The night before the 2016 presidential election, I was thinking a lot about my favorite president, Chester A. Arthur.
Like Donald Trump, Arthur was a thoroughly corrupt New York dandy who never should have even come close to the presidency. As head of the New York Customs House, he ran a crooked scheme of levies on shipments that poured money into his pockets and benefitted the system of bosses that dominated Nineteenth Century American politics. If there was a dirty trick that needed doing, Arthur was as made a man as could be found. Fudge tests so that immigrants could become citizens and gratefully vote Republican? He did it. Staff the civil services with unqualified criminals as political favors? Didn’t bother Arthur one bit.
One day his schemes, as schemes often do, went too far, and Arthur was on the verge of losing everything and possibly going to jail for an audacious theft. He had one gambit left, though. In 1880, New York was the most important swing vote, and vice presidents were often chosen specifically based on their ability to deliver the state. Arthur never wanted to be president, rightfully feeling the office was beyond his petty thief abilities. However, he still wanted to be a big shot. So, he managed to convince the James A. Garfield and the Republican Party that he was the perfect vice president. And so he was because New York went for Garfield by less than two percentage points and without it Winfield Scott Hancock would have won.
Arthur was ready to settle in and serve a mostly ceremonial role, but less than four months after the inauguration Garfield was shot by deranged office seeker Charles Guiteau and died in agony after infection set in. Suddenly, Arthur was president, and the cronies, bosses, and corrupt career officials were dancing in the streets. The god-king of grift was now the highest authority in the land. They couldn’t wait until he started handing out the loot.
Except, Arthur didn’t do that. Utterly humbled by the sudden and monumental power of the office and guilt-ridden over the death of his boss (Guiteau shot Garfield in part because he was sure Arthur would reward him), Arthur turned reformer. He routed the American civil service of vagabonds and incompetents with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, and even told his mentor, legendary boss Roscoe Conkling, to basically go fuck himself when Conkling demanded to be made Secretary of State. Arthur didn’t single-handedly undo the spoils system, but he did knock it to the ground and knee it in the face to the absolute surprise of everyone around him.
When duty called, Arthur made like Frodo and took the Ring to be destroyed though he did not know the way. The saddest thing about the Trump presidency is that Trump could very much have done the same and simply didn’t. He just took the Ring.
Leave the bigotry and stupidity aside for a moment. Lots of racists have been great presidents (Lyndon B. Johnson comes to mind) and so have plenty of unintelligent ones as well (George Washington was not terribly bright). Instead, let’s focus on the mechanics of what put Trump in power.
I know it feels like a million years ago but think about the Republican primary of 2016. Donald Trump was a joke, and this was his second time pretending to run for president in a bid to expand his brand. With Barack Obama departing, the Republicans ran a massive field of more than 20 candidates including some of their brightest stars and at the time the most diverse group of politicians ever to vie for a major party nomination. Yet, Trump completely decimated the all-star line-up like it wasn’t even there. Sen. Marco Rubio didn’t even carry his home state of Florida, and even the Bush Dynasty was powerless against Trump.
It was a true populist wave that continued through to the general election. Trump may have only bested Hillary Clinton by narrow wins in a few swing states and with the help of a Russian disinformation campaign, but it cannot be overstated how unique a man with no elected, military, or public service experience beating one of the most storied politicians in American history was. He did that while being due in court for running a scam university and raping a minor. It’s repulsive, but it’s also remarkable.
When Trump ascended to the presidency, he was in a position no one had been in for generations. He was beholden to nobody in his party. He gleefully owed Republicans nothing for his win, and he for sure didn’t need the Democrats for anything since his party controlled both houses of congress. Conservatives were terrified of the new normal he represented. His base was fervent, vocal, aggressive, and far bigger than the establishment had ever anticipated.
Trump is a chameleon, to put it kindly. Like Arthur, he never exhibited any real morals or ideology over his career. He mostly just said and did things that got him headlines and invited to big parties. When it was convenient to be a Democrat, he wooed the Democrats. When birtherism offered something, he became the Birther in Chief.
If Trump had been able to fully grasp the magnitude of his office, he would have been able to reshape conservative politics for the better against the wishes of an establishment that didn’t dare to cross him. Take his only signature legislation: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. It was a typical Republican wealth distribution bill that slashed the effective corporate tax rate to an all-time low of 8 percent. Rather than investing in employee wages as was hoped, companies mostly used it for stick buybacks and enriched shareholders. Income inequality got worse.
Trump could have demanded any number of controls to make sure that didn’t happen, anything from banning buybacks to take advantage of the breaks to writing in a minimum wage increases into the law. After all, he didn’t owe the moneyed classes jack. His bosses were mostly poor white people without college degrees who work for The Man. Trump could have turned conservatism into the workers party overnight and cemented GOP rule for years to come.
He didn’t do that because, unlike Arthur, Trump simply cannot let go of a grift even when history itself weighs in the balance. Instead, Trump funneled government money into his properties, bullied judges that ruled against him in court cases, and ultimately has resorted to outright treasonous actions to stay in power despite a democratic election.
Donald Trump is a very rare person. Few politicians owe their success to the general population like he does and none that I can think of have spit so shamelessly in their faces regardless of it. He had the ability to actually drain the swamp, ending the cronyism of the Republican elite through sheer force of his popular support. These politicians are generally cowards desperate to hold onto their fiefdoms, and if the fight over Supreme Court justices this past year has taught us anything it’s that Republicans have no pesky convictions to get in the way of change.
Trump could have sold universal healthcare to the nation far more easily than Clinton ever could have. Trump could have demanded that corporations treat their workers with dignity and pay them a living wage if they wanted their precious tax breaks. Nothing would have stood in his way, and it’s not like it would have cost him anything personally. What were Republicans going to do? Say no? The MAGA nation would have immediately rallied to his banner and made the establishment’s life a merry hell. Democrats desperate for progress would have gleefully joined in.
None of that came to pass because at the end of the day there was no hero buried in Trump the way there was with Arthur. He was just a two-bit bum unable to see anything bigger than himself even when it was in his own self-interest to do so. Donald Trump could have been great, and he actively chose not to be.