. And like Trump, the only advisor Adams ever took seriously was a member of his own family: his wife, Abigail. In early 1800, Secretary of War James McHenry resigned in the wake of a vicious tirade by the president. In writing of the incident to a family member, McHenry described Adams as “totally insane.” Adams also had little tolerance for dissenters in the media. On the ninth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which punished journalists who made what were deemed “false, scandalous and malicious” statements against government officials with both hefty fines and prison sentences. While Adams tried to pass off this draconian measure as the handiwork of his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary considered it an act of tyranny; Hamilton also argued that an “ungovernable temper” made Adams unfit to govern. American voters apparently agreed: Adams lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson by 23 points.
Adams’s eldest son, John Quincy, had an even harder time getting along with his fellow man. As our sixth president wrote in his diary, “my political adversaries [call me] a gloomy misanthropist; and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage.” Biographer Paul Nagel, describes him as “notorious for his harshness, tactlessness and even rudeness.” Like Trump, who was once a Democrat, Adams had no use for party loyalty. His only allegiance was to himself. As a young Federalist senator from Massachusetts, he repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans; the Federalist party honchos were greatly relieved when he resigned his seat in 1808. This undiplomatic man turned out to be a good diplomat, but his success had more to do with his towering intellect than his people skills. As the chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, he managed to get the Brits to agree to accept the status quo ante bellum (though he was unable to maintain cordial relations with fellow U.S. delegates such as Albert Gallatin, the treasury secretary under Jefferson). And as James Monroe’s two-term secretary of state, he authored the Monroe Doctrine. But his presidency was a disaster. As Gallatin observed, the temperamental Adams lacked “that most essential quality—a sound and correct judgment.” On the domestic front, he launched a host of ambitious proposals—including a national university and a vast network of roads and canals—but he refused to curry favor to build support for them. Pennsylvanian Congressman Samuel Ingram noted in the last year of Adams’s administration, “[The president] has always been hostile to the government and particularly to its great bulwark—the right of suffrage.” In his bid for re-election in 1828, Adams was trounced by Andrew Jackson, who earned more than twice as many electoral votes. ...