Not surprisingly, political historian H.W. Brands gets asked with some regularity about how history might treat President Trump. His short answer is that it’s too soon to tell. He’s also often asked about history’s ability to predict the future.
“No present moment is exactly like something that came before, but neither it is entirely different,” says Brands, the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas. “This is why history is good for understanding things that happen in the present, but it’s not particularly good for predicting what’s going to happen next. So as a historian, I don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now, but once it happens, I’m going to explain why it was inevitable.”
Brands’s latest book, Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants, is about the nineteenth-century American struggle to complete the unfinished work of the founders—a battle over tariffs, state’s rights, over how much compromise is too much or too little. Brands started work on the book before the Trump era, but admits that readers attuned to today’s political climate will find the drama of the dangerous early years of our democracy—years full of scandal, betrayal, and rivalry—eerily familiar. From state’s rights issue over marijuana legalization, the abortion debate, and sanctuary cities to the parallels between Andrew Jackson’s populism and Trump’s populism, there’s plenty in Heirs of the Founders to explain why today’s debates were inevitable.
On our latest podcast, Brands—who’s written more than a dozen biographies and histories, two of which, The First American and Traitor to His Class, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize—breaks down those parallels and also details the behind-the-scenes compromises that made Texas’s acceptance to the union possible. Plus, Brands explains the criteria we tend to use to reassess past presidencies and, yes, exactly when he believes we’ll have enough perspective to begin judging the Trump presidency.
Some highlights (edited and condensed for clarity):
On the Art of a Deal
The book covers an age when compromise was understood to be a necessary part of the political enterprise in a republic—a republic becoming a democracy. Compromise was not only necessary, it was honorable. Henry Clay was known as the great compromiser in his age, and it was meant as a high compliment in those days because it was somebody who could wrangle the different factions in Congress and in the country to find some solution to their problem that they all could live with. If you call somebody a compromiser today, that’s usually intended as an insult that conveys a lack of conviction. Some of this reflects the fact that we have moved to this model where politics is driven by the president and presidents tend to have an executive personality. “I’m the decider,” as George W. Bush used to say. But in Congress, you don’t get to be the decider. You get to be the one who brings people together. And it’s a model that I think is important for any era in American politics to perceive and to recognize.
On Compromises Over Slavery
These men had concluded that holding the country together, moving the American experiment in self-government forward was a bigger deal than solving the slavery question at once. I liken it to the debates we have over abortion. And abortion is a deeply moral issue, and we have two sides in this abortion debate and each one thinks that it’s right on moral grounds. Well, what do you do when you’re in that position? It’s not at all impossible that a hundred years from now people will see that one side or the other had the right in that abortion debate and then look back and scratch their head and say, “How could you make these compromises?” But this is what you do when you cannot convince the other side that they’re wrong. You have to accommodate them and you hope that eventually you’ll be able to come to some common ground, some conclusion.
How History Is Made
Every generation is doing something that future generations will consider to be deeply immoral. There is a tendency of every generation, certainly in America—and I’m not sure that that’s true in other cultures and societies—to think that it’s different. And sometimes this shows up in what I call the moral narcissism of the present. We think we’ve got it right and we can sit in judgment on every generation that came before. But there’s this kind of teleological thinking that suggests everything in the past was designed to produce the present. That’s a recurrent theme, except then there’s another generation and another generation and things move on. So the challenge for the historian is to determine how much of a present moment is like what came before and how much is different. No present moment is exactly like something that came before, but neither it is entirely different. This is why history is good for understanding things that do happen in the present, but it’s not particularly good for predicting what’s going to happen next. Because until that thing happens, you never know whether the similarities or the differences were greater. So the line that I sometimes trot out on this one is, “I don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now, but once it happens, I’m going to explain why it was inevitable.”
