5 Presidential Administrations Key to Understanding Donald Trump’s White House

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. Drew Angerer

Less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s only one aspect of his administration that everyone can agree on: It’s unlike any previous White House in the history of the United States. Whether you see that as disrupting politics as usual for the better or as harming the country, the fact is just about everything the Trump Administration has done since taking office seems either unprecedented, controversial, or both.

Trump’s White House is certainly not the first administration to operate under a cloud of controversy, or to ignore the usual ways of doing things in Washington, D.C. The best way to understand just how different the 45th president’s White House is from historical norms is to examine other administrations that deviated from those norms, to take a deep dive into the most dysfunctional, infamous, and (as a result) illuminating presidencies in our history. The five administrations we’ll discuss here all operated under the sort of intense pressure and constant conflict that the Trump administration is currently experiencing, but still operated within certain boundaries that the current White House either ignores or interprets differently from any prior administration.

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Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon. Keystone

The first historical precedent people bring up in regards to the Trump White House is Richard Nixon, still our only president to resign the office (and one who would likely have been the second to be impeached if he hadn’t resigned). The parallels are obvious: Nixon was the first president to pursue what’s now called the “Southern Strategy” of appealing to states’ rights and race-based “dogwhistle” politics; Nixon frequently deflected criticism by invoking the so-called “silent majority” that supported him privately; and Nixon conducted himself in a manner that was judged to be clearly improper if not downright criminal.

Nixon, however, was also something Trump himself is not: an accomplished politician with a wealth of experience. Nixon served as a congressman and as the vice president of the United States under Dwight D. Eisenhower, then lost the 1960 presidential election narrowly to John F. Kennedy. Although he spent the intervening years in what historians call his “wilderness” phase, he was a dominating figure in the 1968 election. Like Trump, Nixon is often thought to have ushered in a new age of American politics.

Of course, Nixon will always be remembered for the slow drip of the Watergate scandal, the investigations and special counsels, and most notably, Nixon’s attempts to derail the investigation by bullying and firing people, and abusing the power of his position. What differentiates Trump’s administration from Nixon’s fundamentally is Trump’s business empire. Where Nixon was by all accounts a dedicated, sincere public servant who allowed his paranoia and pride to corrupt his decisions, Trump has a host of conflicts of interest stemming from his business holdings, placing him on a wholly different level when it comes to factors that affect his decisions.

If you’re looking to understand the Nixon White House better, Roger Morris’ classic biography Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician is one of the best and most comprehensive works on our 37th president.

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Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson. PhotoQuest

When the conversation turns to Trump, at least one person will bring up the specter of impeachment. While many people don’t understand the process of impeachment — which requires not just the overwhelming cooperation of both houses of Congress to implement, but which is specifically reserved for “high crimes and misdemeanors” — it’s easy to see how Trump’s opponents, in light of the business dealings mentioned above and the chaos enveloping the White House, would see impeachment as an easy way to push Trump out of office.

Only two presidents have been impeached in our country’s history: Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, and was almost immediately locked in a war with Congress over how to handle reconstruction and re-admittance of the southern states that had seceded during the Civil War. Congress passed several laws trying to inhibit Johnson’s power to make decisions, most notably the Tenure of Office Act (which was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), and initiated impeachment proceedings against him when he violated that law. Johnson’s White House was one of constant confusion and endless bickering with the legislative branch of the government.

It’s easy to see parallels with Trump’s White House as his campaign is being investigated for possibly violating election laws, and as he ramps up a seemingly endless series of battles with Congress — even representatives and senators from his own party. The difference, however, is that Johnson (who was acquitted by a margin of one vote in the Senate) was specifically and clearly targeted by political enemies, using a new law later found to be illegal. The charges that the Trump White House is dealing with stem from before his election, and many of the feuds Trump is engaged in are of his own making. In fact, Congress has so far proved to be reluctant to actively attack or investigate the Trump administration.

Johnson, despite lacking much by way of accomplishments, is an important president in terms of the evolution of the office. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist penned one of the best examinations of the Johnson impeachment in Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson.

