There are a lot of ways we can try to put Trump in historical context. The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot. Historians are usually skeptical of that word, but the remarkable thing about this presidency is how often the term is fully deserved.
One useful exercise is to think about dynamics that distinguish Trump from every other recent President. Among these:
His financial secrecy and corruption, the scale of which is not currently known because of his lack of disclosure.
The frequency of his lies.
The failure of his legislative agenda.
The explicitly racist and sexist nature of his repeated public remarks.
His public contempt for the first amendment.
His inability to enact policy, even within the executive branch
All of these, it seems to me, really do earn the “unprecedented” label, especially if we’re talking about, say, post-Nixon presidencies. But by far the biggest way in which Trump’s presidency is unprecedented is in the incompetence/danger matrix.
Other Presidents have become deeply unpopular (Bush II), have failed to enact their agenda (Carter), and have lacked a grasp of policy details (Reagan). But all of these presidents—even at their lowest moments—were held in high regard by career professionals working close to them. For all their failings, these presidents inspired fierce loyalty in dedicated public servants. And among the public at large, all but the most rabid partisans believed these presidents were doing their honest best to serve the country.
With Trump, we have something different, something downright astonishing. It has become clear that the career professionals closest to him do not respect him; indeed, that they see their role as caretakers to prevent a disaster. This is why Mattis and Kelly are there. We have never seen such open talk about a President’s incompetence/danger from people inside an administration. It was an astonishing moment last month when the President’s own Secretary of State threw him under the bus in a national television interview. When has this happened before?
If you follow the news beyond the right-wing bubble, you’ve seen this coming out in leaks for months. This weekend, it burst into the open with Senator Bob Corker’s remarks. Keep in mind, this a Republican Senator, a leader in the Senate. Because he is retiring, he can afford to say what the majority of Republicans who have worked with Trump believe:
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”
In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.”
“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”
Mr. Trump poses such an acute risk, the senator said, that a coterie of senior administration officials must protect him from his own instincts. “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Mr. Corker said in a telephone interview…
All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.
“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that “of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”
I’m not a presidential historian, but I’m not aware of anything like this happening before.