Mark Twain is said to have observed that “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” We often try to understand current events through the lens of analogies with the past. Over the past eighteen months, I have seen Donald Trump variously equated with (in no particular order): Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Adolf Hitler, George Wallace, Huey Long, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Charles de Gaulle, Wendell Willkie, Richard Nixon, George Washington and Joe McCarthy. (Obviously some of these are complimentary, some are deeply negative, and some are honest efforts to understand the Trump candidacy.)
I have seen considerably fewer attempts to equate Hillary Clinton with historical figures. Perhaps this is because of the unprecedented nature of her candidacy, as the first woman to be nominated for president. Perhaps her decades in the public eye make comparisons unnecessary to understand her. (The only comparison that comes to mind is “Hillary as Nixon,” drawing on the paranoia and secrecy that motivated her private email server.)
With the election now over, another comparison emerges: “Hillary as Tom Dewey.” (Dewey, the Governor of New York who the Republicans twice nominated for president, losing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and President Harry S. Truman in 1948).
The similarities are striking:
- Both were native midwesterners who made their homes and political careers in New York. Dewey was from Michigan; Hillary from Illinois.
- Both had run before and lost to talented and charismatic liberal politicians. Dewey lost in 1944 to FDR; Hillary lost in 2008 to Barack Obama.
- Both were attorneys and establishment favorites. Dewey had been New York County District Attorney and Governor of New York, and appealed to the urbane and sophisticated. Hillary, of course, was First Lady, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of State, drawing support from urban populations and the coasts.
- Both represented a united party, opposing a badly fractured party. In 1948, Dewey was a heavy favorite and easily won the nomination. Truman was an “accidental president” after succeeding FDR, and faced third-party splinter candidacies from both the left (former Vice President Henry Wallace) and the segregationists (South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond). Likewise, Hillary overcame a challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders to represent a united Democratic Party, while Trump defeated 16 other candidates and struggled to win support of many prominent party leaders.
- Both were known as cold and stiff – talented public officials but mediocre candidates. Dewey was famously pilloried by Alice Roosevelt Longworth as “the little man on the wedding cake.”
- Both faced opponents who relied on fiery, populist, anti-Washington rhetoric. Truman became known as “Give ’em hell Harry” for his plain-spoken, (mildly) profane speeches, often given from the back of a train car, and for denouncing “the do-nothing Congress.” He was a farm kid who appealed to rural America. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” as he held huge rallies and traveled in his trademark airplane, and while his background is in New York City, he appealed to the rural electorate in the Rust Belt and “flyover country.” (And one can only imagine what Truman – known to fire off an angry letter in response to criticism – would have done with Twitter.)
And of course, in both 1948 and 2016, the news media badly missed the mark in pre-election predictions. In 1948, their mistake was blamed on flaws in public opinion polling, a science that was still in its infancy. In 2016, polling was again to blame – today we are wondering if polling methods are out of date.
The 1948 election gave our nation the most indelible image of an election upset: President Truman gleefully mocking the media by hoisting a Chicago Daily Tribune that reads “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” (At the top of the post). Donald Trump’s victory was just as much of an upset, but so far has not produced a single iconic image to rival the Truman photo. For the time being, perhaps a dismissive tweet from Trump must suffice:
Of course, neither the “Hillary as Dewey” or “Trump as Truman” comparison is perfect. Dewey was among the youngest nominees for President; Hillary was among the oldest. Dewey was widely-admired for his integrity and probity in office; Hillary was burdened by a long history of “Clinton scandals,” with varying degrees of severity and validity. Dewey was a Republican, attempting to end sixteen years of liberal Democratic control of the White House; Hillary was a Democrat attempting to perpetuate her party’s control.
As for “Trump as Truman,” Truman was an incumbent president who had served in local office, had a notable career as a U.S. Senator, and had been selected to serve as vice president for an ailing President; Trump has no political resume at all. Truman was an internationalist who oversaw the Allied victory in World War II, pushed for the creation of the United Nations and NATO, and laid the groundwork for the Cold War. Trump’s rhetoric indicates that he will be the most isolationist and protectionist president since Hoover, and has been critical of the international order, including the UN and NATO.