When the vice-presidential candidates squared off against each other in the 1988 debate, Lloyd Bentsen delivered one of the sharpest political blows ever landed on an opponent. Republican Dan Quayle was proudly touting his years of experience and equating them with John F. Kennedy’s 14 years in Congress before his 1960 presidential campaign. That’s when Bentsen pounced on the unsuspecting Indiana senator in a memorable and flawlessly delivered take-down: . “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It was a defining moment and Bentsen’s language has since been used as a formula for other political insults.
Whether he knows it or not, Trump thinks he embodies President James Monroe because he claims to have done what Monroe accomplished. Trump insists he is America’s favorite president, that he has made America great again, and that he is immune from impeachment because “you can’t impeach somebody that’s doing a great job.” But how does President Trump really stack up, especially when measured through the lens of history? How does Trump compare to last of our founding father presidents as he sought reelection in 1820? Are Trump’s claims to greatness justified, or is he embellishing his record, just as Dan Quayle boastfully compared himself to John F. Kennedy?
There are four key areas where Trump falls short of the reputation and statesmanship of his predecessor, James Monroe, from 200 years ago.
1. Elections: Trump will never be as popular as James Monroe was in the early 1800s. When Monroe was first elected in 1816, his electoral victory was impressive. He racked up a rousing 84% of the electoral votes. His victory of electoral votes is the 15th highest percentage ever won. By contrast, in 2016, Trump won just 56% of the electoral votes. Despite the president’s claims that he won the Electoral College in a landslide, his Electoral College victory ranks very low – 46th out of 58 presidential elections.
In 1820, Monroe received all the electoral votes except one, coming the closest of any president to tying the unanimous Electoral College victories of George Washington.
Without ever cracking a history book, Trump has created his desired narrative that his 2016 election was a very substantial victory despite evidence to the contrary. He also predicts he will win an even more astounding victory in 2020. But in our divided nation, it is a pipe dream to suggest that Trump will come anywhere close in 2020 to Monroe’s stunning second term victory. In fact, there are scenarios in which Trump may lose in a monumental landslide.
When it comes to electoral victories, Donald Trump is certainly no James Monroe and never will be. He simply doesn’t measure up to Monroe’s popularity.
2. Leadership: Monroe’s impressive electoral victories reflected the hope and sense of national unity and optimism following the War of 1812. In his inaugural address on March 4, 1817, Monroe pledged that “harmony among Americans…will be the object of my constant and zealous attentions.” It was the beginning of the Era of Good Feelings, a catch phrase that came to be associated with Monroe’s presidency.
Monroe was a pragmatic president. He tried to govern in a non-partisan manner, noting that “the existence of parties is not necessary to free government.” Monroe recognized his obligations to all Americans and not just those of his Democratic-Republican Party. Biographer Harry Ammon observed that Monroe “viewed the party as embracing all elements of American society and therefore he accepted the fact that it must also adopt measures meeting the needs of the widest possible spectrum of American opinion.”
While the Era of Good Feelings characterized Monroe’s tenure as president, Trump’s presidency might best be described in the dark “American carnage” language of his inaugural address. Rather than unite the nation and promote harmony and non-partisan governing, Trump has consistently stirred up and created divisions among Americans and governed from a blatantly political posture that panders only to a dedicated base of supporters. He quickly abandoned his election day victory pledge to “be president for all of Americans” and to “seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.” Trump’s leadership from the gutter is a far cry from the stable and enlightened leadership demonstrated by James Monroe.
Monroe was certainly the beneficiary of the generally optimistic mood of the nation when he assumed the presidency. He was the right man for the moment, with “a good heart and an amiable disposition,” in the words of one congressman. It’s not a phrase likely to be used to describe Trump, who has also been the beneficiary – and notably creator – of the nation’s mood. He has stoked and fanned the flames of fear, anger, and bigotry in a deeply divided nation.
3. Maturity: In 1793, Monroe, then a senator from Virginia, wrote a letter to his friend, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, about the futility of responding to foreign and personal insults. “The insults of Spain, Britain, or any other of the combined powers,” he wrote, “I deem no more worthy of our notice as a nation than those of a lunatic to a man in health, – for I consider them as desperate and raving mad.”
By personality, Monroe was not a sable-rattling pugilist. He was able to ignore such “desperate and raving mad” comments. In contrast, Trump is, by his own admission, a “counterpuncher.” He allows no insult to go unanswered, and his behavior is quite predictable. While he may have praised an individual in the past, once their real feelings about him become public, he attacks.
For example, on April 11, 2018, Trump tweeted his warm regard for House Speaker Paul Ryan, praising him as “a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!”
The feeling was apparently not mutual from Ryan’s perspective. Ryan’s real opinion about Trump leaked out recently from Tim Alberta’s new book “American Carnage.” According to Alberta, Ryan thought Trump was inept: “I told myself I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right. Because I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government…I wanted to scold him all the time.” At another point, Ryan said he saw retirement as his “escape hatch” from having to work with Trump for two more years.
With remarkable predictability, Trump tweeted an angry tirade on the same day that Ryan’s comments became public. “Paul Ryan, the failed V.P. candidate & former Speaker of the House, whose record of achievement was atrocious (except during my first two years as President),” the petulant president typed, “ultimately became a long running lame duck failure, leaving his Party in the lurch both as a fundraiser & leader…” Trump continued his Twitter rant against Ryan in two additional derogatory tweets.
When it comes to seasoned maturity, Monroe was secure enough in his own skin to recognize the futility of punching back with insults of his own. Trump has never learned that skill but is forever stuck in juvenile behavior that unnecessarily escalates the vitriolic heat in the public square. While Trump envisions himself as the perfect leader without any flaws, his record speaks otherwise, and fails to demonstrate the calm maturity of Monroe who saw the futility of responding to insults.
4. Military: James Monroe was the second and last president to have served in the Revolutionary War. He volunteered to fight for independence. Serving under General George Washington during the Battle of Trenton – a surprise attack on Christmas Day by American forces on Hessian mercenaries – 18-year-old Monroe was one of just a half-dozen Americans soldiers injured in the fighting. The bullet that pierced his shoulder remained there the rest of his life.
In contrast, Donald Trump sought and received a deferment from the draft for military service in Vietnam due to bone spurs in his heels. Serious questions have been raised about whether the doctor issuing the report was simply doing a favor for Trump’s father, or if Trump really did have a medical condition that would disqualify him from military service.
James Monroe honorably served the embryonic nation with heroism in the military, while Donald Trump found a way to avoid military service, and doesn’t come close to matching Monroe’s sacrificial service.
Conclusion: The character and characteristics of the 45th president are a far cry from the honorable service and integrity of our 5th president. Trump fantasizes about big election victories; Monroe actually had them two centuries ago. Trump wants to be viewed as a strong president, but his vision of strength is to divide America while Monroe put his leadership skills to work in uniting the nation with the Era of Good Feelings. Trump has a microscopically thin skin while Monroe exhibited a tough and seasoned maturity by ignoring insults. Trump loves the armed forces enough to throw himself a July 4th extravaganza, but not enough to have served in the military. James Monroe put his life on the line in helping purchase American independence as a soldier. And so to paraphrase the words of Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew James Monroe. James Monroe was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you’re no James Monroe.”
Note: This article I wrote was originally published on History News Network on August 11, 2019.