But not in the way that you’re thinking. When you go into Barnes and Noble and explore the history section, you find the standard fare—so-called “Dad Books.” They have all the big wars: Revolutionary, Civil, and World War II. They have your great men of history: the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Nixon. These men (and they’re all men) share similar characteristics. They lived in and shaped memorable eras in American history. They had dynamic personalities and were presidents or other leading political figures. The last time I was in a Barnes and Noble (killing time while I waited for my dog to finish getting a bath), it struck me that a parade of books about Donald Trump will be up on those shelves soon enough.
If we follow the criteria for inclusion in the “Dad Book” genre, then Trump checks all the boxes. He’s a wealthy white man who became president. His domineering personality has driven his administration right into scandal after scandal and provided plenty of fodder for future historians. Courts have rejected both versions of Trump’s Muslim ban. Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey after clumsily failing to redirect the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned for lying about his contact with the Russians, failing to register as a foreign agent, and a host of other crimes. (Is there anyone in the administration who didn’t have secret meetings with the Russians?) Trump has no significant pieces of legislation, other than largely symbolic executive orders. And then there are the tweets. The never-ending parade of tweets lashing out at his enemies, real and imagined.
Additionally, the public has a large appetite for Trump related news, buoying media outlets across the country. His campaign elevated Breitbart News to a top position in the right-wing blogosphere (although that position has declined since Trump’s inauguration). Trump has also sparked a growth in media on the left. MSNBC has climbed to the top of the cable news ratings. Newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers have seen significant boosts in their subscription numbers. Former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett have spun their Keepin’ It 1600 podcast into a burgeoning podcast empire. There is a tremendous amount of interest from the American people in Donald Trump and the media are happy to meet that demand.
With Trump under investigation for obstruction of justice less than six months into his term and an endless parade of Trump associates under investigation for their links to the Russians, it’s unlikely that public interest will decline any time soon. Rather this Shakespearean tragedy seems destined to continue to play out. Trump will continue to facilitate his own demise through his impulsive tweeting and listening to whispers of an endless parade of counsellors in his inner circle. Even though Bannon, Miller, Preibus, Conway and the rest of the gang are all much more Falstaff than Iago.
My dissertation adviser, a comparative historian of American slavery, had a theory about historians who study slavery and the 19th century. Every scholar of slavery, he observed, seemed to write a book about Lincoln at some point. After all, it would be impossible to write the history of American slavery without some mention of Lincoln. He was president during the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and thanks to his assassination, as the Balladeer in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins tells John Wilkes Booth: “Lincoln who got mixed reviews, because of you, John, now gets only raves.”
Based on the level of attention so far, Trump will likely garner that same level of historical scrutiny. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be remembered as a peer of Lincoln, Washington, or Roosevelt. Rather he seems destined to join the ranks of Richard Nixon, Warren Harding, and Andrew Johnson. There will be a never-ending cascade of dissertations, articles, and books about Trump. Like Lincoln and 19th century scholars, historians of race, gender, class, and politics in the early 21st century will have their theories and explanations about Trump. Unlike Lincoln, however, I doubt the historical record will be as forgiving or kind.