About Trump and other mad American presidents

07 Sep 2020

Donald Trump is perhaps the biggest but definitely not the only weirdo who ever sat in the White House. That’s evident in the new book by Peter van der Heiden, lecturer in American Studies. ‘With respect to rudeness, there’s a lot Trump could learn from Lyndon B. Johnson.’

On 3 November we’ll know if Donald Trump will succeed himself or if he’ll have to hand over the keys to the White House to the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

As the American elections draw near, many new books have been published about the 45th president of the United States. And in the new book by Peter van der Heiden, Weirdo’s in het Witte Huis, Trump is also on the cover as well as in the subtitle Donald J. Trump en zijn zonderlinge voorgangers [Donald J. Trump and his eccentric predecessors, red.].

‘But my book is completely different,’ says Peter van der Heiden as he sits at the terrace of De Blonde Pater sipping the first of three coffees. When the lecturer speaks of American politics, his eyes light up and his words reveal a childlike fascination for the real version of House of Cards.

‘I have no personal ties to Trump,’ Van der Heiden said. ‘I look at American politics as a complete outsider. And my book, intended for everyone who’s even slightly interested in politics, isn’t just about Trump but about all of the American presidents.’

Therapy

Central to Van der Heiden’s book is a campaign video of Hillary Clinton in which Trump is scathingly attacked. Not by Clinton or the Democrats, but by his own fellow Republicans. ‘They said that he needed to go into therapy, they called him a racist and a sexist,’ Van der Heiden explained. ‘I used those traits as a yardstick to study the strangeness of all of the former American presidents.’

Is Trump the biggest weirdo ever to occupy the White House? 

‘Yes, I think so. He can’t deal with opponents or present his policy normally. He’s always acting out, posts crazy tweets, tells an average of one lie each waking hour and suggests that we should use UV light to recover from corona. It’s shocking that America is so polarised that a madman can rise to power.’

Where does your fascination with American presidents come from?

‘Everything in America is bigger than life. If you order a hamburger, it’s three times bigger than here. That’s also true of presidents. It’s a cabinet of curiosities with crazy people who were chosen in strange ways. With Trump you have a complete looney in power who uses that power to do crazy things.’

Which former president came the closest to Trump with regard to strangeness?

‘To my amazement and sorrow, that was my favourite president up to now: Lyndon B. Johnson, who became president in 1963 after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. With respect to rudeness, there’s a lot that Trump could learn from him. Johnson was an ass who walked around naked in the White House and put his hand up women’s skirts in the presence of his wife. He wasn’t averse to fraud and was a total racist. The difference with Trump is that Johnson achieved some political success. Although he plunged the world into the Vietnam War, he did make significant gains for the black community with his Civil Rights Act (that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, skin colour, religion, sex or national origins, ed.).’

Battleground States

Lyndon B. Johnson isn’t the only former president with strange traits who intrigues Van der Heiden. ‘The same applies to Bill Clinton, president from 1993 to 2001. Very clever how such a man managed to get away with things. His biography My Life reads like a course in how to become and remain a politician. He later lost favour because of his affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky. He lied under oath about their relationship and almost had to step down. And even later he was attacked by the MeToo movement and fell further from grace.’

Bill Clinton with Barack Obama. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Pete Souza

According to Van der Heiden, there was a lot wrong with Clinton. On his wedding day, the former president was flirting with another woman. ‘And it appeared that he was good friends with Jeffrey Epstein (the deceased millionaire and convicted sex offender, ed.). At the Democratic Convention, the former president was allowed to speak for only two minutes. No candidate wanted to have a photo taken with him. Then you’ve really fallen from your pedestal.’

The list of racist presidents is quite long.

‘The earliest presidents were all slaveowners of course. Many presidents, like Jefferson – president from 1801 to 1809 – and Harrison – president in 1841 – had children with their slaves. In the South at that time, you could do as you like with a slave. If you felt lust, you gave in to it.’

‘Many of the earlier presidents had slaves themselves’

‘Under Abraham Lincoln the emancipation of the slaves was officially declared in 1863, but he himself didn’t think very highly of black people. Lincoln said they were inferior and he thought that black and white people would never be able to live together. And someone like Ronald Reagan, president from 1981 to 1989, said that black people were still uncomfortable wearing shoes.’

Don’t you have to be a bit of a weirdo to become president?

‘I don’t think so. Take Jimmy Carter, for example. He’s mentioned only once in my book with the quote that he sometimes had impure thoughts about women and that, in his thoughts, he committed adultery. That’s the only strange thing that can be said about him – other than the fact that he believed in UFOs. Nor was someone like Lincoln weird. He may have looked odd with his long beard, but he was a very ordinary politician in his time.’

The book raises questions about Trump’s mental health: he might suffer from an early form of dementia.

‘If you compare interviews with Trump from twenty years ago to those he gives today, you’ll notice how small his vocabulary has become. He used to be able to speak in full sentences, but now he only uses superlatives like ‘great’, ‘fabulous’ and ‘tremendous’. I’m not a doctor or a psychologist, but those are symptoms in that direction. Reagan’s vocabulary was also much smaller in his second term than in his first.’

Trump is a weirdo, but how will posterity view his presidency?

‘As a national disaster. Trump couldn’t prevent the corona outbreak, but he did make many mistakes in combatting the illness. For too long he denied that there was anything wrong. The economy in America was hit much harder than elsewhere in the world. Even before the first official corona patient, there were a million unemployed in the United States. And then there was the story of the Russians manipulating the election. I expect that Trump will be added to the list of the worst four presidents.’

Could Trump win the election a second time?

‘After my blunder four years ago (Peter van der Heiden had predicted in Vox that Hillary Clinton would win the election, ed.), I said I’d never make any more predictions (laughs). It’s very unlikely:  Democrats won’t vote for Trump, and a noisy group of Republicans is campaigning for Biden.’

‘Of course Trump can win the election again’

‘Of course Trump can win. The race is still very close in the Battleground States. But in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that Trump won the last time – Biden currently has a 5% lead. If he also wins in Arizona and Florida, then Trump doesn’t stand a chance and he can only contest the results. He’s already hinted at that in his criticism of the US Postal Service (Trump said that voting by mail was a ‘recipe for fraud’, ed.) But Biden has already said that, in that case, the good people of the Army will escort Trump outside.’

What is the biggest challenge for the next president?

‘That should be economic recovery and dealing with the corona crisis, but the most important thing now is to end the divisiveness and unite the country again. At the Democratic Convention Biden said that he wanted to be a president for all Americans. Trump, on the contrary, feels himself to be the president of his supporters. You need a unifying figure like Jimmy Carter or Ulysses Grant, who tries to curb the madness.’

Weirdo’s in het Witte Huis‘ by Peter van der Heiden is published by Boom Uitgevers Amsterdam and costs 22.50 euros.

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