The Perils of the Trump Historical Comparison

Eric Medlin
4 min readMar 7, 2018

Is Trump like Nixon? Clinton? Or maybe Andrew Jackson? And does it matter?

President Donald Trump, John Kelly, and Steve Bannon at a White House meeting. Source: CNBC

Ever since the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign, historians and pundits have jumped at the chance to contextualize him with historical comparisons. To some of his supporters, he is the second coming of Ronald Reagan or Andrew Jackson, a trusted patriarch who also speaks to the common people. His critics have compared him to Andrew Jackson (differently interpreted), Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon, not to mention Huey Long and Benito Mussolini. The sheer number of comparisons is striking, an effect of Trump’s ubiquity in American political discourse. Since no other figure is truly like him, bits and pieces of his career and political approach can be compared to pretty much any other president.

The most recent example of this trend can be found in “The Precedent for Trump’s Administration Isn’t Nixon — It’s Clinton,” a recent Atlantic article by British conservative writer Neill Ferguson and Stanford historian Manny Rincon-Cruz. This article uses social network analysis to argue that Trump’s presidency is much closer to that of Bill Clinton than anyone else. While Ferguson and Rincon-Cruz focus on temperament and administration structure, other writers have made the Clinton comparison on issues as far-ranging as gun control, foreign policy, and even sexual harassment.

The Clinton example is more current than comparisons to Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon. But how helpful is this constant process of comparing Trump to other presidents? And is the Clinton comparison actually useful to understanding the current occupant of the Oval Office?

Ferguson and Rincon-Cruz’s approach to historical comparison deserves special recognition because of their method. Most other Trump comparisons have isolated significant events from past presidencies and compared them with the current political moment. Ferguson and Rincon-Cruz instead took an aggregate approach. Tabulating published instances of communications between Trump, Clinton, Nixon and their respective advisers, they analyzed these connections to learn more about how the administrations were structured. Ferguson and Rincon-Cruz determined that the patterns in which Trump and his advisers communicate with one another resembles Clinton’s relationships…

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.