As President Donald Trump approached his 100th day in office, TIME History asked a variety of experts to weigh in on a single question: What will historians of the future say about President Trump’s first 100 days?
Despite acknowledging that the question is impossible to answer with any certainty, they drew on the lessons of the past to hazard a guess as to which of Trump’s actions thus far will make it into the history books — and how they will be interpreted with the added perspective of hindsight. Below is a selection of the answers they submitted by phone and by email.
Ibram X. Kendi, historian at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America:
What I daydream future historians will say about Trump’s first 100 days is different than what I suspect future historians will say. I suspect future historians will speak of the start of Trump’s presidency as literally a crash-and-burn course for the rookie politician — and that they will contrast these lowly first 100 days with the high points of Trump leading Republicans to wartime victories during the 2018 and 2020 elections. As frustrated Democrats lost their economic appeals to white voters and blamed their electoral defeats on the low turnout of non-whites, the best historians will point out the shrinking electorate through Trump-backed voter ID laws, gerrymandering and mass-incarcerating policies.
On the other hand, I daydream of a future historian titling her book 100 Days of Resistance, framing Trump’s election as the defibrillator of a revived American democracy. After overcoming their heartfelt shock of Trump’s election, Americans found their courage and their durable marching shoes, and the ability to unerringly resist bigotry, poverty, inequality, war, climate change, mass incarceration and alternative facts. Their 100 days of resistance laid the foundation for mass organizing, power grabs in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and then for new local and national policies supporting universal voting and getting money and gerrymandering out of politics. Other Trump historians, speaking in this future democracy, shall chronicle these 100 days as the beginning of the end of their America. Trump tried, they will say, to lay the groundwork to make America great again and failed.
David McCullough, Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning presidential biographer:
The worst ever. Where do you start? He reverses himself on his positions. He says things that are blatantly untrue. It’s outrageous and intolerable, as has never happened to this extent, even close to this extent, ever before. It’s not just outlandish and beyond reality, it’s dangerous. We’ve got to get back to the reality that nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. It’s a joint effort. This is the greatest of all lessons of history.
Timothy Naftali, clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:
The start of a presidency can reveal a lot about the character, political and managerial skills of the country’s new Head of State. Following a meeting with Democratic congressmen to discuss budgetary reform a week after his 100th day, President Reagan noted in his diary, “[W]e really seem to be putting a coalition together.” Unlike Reagan, Donald Trump has not used his first 100 days to fashion a governing coalition. He not only refused to offer an olive branch to those who did not support him in 2016 but he continued the harsh rhetoric of his campaign. If they control both houses of Congress, Presidents can, of course, govern successfully without even a fig leaf of bipartisanship. But, as the Repeal and Replace fiasco of the first 100 days showed, the Trumpian approach undermined coalition building even among Republicans.
Nevertheless, despite the miscues, lies and blunders, the bottom did not drop out of the Trump presidency in its first 100 days. Whereas a lack of candor and civility seemed to place a cap on the new president’s popularity, it did not lead to much of an erosion of his core support. He ended as he started: the passionate preference of a minority of Americans.
It’s worth remembering that it was Trump who encouraged people to expect a lot of his first weeks in power. Trump’s boasts now hang heavy in the air, prompting some to wonder whether the disappointments of this period will lead to a doubling down of his idiosyncratic view of the Presidency or some belated learning from the few pragmatists around him. One hundred days in, he still seems to prefer the former to the latter.
George H. Nash, presidential biographer and author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945:
Future historians will likely regard the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency as the most dramatic launch of a new administration since 1933 and the most fraught with discord since 1861. Not so much because of its public policy outcomes — although some of these were audacious and controversial — but because of the stormy context in which policy decisions occurred. It will be seen as a time of perfervid partisanship in which the very legitimacy of the new administration was challenged, and in which feisty tweets and aggressive initiatives from the White House were matched by feisty “resistance” in the media and on the streets, and by efforts by his opponents in the Senate to delay as long as possible the confirmation and installation of his Cabinet. It will be depicted as a time when — to political pugilists on both sides of the great divide — the fate of the American republic seemed at risk, and rancor ran deep.
