Future Americans will have a hard time placing an autocrat in the same pantheon as Washington or FDR, or even Nixon or Jackson. One thing is certain: After the Capitol insurgency, Trump’s pages in the history books will be dark reading

Richard Nixon and Donald Trump may both be symbols of corruption and power-mania in the White House, but whereas some Nixon-era policies have been rehabilitated with the hindsight of history, it’s unlikely the same will happen for Mr. Trump’s.
Mike Lien/The New York Times; Evan Vucci/The Associated Press
David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGills Max Bell School of Public Policy.
He trampled on traditions and he ignored laws. He rampaged against his opponents and he bent his Republican colleagues to his will. He alienated established allies abroad and he defied the political establishment at home. He made friends of dictators and enemies of the press. He defied conventional codes of comportment and he unsettled even the most hardened of his Capitol Hill supporters. He mounted a full-scale assault on the institutions of government and he endangered the democratic instruments of power themselves.
Then Donald Trump incited a riot at the Capitol that did more than transform the most sacred ground of American democracy into a crime scene. He in effect declared war on the vital pinion of the American system, the separation of powers, by using his position as the head of the executive branch to incite violent conflict with the legislative branch.
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From the moment he transferred his attention from reality television to the reality of being the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, Mr. Trump entrusted with insuring domestic peace, but sowing civic conflict embodied social disruption, political transformation and cultural contradiction.
He was the promoter of law and order who provoked the most serious political riot in American history. He was the Republican who replicated the traditional Democratic alliance with workers. He was the plutocrat whose base was the poor and the striving. He was the peddler of blatant untruths who accused the press of promoting fake news. He was the president who repealed the laws of courtesy that animated the American capital, who annulled decades-old customs of politics, who mounted a dangerous assault on the peaceful transfer of power that for 150 years was an emblem of American democracy and who allowed his darkest thoughts to come to blazing light in late-night tweets until even those became intolerable to consume and, eventually, with action from high-tech executives, impossible to transmit.
National Guard members take a rest around a bust of George Washington at the Capitol building on Jan. 13, the day the House of Representatives impeached Mr. Trump a second time.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Only 44 Americans have won the presidency, so each the regal George Washington and the down-home Harry Truman, the garlanded Franklin D. Roosevelt and the disgraced Richard Nixon, the taciturn Calvin Coolidge and the eloquent John F. Kennedy has been different, each distinctive in his own way. And yet many of those 44 men had strains of the characteristics that marked Mr. Trump. Some were insurgents, some dealt in insults. Some created new coalitions, some destroyed old assumptions. Some were outsiders, some befuddled American allies. Some promoted falsehoods, some deliberately sowed social discord. Some were crude, some lacked discrimination in their friends.
But no president until the current occupant of the White House not the feckless James Buchanan who sat by as the storm of the Civil War gathered, much the way Mr. Trump sat passively amid the threat of the novel coronavirus, not the besieged Bill Clinton who like Mr. Trump suffered the ignominy of impeachment, indeed not any of the men who preceded Mr. Trump in office combined all those characteristics.
He alone had the signature mix of bluster and bombast, insults and imprecations, defiance and hard-headedness that he brought to the presidency, practised in the White House and seems ominously poised to be part of his years in the political wilderness. He alone was impeached not once but twice, with the vote against him Wednesday the most bipartisan of any presidential article of impeachment in American history. And as Mr. Trump prepares to leave office his departure itself a fraught phenomenon, with no presidential precedent the radioactive fallout of his four years shows no signs of dissipating. The white supremacists and right-wing extremists he courted, empowered and unleashed have only been inflamed, not restrained, by the reaction to the siege of the Capitol, the arrests of the rioters and the ignominious flight of their commander-in-chief from power.
No one has seen anyone quite like him, and I am not sure we ever will again, said Rafael Jacob, a political scientist at Concordia University and the University of Ottawa, who said that none of the Presidents successors will behave as a human being the way Trump has. He simply cannot be replicated.
