The Trump Presidency: A Second Harding Administration?

The inauguration of Donald Trump is only a week away and the many who dread the incoming administration are busy bewailing the coming catastrophe. The terms "fascist" and "fascism" feature prominently in their denunciations and historical analogies to Hitler or Mussolini are liberally offered. Just the other day, a full-page ad appeared in the Washington Post courtesy of The ad, bearing the signatures of a number of prominent individuals, flatly states that "by any definition, Donald Trump is a fascist." This claim is not unique. Some respected political commentators have made the same accusation.

Trump is no fascist. For one thing, that claim implies he has something resembling a coherent ideology and some core principles. Trump has no ideology. With respect to principles, he is guided principally by his ego (more on that below).

Moreover, although there is no question that during the campaign Trump appealed to nationalist sentiments and exploited the fears of some regarding Mexicans, Muslims, and minorities and foreigners in general, he is not Hitler or Mussolini. Trump exhibits the casual prejudices of a wealthy, privileged man who has been insulated from substantive contact with those outside his elite social and business circles, but he is no hater, let alone a murderous bigot. Trump's remarks to and about African Americans during the campaign did not betray deep-seeded animosity, just ignorance and condescension. Frankly, Ronald Reagan--now practically a saint in some eyes--was much more overt in his use of racist dog whistles during his campaigns. Have we already forgotten Reagan's infamous "welfare queen" or the "young buck" buying a T-bone steak with food stamps?

Furthermore, although Trump has repeatedly boasted he is the only one that can solve America's problems, this claim is the product of his narcissism not any authoritarian aspirations. In any event, were he to harbor any such ambitions, our democratic institutions should prove more resilient than those of the Weimar Republic.

No, if we had to make a prediction about the Trump administration based on some historical analogy, I think we should look to Harding, not Hitler. Like Trump, Warren Harding rode to office on a wave of reaction: whereas Trump has pledged to make America great again, Harding pledged a "return to normalcy." The nativism of a substantial portion of the American population in the 1920s resulted in strict immigration quotas being passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Harding's "pro-business" administration pushed for and obtained tax cuts for the wealthy. To protect American industry and farmers, tariffs were increased on imported goods. Harding also urged federal regulatory agencies, such as the FTC and ICC, to be more cooperative with corporations rather than confrontational. Finally, like Trump, Harding appointed unqualified cronies to the cabinet, resulting in one of the most corrupt administrations in American history. Many historians have rated Harding as one of the worst presidents--an incompetent, incurious executive, with no experience in foreign affairs, who, however, had a streak of decency. (He was much less racist than his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson.)

Is something like this what we can expect from Trump? I would make this prediction except for one consideration, which is why the title for this essay is in the form of a question. The comparison to Harding might be unfair--to Harding. Trump distinguishes himself from Harding by his extreme egotism. Trump's press conference the other day eliminated any doubt that he's motivated primarily by his self-regard. Those who dare question him become enemies, whereas those who praise him can do no serious wrong. Were national security not at stake, Trump's love affair with Putin would be comical. I, for one, doubt that the Russians have any compromising information on Trump. What would be the point? It's not needed. All Putin has to do is to continue to flatter Trump and he'll have Trump eating out of his hand. Praise Trump as a great businessman, and the U.S. will recognize the annexation of Crimea. If Putin also praises Trump's golf game, Trump will probably throw in Latvia as well.

So over the next several years we can expect to see an ever widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us, an inflexible stance on immigration, counter-productive trade policy, lax regulation of corporations, general bungling of both domestic and foreign affairs, indifference to civil rights, a decline in America's stature in the world, and corruption on a "big league" scale--accompanied throughout by the disheartening spectacle of our thin-skinned president reacting like an insecure adolescent to every perceived slight. It will not be pretty, but we will still have a democracy in 2020, and this time, if enough people vote in the right states, perhaps the outcome will be different.

The foregoing represents my personal views only and is not to be attributed to the Center for Inquiry, a nonpartisan nonprofit.