I cannot name all of the U.S. presidents. Not in order. Not out of order. I made a serious effort though, last night, when political anxiety prevented me from falling asleep (as it has so often this year). When I came up short, I pestered my girlfriend, half asleep herself, to play along. Together we got to 31.
All things considered, 31 isn’t bad. I would guess we scored higher than the “average American” or the “average American power couple.” Of course there were the obvious executives like Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan. The recent graduates: Obama, Clinton, both Bushes. A few extra credit calls—Grover Cleveland (the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms), Andrew Johnson (the only president officially impeached), and Franklin Pierce (immortalized in the Animaniacs’ “Presidents” song as “the man without a chin”).
And of course, there was an elephant in the room. Number 45. We named him, certainly. But playing this game, it struck me for the first time—from now on, whether in 10 years or 100, right alongside storied names like Washington, Roosevelt, and Jefferson, would forever be the name Donald J. Trump.
It’s obvious. I know. Or…it should have been. That was the significance of the pomp and circumstance on January 20th. But with the constant in-your-face coverage over the past year, I’ve found it easy to lose sight of the fact that more than some figurehead or liberal bogeyman, Donald Trump is the president—an historical figure whose legacy will forever be preserved in textbooks, first-grade plays, and placemats.
When we’re happy with the present (or merely bored), we look forward to the future. When the present is dark, we turn to the past. In the good times, we imagine the bounty that lies ahead. In the bad, we turn backward, searching for clues.
When this pattern is broken, we can’t help but feel a pervading sense of cognitive dissonance.
I remember the story of a journalist covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in the weeks before The Inauguration. There, she was asked to report on the wonders of the future—a smorgasbord of smart appliances, like Internet-powered refrigerators, toasters, and microwaves. What just last year had seemed like a buffet of the possible now looked more like 2022’s rotten leftovers, spoiled before they even finished baking. How could she possibly feel excited about a “smart” future when there was legitimate concern that there may not be a future. Was this really Silcon Valley’s best attempt at “making the world a better place?”
I’ve watched as this introspective, backward-facing trend has consumed my own media diet as well. Early in 2016, I intentionally disengaged with political coverage, going so far as to effectively quit Facebook. I piled my nightstand high with books about our techno-optimist future. None of these authors were blind to the challenges we presently face, but the overriding narrative was that good would prevail. We’d all hold hands in a better, brighter future, one with self-driving cars, basic income, and less work. But as the election neared its inevitable conclusion, and in the months that followed, my reading list took a bleak turn. I couldn’t just tune out the dark cloud and wait for it blow over. I felt compelled to hunt for clues from the past, in missives from Putin’s Russia, Berlusconi’s Italy, fictional World War II counter-histories, and presidential biographies.
Unfortunately, in all my research, I did not find a single platitude with which to sweep this whole nightmare under the rug. If anything, I come bearing only bad news.
As Alexis Coe of the (failing) New York Times so eloquently writes:
Presidential biographies don’t tell you that everything is going to be O.K., but rather that nothing was ever really O.K. to begin with. And yet, for hundreds of years, Americans have not only survived heartbreaking, backbreaking periods but also stood tall in them.
In a dark, inverted sense, it’s the only good news I have to share.
We fondly remember Washington as the father of our nation. Lincoln as a hero who freed the slaves and saved the Union. FDR as the man who rescued the nation from the Great Depression while spiriting us through World War II. All facts. But we forget that Washington’s second term was embroiled in political infighting. Lincoln jailed unpatriotic journalists during the Civil War. FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court to get his way. Nixon, solely remembered for his deviousness, actually founded the EPA and ended the Vietnam War.
Right now, Trump feels omnipresent. His reign seems immortally consequential—either as a savior or annihilator. We are reminded, again and again, that we’ve never seen a White House like this before. Depending on where you stand, it’s the dawn of a new era or the end of everything you’ve ever known.
Take solace in the fact that our institutional memory is short. What we fear today will be forgotten tomorrow. And if not by us, then by the next generation. At one time, even Martin Van Buren’s every act was significant to some bygone America. Reading presidential biographies reminds us of that essential truth. With time, even Donald Trump’s memory will be reduced to that of every other once-consequential president—a epithet embodying his greatest success or biggest blunder.
The next president might be someone better, or just as likely, someone worse. But what’s certain is that no matter how we feel about him or her, there will be new challenges. New dangers. And in that future, when times turn dark once again, this historical moment long forgotten, will give a future generation solace. They will turn away from the promise of their techno-optimistic future to learn about us. And in doing so, they too will discover the same difficult truth—everything will not be O.K., but that’s nothing new. That’s how things have always been. That’s history.
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