How Trump and JFK are Alike

It was nice of E.J. Dionne to valiantly try to find some silver linings in the election of Donald Trump. I wouldn’t have bothered.

It got me thinking, though.

We haven’t had a president in Trump’s position since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960. That’s the last time we had a president leave office after two terms who was unambiguously popular but nonetheless replaced by someone from the opposing party.

There are other similarities, too. Eisenhower enjoyed a Republican Congress in his first two years but thereafter had to negotiate with the Democrats. This is a mirror image of Obama’s experience. Like Kennedy, Trump will be taking over with the benefit of congressional majorities.

In truth, I don’t see many commonalities between JFK and Trump, but Eisenhower and Obama strike me as birds of a feather. In both cases, I think E.J Dione is right to evoke Joni Mitchell’s lyric that we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.

The presidency has chewed up most of our postwar presidents, and it’s impossible to envision any besides Obama serving a third term with credibility and support. By 1988, Reagan was staggering to the finish line, and the country was exhausted by Clinton and his scandals. George W. Bush might as well have carpet-bombed our country on the way out the door.

I do see some shadows from 2000, with the winner this time having lost the popular vote and lacking legitimacy in the eyes of many, and one party taking over completely for another. But there’s a big difference between seeing Clinton go and seeing Obama go.

Democrats fiercely defended Clinton against impeachment, but most of them resented it and we’re ready for Al Gore to replace him. In other words, we have to go back to Ike to find a situation where so many people are unenthusiastic about the current occupant of the White House having to leave.

Of course, there was a real charisma and excitement about Kennedy and his family. It was certainly different in kind from the charisma of Trump and his family, and the admirers are from different planets. The biggest difference between Trump and JFK is that Trump is not being embraced by the Washington Establishment.

But don’t forget that the Bay of Pigs was a plan hatched under Eisenhower that a young president didn’t have the self-confidence to cancel. It matters when someone lacking status and experience has to replace someone who is accomplished and popular.

Lastly, JFK walked into some some really stressed fault lines along race and the Cold War that created really intense opposition within his government and throughout the country. Aside from immigration policy, it seems to me that Trump is largely going to create the fault lines that bring him down.

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