Morton Keller & Julian Zelizer: How Significant Are Trump's Attacks on Obama?Roundup
tags: Obama, wiretapping, Trump
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
Morton Keller: In his inimitable manner, President Trump has stirred up a mini clash with his predecessor, Barack Obama, by accusing him of having Trump's headquarters wiretapped during the 2016 election. Time, and investigation, should cast light on the substance of this charge. As historians, we can speak to the uniqueness of this sort of attack, and what light it casts on Trump's—and the current political culture's—way of doing business.
It is hardly unknown for a newly-elected leader to denigrate the performance of the previous incumbent. Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the hapless Herbert Hoover after the 1932 election, or Winston Churchill after he replaced Neville Chamberlain in 1940. But these were critical national moments—the Great Depression in America, the Nazi threat in Britain—and to underline the scale and significance of the change was deeply appropriate.
More germane to the current situation was Barack Obama's treatment of George W. Bush after the 2008 election. Bush's unpopularity, and the hope-and-change theme of Obama's campaign, dictated that he not let his predecessor off lightly. (Nor did his not modest self-estimation of what his presidency represented.) ...
Julian Zelizer: It is healthy to remember that the essence of most presidential administrations, at least early on, is to define themselves against their predecessors. It is difficult to think of a president who didn’t spend a decent amount of time criticizing the person who came before him, particularly if that person was from a different party. Mickey, you are certainly correct in reminding us that Herbert Hoover offered a foil to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and Jimmy Carter became a model of how not to do just about everything for Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon basically blamed Lyndon B. Johnson for everything that had gone wrong for the U.S.—from Vietnam to urban unrest. Although he ended up keeping many of his policies intact, Barack Obama campaigned as the antithesis of George W. Bush and governed with ongoing signals about how he wanted to do things differently. It is true that there was no shortage of tough words about Bush’s record to come from Obama and his administration.
But this feels different. Foremost, this is not really about policy. Also, at this point, new presidents have usually shifted their focus away from the previous president toward their own agenda. Finally, Trump’s charges are about illegal activities. With the accusations about wiretapping, Trump made a pretty serious claim about his predecessor; even if it’s true that we should take these tweets with a grain of salt, that can’t really be ignored. In essence, Trump was saying, or at least implying, that the former president violated the law. ...