Scenes from Jan. 6’s day of infamy: At top, Mr. Trump speaks to a rally of thousands of supporters near the White House, and at bottom, the mob masses outside the Capitol Rotunda before storming inside.
Mandel Ngan and Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
For four years, the election of Mr. Trump prompted searching questions among commentators and scholars. In its aftermath, the scholars Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields wrote in Trumps Democrats, published in September, social scientists, like good seismologists, reviewed previous political tremors in search of hairline fissures that might help them understand the gaping new fault line opened by Trumps victory.
In the years to come even more so in the decades to come that search will continue. Mr. Trump and his effort to retain office in defiance of the centuries-old tradition of the peaceful transfer of power very likely will present a puzzle to historians, who will come to their judgments long after the echoes of rancour and the shouts of passion of our own era have stilled.
They almost certainly will not excuse his coarseness nor his crudeness. They very likely will deplore his failure to unite a country riven by fresh racial tensions and divided by an ever-growing wealth gap. They will look in astonishment at his drive to cling to power and to enlist allies in a self-serving effort to convert his common-man appeal into the trappings of a strongman. They will look in wonder at his eagerness to dismantle an international diplomatic and financial system that his predecessors built, brick by brick, institution by institution, until they created an edifice of finance and statecraft that promoted the very prosperity and liberty that he claimed as his domestic touchstones.
And as they explore these past four years, Mr. Trump will be evaluated by the single cadre of humankind uniquely predisposed to abhor him: historians and biographers. Barring a surge into the academic ranks of a corps of scholars and writers who share his discrete set of attitudes and instincts an unlikely eventuality, given the predispositions of the profession the Trump years will be assessed by men and women who respect internally consistent political doctrines, who revere personal introspection and who prize public truth-telling, three character elements that Mr. Trump has flouted, sometimes with great fervour, sometimes with great delight.
His legacy will almost certainly be coloured by indeed dominated by the moment in which he whipped up supporters whom he had summoned to Washington by his claims of voter fraud, served them pugilistic rhetoric about courage and strength, and then bid them travel 16 blocks up Constitution Avenue to defy the very mechanisms of the Constitution that, according to one estimate, once influenced the governing documents of 160 nations, including Canada.
As a result, he faces an even more daunting task for rehabilitation than Richard Nixon, who left office in disgrace 46 years ago. For decades Mr. Nixon was an abject symbol of corruption and power-hungry ambition. That has not faded, as Mr. Trumps campaign to retain power, and then to incite violence, will not fade into historical obscurity. But while the Nixon environmental and social-welfare ideas have received fresh attention nearly a half-century later, Mr. Trumps recasting of Americas approach to China, to immigration and to international trade the work of four years will forever be overshadowed by the tragedy of Washingtons four-hour ordeal this month. Theres a realization that Nixons policies were not only ahead of their time, they also laid the foundation for the future, said John Roy Price, who was a special assistant to Mr. Nixon on urban affairs. Trump wont be forgiven, as Nixon has not been he has utterly no notion of the Constitution or democratic traditions but at best history eventually may recall that he was an innate, gut politician with a good feel for the frustration a lot of Americans have.
At top, Mr. Trump takes a tour of a section of his U.S.-Mexico border wall on Jan. 12, his first public appearance after the Capitol Hill riot. Hard-line immigration policy was one of the defining features of his presidency, as were images of detained migrant children separated from their families, like the ones shown at bottom in a photo obtained in 2018 from the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.
Carlos Barria/Reuters; US Customs and Border Protection/AFP/Getty Images
As future historians pick apart Mr. Trump and his tumultuous passage, particular elements of the Trump record separated from other parts of his presidency, shielded from the vulgarity and insensitivity of his personality, and isolated from his inflammatory rhetoric and his impulse to ignite insurrection may seem congruent with some of the main currents of Western political life.
