(CN) — When Donald Trump first moved into the Oval Office, he installed a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the controversial populist president who fought duels, hated the press, accused economic elites of corruption, and became a folk hero to large swaths of the white working class even as his policies created misery for tens of thousands of Native Americans.
Nearly two centuries later, American historians still argue about how good a president Jackson was. And it might also take quite a while before passions cool, and they reach a consensus about Trump.
America’s 45th president is not without accomplishments. He almost single-handedly refocused the country on issues of personal importance to him, including trade, internationalism and the strategic threat posed by China. He presided over peace and pre-Covid prosperity with the defeat of the Islamic State group, historic Mideast agreements and record-low minority unemployment.
Trump also engineered what many believe will be a lasting realignment of the political parties, turning Republicans into a vehicle for working- and middle-class interests in opposition to economic and professional elites.
But he did this with a force of personality — uncouth, vindictive, casual with facts, and openly contemptuous of long-established norms and institutions — that enraged his opponents and eventually alienated (or simply exhausted) enough ordinary Americans to seal his electoral downfall.
Trump is “a tragic figure in the Greek sense” of a larger-than-life character brought down by his own fatal flaws, said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who is writing a book on Trump’s foreign policy.
A key to understanding Trump is that he is the first U.S. president to come to the office without any experience in government or the military, added David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers.
Ronald Reagan also rose to prominence as a celebrity, but he spent eight years as governor of California before running for the White House. Other celebrities have become governors, noted Greenberg, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. But Trump is unique in that he used celebrity alone to rise to the country’s highest office.
Not being part of the political system made Trump “a disruptor, not a leader,” said Kaufman.
This had some value, or at least plenty of Americans in 2016 thought so. “He broke old complacencies and forced us to think about things we had long neglected,” Kaufman said.
But it also brought problems.
“People who come up through the political ranks learn the benefits of moderating influences. Trump never learned that,” Greenberg said. “He recklessly broke the rules, disregarded norms, and showed disrespect for customs, traditions, and even the law.
“His lack of education in the political process was both a strength and a weakness,” Greenberg added. “He was willing to attempt things that no one else would: pulling out of treaties, diverting money to the wall. But while he tried new things, he also destabilized the system. He endangered, or at least tested, the limits of democracy.”
David Gellman, chair of the history department at DePauw University, said “politics is theater but it has to be anchored to substance.”
“It matters a whole lot if the person understands what the job entails and how it fits into a constitutional system and norms,” Gellman continued. “And there’s a price you pay if someone is unaware and contemptuous of those norms.”
Reagan’s years as governor gave him skills, knowledge and associates that Trump lacked, Gellman said.
“There’s often a fantasy that we can solve all our problems if we just put a businessman in charge,” he added, noting that Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992. But Gellman said Perot had far more executive accomplishments than Trump, who “was always more of a showman.”