But what did this “tale of sound and fury” actually signify and portend? For future historians this will be the crucial — and as yet unanswerable — question. For in the hectic opening months of the Age of Trump, all sorts of political scenarios seemed plausible. In this respect, future historians may find Trump’s first 100 days as chief executive to have been unusual among such periods in presidential history, for despite the heat and turbulence that they generated, they did not definitively clarify the direction of his presidency. At the end of its first phase, the Trump administration was still very much a work-in-progress, with competing factions and ideological tendencies vying for hegemony.
Anne E. Parsons, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro:
In the months following President Trump’s election, a number of private prison stocks doubled in value and reached an all-time high. This spike reflected the hope that Trump’s presidency would usher in a new era of correctional growth and his first 100 days have not disappointed. Historians today look back at President Johnson’s War on Crime and Nixon and Reagan’s Wars on Drugs as fueling the exponential rise of prisons and policing in the United States. This era of mass incarceration then came under attack during the Obama years as the Department of Justice came out against private prisons, police shootings made national news, and both Republicans and Democrats looked to decarcerate prisons.
President Trump’s first 100 days mark another tidal shift — the beginning of a new, 21st century era of law and order. He has issued executive orders that provided for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, the growth of a deportation force, the building of new detention facilities, increased support for law enforcement and new task forces on combatting crime. Meanwhile, Attorney General Sessions has announced that the the Federal Bureau of Prisons will continue to use private prisons. The question, then, is whether this new law-and-order era marks a last surge of mass incarceration or the beginning of a much longer period of growth.
Pablo A. Piccato, professor of history at Columbia University:
Historians of the future will probably see these first 100 days as a failure. Trump lost the popular vote (which, in the future, will have become the criterion to win the presidency) and came to office besieged by investigations about Russian meddling in the election and concerns about conflict of interest. Yet he failed to achieve, during those decisive early days, any signature accomplishment. He and his advisers found out that it was difficult to overcome the opposition of courts, Congress and the press. Internationally, the bombing of Syria and the threats to North Korea could not hide the fact that the U.S.’s impact on these areas of conflict was now subordinated to the good will of Russia and China, respectively. The only front in which Trump was able to exhibit some leadership during the first 100 days of his presidency was negative, as his appointees set out to dismantle many institutions that previous administrations had built.
Ultimately, the assessment of historians of the future about these first 100 days will hinge on their views of the long-term changes that these days announced. There are at least two possible futures that could shape those views. In one, these weeks of 2017 started an era in which the U.S. gradually lost international influence. The country was unable to attract as many immigrants as in the past, and therefore could no longer provide for the needs of an aging population. Its political system became so polarized that its main federal institutions fell into inevitable disrepair. In the second possible future, republican institutions and values managed to survive. The U.S. continued to attract talented and hard-working people, becoming a decisive hub in an increasingly integrated global economy. And this was achieved while state institutions and civil society continued to address the problems of inequality and discrimination that had played such an important role in making Trump president, even if only for a single, unproductive term.
Roger Pilon, founding director of Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies:
Future historians might note that by the administration’s 100-day mark, conventional patterns were replacing a shaky start, as the President learned from the professionals he brought in. His appointment of two highly regarded generals, Mattis and McMaster, signaled America’s more realistic engagement with the world. Other cabinet appointments also gave comfort, as markets reflected. And long range, the nomination of Judge Gorsuch for the Supreme Court marked the president’s most important early success.
Yet serious personnel problems remained: There were not even nominees for most sub-cabinet positions, where real policy changes are made. Those changes remained unclear, too, as the easy promises of the campaign met the hard reality of governing on health care, tax reform, trade, and more. But on the regulatory front, President Trump had already pressed ahead: By executive order, and working with Congress through the long unused Congressional Review Act, he had rescinded several Obama-era regulations, with more to come.
Still, no over-arching vision had emerged, nor was it likely that one ever would. The future character of the Republican Party remained uncertain. Meanwhile, Democrats continued their uncompromising opposition. And the nation’s deeper problems of ever-growing deficits, debt, and unfunded liabilities remained unaddressed.
Heather Ann Thompson, history professor at the University of Michigan and author of Blood in the Water:
Each new president of the United States has come to office with the burdens of the past, as well as the possibilities of the present and hopes for the future, all weighing heavily upon them. Sometimes they have failed miserably because they have not fully understood the past that they have sought to avoid, nor grasped the true origins of the problems they were trying to fix. Sometimes they have had measures of success because they have understood that past, as well as the roots of those problems a bit better. Fail or succeed, however, to a one they have committed themselves to the same goal.