On the Birth of Texas
Texas has been a pain in the neck for the rest of the country from that time until now. A lot of it has to do with the Texas sense of exceptionalism—and the exceptionalism was actually well earned, although it wasn’t entirely intended. So one of the points that I make in the book, and I pointed this out to my students, is the part of Texas history that Texans so admire themselves, that Texas was this independent republic before it became a state, was not the idea of Texans. It was thrust upon them, because when Texas applied for admission to the union after the revolution of 1836, the rest of the union said, “Heck no. We don’t want you because you’ve got slavery.” And the rules for ratifying a treaty said that a third of the Senate could block a treaty and therefore block admission of Texas. So Texas languished outside the Union for nine years. Eventually the political currents in the United States changed and they sort of waived the rules a little bit to get Texas in under a joint resolution. But there was grave concern over what Texas would do to the union, in part because Texas was so large. When the debate was over whether Texas should be admitted as a slave state, because it was going to be admitted as a slave state, the worry was the Texas would be not just one slave state, but as many as four or five slave states. And that would have wreaked havoc on the balance in the Senate between slave states and free states.
On Andrew Jackson vs. Donald Trump
There is very little parallel between Andrew Jackson, the man and president, and Donald Trump, the man and president. Andrew Jackson, for example, was devoted to his wife his whole life. Andrew Jackson was a career public servant. Andrew Jackson was a military hero known for his courage. Andrew Jackson put the interest of the country before the interest of himself. And Donald Trump is quite different on all of those, but there’s some important parallels between the people who elected Andrew Jackson and the people who elected Donald Trump. The people who elected Andrew Jackson were deliberately putting a finger in the eye of the elites that have been running the country for the previous thirty years. And the people who elected Donald Trump were saying the same thing to the elites that had been running both parties for the previous thirty or forty years. So there’s a parallel between Jacksonian populism and Trump populism, but the individuals could hardly be more different.
On Reassessing Presidents
There is something you see again and again in history and it’s a little bit like that disclaimer on the side-view mirror: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Well, in the case of presidents, presidents always look better when they’re out of office. Sometimes you see this before they leave office. So Bill Clinton’s approval rating in his last year in office was higher than for most of his presidency. Dwight Eisenhower, the same thing. Barack Obama? Same thing. And Obama used to use this to say he could have won a third term. There is a real sort of myopia, a present-mindedness, in American politics, where we zero in on whoever is president now and the warts of the current president look greater because there’s incentive for the opposition party to emphasize those. And we tend to look on the past where there’s a sort of warm, fuzzy glow, at least if presidents comport themselves well after they leave office, if they don’t do anything too outrageous.
What Makes a Texan a Texan
I’ve lived in Texas since 1981. I got here when I was 27. And I’ll be quite honest and say I don’t consider myself a Texan. I’ve observed this in my children. I’ve observed in other people. And my conclusion is that to think like a Texan, to feel like a Texan, you have to get here by seventh grade. You have to take that seventh grade Texas history class, because you have to know what you have to know to be a Texan and you have to learn the culture—the transmitted mythology of Texas. I think it’s not at all a coincidence that that seventh grade Texas history class comes at the time in young peoples’ lives when they’re getting confirmed in the Catholic church or Bar Mitzvah’d in Jewish faith. It’s a your coming-of-age as a Texan.
On Evaluating the Trump Presidency
The problem with the present for a historian is you don’t know what’s important. You don’t know what’s not. So I get asked again and again, “What’s the meaning of the Donald Trump presidency?” And I say, “I don’t know, but ask me after the 2020 election.” Because if he gets a second term, then what he’s done in the first term will be a big deal. If he doesn’t get a second term, it won’t be a big deal. It will be seen as an anomaly. Perhaps we’ll go back to the way things were before. So this is why we have to wait and see. I don’t take the extreme version. Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was asked, “So what was the meaning of the Roman Empire?” And he was writing seven hundred years after the fact. And he said, “It’s too soon to tell.” So I don’t go to that extreme, but it is too soon to tell now what the election and first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency mean.