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Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Library of Congress

Another president often compared to Trump is Andrew Jackson, our seventh president and one of the first “populist” presidents. Like Trump, Jackson saw himself as a representative of the common person against a corrupt elite, and Jackson definitely had a contempt for many of the “norms” of his time.

Jackson transformed the presidency and the entire government of the United States, tilting away from the oligarchy-esque group of insiders who had steered the country in the first few decades after the Revolution and towards the concept of authority stemming directly from the people. While he often echoed the moral and social attitudes of that prior generation, Jackson saw himself as being empowered directly by the voters, thus owing nothing to anyone else. He stacked his cabinet and appointees with business people without much thought towards political experience or loyalties, and he often spoke with a directness and lack of political polish that many old hands in Washington found insulting.

Controversy dogged Jackson constantly. He wished to completely remake the government, pushing for the abolition of the electoral college in favor of direct election of the president, and many of his actions, such as the removal of Indian populations and the dismantling of the Bank of the United States, would today be worth many months of television coverage — in other words, like Trump, Jackson was divisive and his administration seemed constantly awash in controversy.

Unlike Trump, Jackson was dealing with a still-young government that was still compiling the legal precedents we rely on today, and dealing with a country that was already showing the cracks that would result in the Civil War just a quarter century later. Where Jackson had a serious political philosophy intending to make our democracy more truly democratic, Trump’s administration’s controversies stem more from a lack of experience and respect for tradition than anything else.

Jackson is one of our most-written about presidents, but one of the best works is American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham.

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Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding. Hulton Archive

Often ranked as one of the worst presidents of all-time, Harding was elected in 1920 and took office in 1921 promising a return to peace and business as usual after World War I. He appointed a lot of friends and business people to his cabinet and other offices, which led to his short administration being one of the most scandal-afflicted in modern history. Before he died two years into his presidency, Harding oversaw a stunning number of scandals, most notably the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved federal oil fields and bribery.

In the end, Harding died before he could really accomplish much — much like the Trump administration, his early days in office yielded little in terms of achievements, and plenty of news-cycles of scandal and controversy. Harding, however, was very popular while in office, and continued to be popular for decades after his death, until later investigations brought to light the true scope of some of the scandals, as well as Harding’s many extramarital affairs. In fact, Harding’s White House is a model of how to manage scandal in some ways, as clear efforts were made to insulate the president (who, in all fairness, may not have known the details of many of the worst problems).

One of the best ways to study Harding’s methods is with Robert Plunket’s book My Search for Warren Harding, which details Harding’s rise and his tumultuous two years in the White House.

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Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant. PhotoQuest

Ulysses S. Grant was a brilliant general and tactician, a middling campaigner and politician, and an absolute disaster of a president. As the victorious general in the Civil War, Grant was a popular hero and an easy choice for the presidency in 1868. While he did accomplish a fair amount while in office, most notably guiding the country through reconstruction (including a vigorous prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to destroy the organization), his White House was incredibly — incredibly — corrupt.

What differentiates Grant from Donald Trump’s White House is that it’s pretty clear Grant himself was scrupulously honest and didn’t benefit from any of the scandals that beset his White House (in fact, Grant went bankrupt after some really terrible investments post-presidency), whereas Trump doesn’t seem to be an innocent bystander in his White House’s chaos. Grant’s poor judgment when it came to appointees and advisors made his administration a laughingstock and landed him on just about every “worst president’s” list, mainly because he did little to right the ship even when scandal bogged his administration down — whether the Trump White House follows the same disastrous path remains to be seen. To get a better idea of how Ulysses S. Grant squandered the chance to be one of our greatest presidents, read Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant.

The Devil's Bargain

And if you’re looking into direct insight into the current administration, one of the best books to read right now is the bestselling Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green, which explores the relationship between Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Bannon is widely regarded as not only the architect of Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 election, but he’s enjoyed a position of quiet authority and influence in Trump’s White House since the first day, and understanding the way Trump’s White House responds to crises and political challenges stems directly from Bannon’s philosophies and goals.