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President Trump and His Times

An image shows Paul Ryan standing behind a podium, reaching across the podium to shake hands with Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump shaking hands with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at his February 28, 2017, address to a joint session of Congress. Source: Office of the Speaker via Wikimedia Commons

As a historian interested in contemporary politics, it is impossible to avoid asking how the current investigation into the Trump administration compares with other big presidential scandals that we have seen, such as Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. These questions are fair and they are important to discuss. I have certainly tackled these comparisons a number of times in my commentary. It is fair to say, in my opinion, that the severity of the charges currently being investigated—the allegation that a presidential candidate and his team colluded with a hostile foreign power to corrupt the election using stolen information and then tried to obstruct that investigation once in office—easily compares with the break-in of the Democratic headquarters.

Yet regardless of how severe the scandal becomes, certain factors insulate the president politically in 2017 because of the era in which he governs. Historians need to help provide some guidance to their students and audiences about some key procedural and organizational characteristics of the current political environment that shape how this scandal unfolds. Just as we need to understand Watergate in the context of Vietnam and the era of network news, the turmoil surrounding President Trump must be understood within the context of our current era of polarized politics.

The existence of sophisticated conservative media organizations is central to the present moment. Unlike President Nixon, Trump can currently count on media outlets, ranging from cable television to the Internet, to cover the scandal through a partisan lens that is favorable to the administration. When we talk about the conservative media today, we are not looking at small radio shows or local newspapers but, rather, massive, international television networks and extremely sophisticated websites that have a huge reach. There are books, magazines, television shows, and movies that convey conservative messages. Thus far, this media has discussed much of the scandal in a manner that echoes President Trump’s own talking points.

Intense partisan polarization on Capitol Hill also provides a firewall. We live in an age in which the distance between the major political parties is immense; the center is almost non-existent. Republicans, moreover, have moved much farther to the right than Democrats to the left. This means that most Republican will be extremely hesitant to do anything that threatens their own party. Even if Republicans do not like their president and even if they do not know whether he can handle the responsibilities of his office, few will be willing to undertake action that can potentially hurt their party. In this partisan world view, animosity to the Democrats is always as strong, if not stronger, than toward a Republican president they dislike.

Finally, we live in an era in which distrust of government institutions is so immense that irrespective of what President Trump does it will be hard for many Americans to think that the rest of Washington is much better. Since Vietnam, our faith in government has continued to dwindle. We come to expect less and less of government officials and lack confidence that public policies can or will accomplish what their creators promise. We live in an era when there are constant stories about the power of private money and powerful lobbyists who twist and turn our democracy to serve their own self-interest. Is it any wonder that many of President Trump’s opponents find it difficult to achieve the credibility that they need to take on the president of the United States?

None of this is to say that the president is entirely protected as Robert Mueller’s investigation unfolds. But pundits should not underestimate how much protection this president enjoys even if the investigation reveals that what happened was indeed worse than Watergate. The president derives great strength from the political system that in November offered him a path directly to the White House.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. He is the author and editor of 18 books on American Political History and over 700 op-eds. This spring, Princeton University Press will publish his new edited book, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment. Zelizer is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Call for Proposals: The State of U.S. Democracy (January 2018)
Process invites proposals and submissions for a series of upcoming posts about the state of democracy in the United States. This series will be open to a variety of topics, including voter suppression; gerrymandering, electoral fraud, and other voting-related matters; the enduring effects of Citizens United; the abrogation of constitutional norms within the three branches of government; the influence of private interest groups in state and federal lawmaking; and other related topics. We accept pitches from anyone actively engaged in the practice of U.S. history, including researchers, teachers, graduate students, archivists, curators, public historians, digital scholars, and others. For more information about Process, please visit our website. Materials may be sent to Please circulate this announcement.