Though any legacy he might have earned was blasted away in an ugly winter afternoon, he did reshape American politics before he became the only president to create his own cadre of domestic shock troops.
He lacked the courtly style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to be sure, but he created an electoral coalition that may emerge in retrospect as a 21st century version of FDRs 20th century New Deal coalition that transformed American partisan politics, and then dominated the countrys civic life, for two generations. Ronald Reagan, who lured some Democrats into the GOP, started the dismantlement of that coalition and Mr. Trump took it a dramatic and perhaps fateful step further. He was vulgar and coarse, said Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, but he brought together a coalition of white people who were dispossessed, the way FDR and Reagan did.
The scholars of the future may see antecedents of the Trump background a man reared in elite circumstances whose appeal was among those with less polished an education and less comfortable financial circumstances in FDR, but also in the British prime ministers Robert Peel, whose father was a Manchester cotton manufacturer, and William Gladstone, who came from a line of Liverpool merchants who, in the 18th century, dealt in enslaved people in the Caribbean. In office they, as historians often put it, favoured the masses over the classes, with Peels support of the repeal of the Corn Laws infuriating the landed classes and with Gladstone once described by the great British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay as the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories emerging instead as the Peoples William.
In his landmark Politics as a Vocation, published precisely a century ago, German political theorist Max Weber spoke derisively of Gladstones grand demagogy and the firm belief of the masses in the ethical substance of his policy, and pronounced him the dictator of the battlefield of elections. But what is most striking is Webers discussion of Irish home rule, in which he argued that Gladstones base, to employ the term Mr. Trump favoured, simply, on his word, fell in line with him: they said, Gladstone right or wrong, we follow him. So it was with Mr. Trumps followers.
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Historians could explore parallels between Mr. Trump and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, shown at left in 1982.
Bill Grimshaw/The Canadian Press; Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Tomorrows biographers may compare how Mr. Trump confronted and confounded the political establishment with the way Margaret Thatcher upset both Londons left and right. She had contempt for inheritance, title and position and possessed none of the breeding and broad acres of the old Tory elite, which a mirror of how the Manhattan elite, and eventually the Washington establishment, viewed Mr. Trump saw her as a parvenu. This has some similarity to the way Trump was hated by the left but also the Republican establishment, the Oxford historian Lawrence Goldman said.
These historians of the future may consider the calculated, even contrived, populism of the Trump movement and find antecedents in the Presidents hero Andrew Jackson, who in the contemporary racial reckoning is regarded less as a rusticated sage than as a ruthless killer of Indigenous people. A generation ago, the seventh president was considered the avatar of a new democratic age and the personification of the triumph of the common man, all symbolized by the mob hordes of people dressed in homespun and calico, in the characterization of historians David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler that descended on the White House for his inauguration.
I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally to be gained by their experience, Mr. Jackson said in his 1829 Inaugural. Nearly two centuries later, Mr. Trump in his Inaugural Address essentially echoed Jackson, asserting, For too long, a small group in our nations capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his Pulitzer Prize history of the period that Jackson was insulted by anyone who technically qualified as a gentleman a description that just as deftly captures Mr. Trump.
A masked Trump supporter takes part in a protest in Los Angeles on Jan. 6.
Mike Blake/Reuters
It is very likely that Mr. Trump may seem as much of a riddle in the fourth or fifth decade of the 21st century as he does here at the beginning of the third.
There will be no apologies for his behaviour, to be sure, and Jan. 6 will remain a black mark both against him and in the American passage. Historians will wonder why Mr. Trumps putative allies did not say to him what Benjamin Disraeli wrote to Gladstone: Dont you think the time has come when you might deign to be magnanimous? And, in examining his battle to claim victory in an election he decisively lost, future scholars might consider the remarks of the American historian James MacGregor Burns, who wrote that the place that a great man holds in history is largely determined by the manner in which he makes his exit from the stage. In that reckoning, Mr. Trump stands alone among presidents, though assuredly not above them.
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