Today, however, is a terrifying new day. Frankly, it is as if we have suddenly found ourselves trapped in a not-fun-Fun House. Scary voices distort what we hear; weirdly curved mirrors distort what we see; a thick layer of fog seems always to swirl around us. How have we ended up trapped in this Dali-esque structure? It’s because the goal of this new president is in fact radically different from the others we have had before. The leader of our nation today seeks not to avoid the traumas of the past. Instead, he has shown so far an interest in reinstituting and resurrecting those mistakes — the immigration panics of the ’20s, the law-and-order mania of the ’80s, and others — as if they were the solutions to our most troubling problems. To my mind it has never been more important that historians make the lessons of the past legible to all.
Kyle Volk, professor of history at the University of Montana:
I’m reminded of a tale of an overconfident history professor telling students in the mid-1980s that East and West Germany would never reunite. There are good reasons why historians aren’t in the business of making predictions. But, if writing this history today, I might focus on the perils of attempting to upend Washington, D.C., without political savvy, partisan unity or a popular electoral mandate. Future historians, however, will benefit from a much broader perspective and the ability to see the results of the events of these first 100 days. Will Trump’s early actions bring his impeachment in year two or help him return to the White House for a second term? Will his failure to repeal Obamacare lead a presidential candidate to run on a single-payer platform in 2020? What type of influence will Justice Neil Gorsuch have on the U.S. Supreme Court? Will Trump’s dealings with North Korea bring nuclear war on day 177? For the most part, we don’t know the answers to these and so many pressing questions. There are questions we do not yet know to ask. It’s the impact of Trump’s behavior that will likely garner historians’ most important attention, but their ability to discern real historical significance will require critical historical distance.
History also suggests that historians will disagree about these first 100 days. Historians’ own political sensibilities will drive many of these disagreements as will the felt needs of their own historical moments. In other words, what historians say in 20 years will likely differ from what historians say in 50 or 100 years. The history of Trump — like virtually all others — will no doubt be rewritten many times. All of this, of course, assumes historians will exist in the near and distant future. I have often been warned about the dangers of assuming.
Julie M. Weise, associate professor of history at the University of Oregon:
President Trump’s first 100 days have caused immigrants and their families tremendous pain and anxiety. Future historians will return to this pain, but in hindsight will also see its legacy: once again, immigrants have responded to fearful times by doubling down on U.S. citizenship, laying the groundwork for their future political strength.
This has happened before. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, high-profile immigration raids and deportations left Mexican immigrant communities in anguish. When the children of that era grew up, they were determined to prove their Americanness. They donned the U.S. military uniform in World War II and then became the first significant generation of Latino American politicians. Now, the redoubled immigration enforcement of Trump’s first 100 days has devastated families and led immigrants everywhere to fear the worst. Though fewer have tried to cross the southern border since Trump’s election, those already here have once again doubled down, applying for citizenship and getting involved in local politics at elevated rates. Latino political strength was not quite enough to stop Trump in 2016, but future historians will recognize the paradoxical effect of his anti-immigrant campaign. It has already generated untold fear in communities and untold promise for the future of Latinos’ political power.
Alice S. Yang, associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories:
Historians will note that his administration had a troubled beginning, promoting falsehoods as “alternative facts,” equating criticism with “fake news,” deflecting questions about his campaign’s ties with Russia by leveling unsubstantiated charges of Obama wiretapping, and failing to replace the Affordable Care Act.
I suspect, however, that historians will focus in particular on his Executive Order to suspend immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. While Muslims were not explicitly named, many legal experts and historians quickly denounced the alarming parallels between the targeting of Muslim refugees as “foreign terrorists” and FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1942, only a few rogue ACLU lawyers, Quakers and socialists protested. In start contrast, 75 years later, acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce the travel ban, federal judges blocked the order and, most importantly, large public groups rallied to defend Muslim refugees, calling for the defense of constitutional guarantees of equal protection and religious freedom.
Historians will have to assess whether these mass demonstrations — along with the contentious town halls, women’s marches, protests to defend science and prevent global warming, and grassroots campaigns for local political offices — have signaled a new coalition of outraged progressives and previously apathetic or alienated individuals to fight for social justice and real political change. During Trump’s first 100 days, it appears there are more checks and balances on presidential power in 2017 than there were in 1942.
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