Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is historically unprecedented | News | DW | 10.11.2016
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Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is historically unprecedented

Try as one might, it is impossible to find a precedent in American history for Donald Trump’s stunning election victory. If that sends shivers down your spine, scholars offer some comforting advice.

President-elect Donald Trump has never held political office, has not served in the military and ran his successful primary and general election campaign without a fully developed political platform, without the full backing of the Republican Party and without a fully staffed kitchen cabinet advising him.

Put differently, his campaign rhetoric and business record aside, Trump offers little tangible to project how he will govern as a president. The fact that Trump as far as his political track record is concerned is pretty much a blank slate has only heightened the anxiety about his presidency both in the US and abroad. Compared to Trump, even Barack Obama, only a first-term junior Senator from Illinois before becoming President, had an extensive political career to be judged upon.

USA Vorwahlen Donald Trump in Mississippi (picture-alliance/ZUMA Press)

Presidential scholars say Donald Trump's rise is unprecedented in US history

Even presidential scholars are at a loss when asked to put Donald Trump's meteoric rise and his unexpected triumph over Hillary Clinton in historical context.   

Unique surprise

"I don‘t think that there is anything in historical memory that approaches the kind of surprise that occurred last night with somebody coming into office with as meager a public track record as this person did,” said Russell Riley, chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia.

"I don't think there is really any precedent for this in the United States”, said Robert McElvaine, professor of history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.  "We liked to think that the United States was not susceptible to such a thing, but apparently it is.”

In US presidential history, note the scholars, there simply has never been a candidate who ascended to the highest office in the land with as little of a political or military background as Donald Trump.

In fact, no one comes even close, says Riley, "which suggests that we are in historically unprecedented territory.”

Portrait Andrew Jackson 7. Präsident USA (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Andrew Jackson, a founder of the Democratic Party, defied elites to become the first commoner to be elected president of the US

Remote comparison

The only president that could even be remotely compared to Trump - and it's a stretch, say the experts - is Andrew Jackson. Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, like Donald Trump, was a political outsider.

While most American presidents during the 1820s were members of Virginia's highly educated upper class, Jackson was a backwoodsman from Tennessee who was known to spell the same word several different ways in a couple of sentences, said McElvaine. And  that's where the Trump-Jackson analogy rests on shaky ground because Trump was born into a wealthy New York family and received an elite education.

Jackson, like Trump, mixed up the political elite of the country by positioning himself as the voice of the people and by vowing to clean up Washington. "But even Jackson had a military and political background” said McElvaine. 

Outlier Trump

Trump therefore really is an outlier among American presidents which makes it hard to predict how he will act once he is sworn in. To those worrying that Trump may take his aggressive and unpredictable style of campaigning with him into the White House Riley offers the following guidance:

"If you are somebody who is concerned about the excesses in Mr. Trump's past, the place that you look for comfort is the shaping force of the political institution of the presidency.” And it's not just the office of the president that has a tendency to mold the people into form, with the media, the courts and other institutions helping along as well.    

"All of these,” said Riley, "have a way of conforming presidential behavior to a model we have come to expect. It does not mean that Mr. Trump may not come in and feel compelled to break those molds. It merely suggests that that is the place where you could expect to see some moderation in his public persona.”