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A historian on Trump's first 100 days: "Very little has been done"

Why Trump's presidency has floundered in its first 100 days.

Trump Holds Campaign Event in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

Donald Trump was elected, in part, because he promised to shake things up. In October, he even posted a "100-day Plan to Make America Great Again." The list included, among other things, repealing and replacing Obamacare and cleaning up corruption in Washington.

So, just a few days shy of the 100-day mark, what can we say? Was Trump the agent of change he vowed to be? The simple answer is no. With the exception of appointing a Supreme Court justice and opting out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has failed to deliver on most of his promises.

Almost nothing in the way of legislation has been accomplished. Compared with his predecessors, Trump’s first 100 days have been a dud. He’s done what he could do without the support of Congress and the judiciary, but that, it turns out, isn’t much.

In this interview, I talk to H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas. Brands is the author of dozens of books, including biographies of Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and Benjamin Franklin, and he’s written extensively about the history of the American presidency. Here, we talk about Trump’s first 100 days, what his election represented, and how historians might judge this era 50 years from now.

Sean Illing

The 100-day metric is a little silly, but it’s nonetheless become a kind of ritual in this country. Where did it come from?

H.W. Brands

The model for an ambitious and accomplished 100 days is Franklin Roosevelt's first three months. This was almost by accident: Roosevelt called a special session of Congress [in March 1933] to deal with the banking emergency. He figured he would present a bill that would shore up the rapidly failing banking system, Congress would pass it, and everybody would go home because Congress was not scheduled to gather for several months more.

He got them to Washington, they were willing to vote and approve his emergency bill without even reading it, so he said, "Gee, I've got them here. They seem to be cooperative. Let's send them some more stuff." He sent them some more, and some more, and some more, and every time they just basically rubber-stamped it. By the time he ran out of ideas, it just coincidentally happened to be 100 days, so he looked at a calendar and said, "Whoops, it's been 100 days." So Roosevelt sent them home.

Sean Illing

As a standard, though, 100 days is unrealistic, right?

H.W. Brands

Well, Roosevelt sent Congress 15 major pieces of legislation and Congress passed every one. This was the foundation of the modern welfare state; this was the New Deal. What Roosevelt did became a kind of standard, but it was something that almost by its very nature could not happen again.

Sean Illing

Donald Trump invited this scrutiny on himself, boasting about his first 100 days long before he got elected. And now, apparently, he plans to hold a big rally celebrating his first 100 days.

H.W. Brands

If Hillary Clinton had gotten elected in 2016, we would not be having this conversation, because she didn't say, "Elect me, I'm going to change everything." But Donald Trump did. He said that he would change everything on day one. He's the one who set up a timetable.

Sean Illing

So what’s your judgment as a historian of Trump’s first 100 days?

H.W. Brands

Very little has been done. Nothing of legislative accomplishment. The big deal was going to be repeal and revision of the Affordable Care Act — that didn't happen. There was some thought that maybe a tax reform bill would get passed, but no, that's not going to happen. The things that President Trump has done so far are things that a president can do by himself with just the stroke of a pen. These are not nothing, though.

He has repealed or prevented from taking effect various Obama administration regulations. Those mean something to certain groups, but they don't have the kind of broad impact that legislation has, that programs that are approved by Congress have, because the fact that they can be rescinded by a stroke of a president's pen means they can be reimplemented with the stroke of another president’s pen.

Furthermore, they don't have legitimacy, the credibility, of having the approval of more than just one person. If you get major legislation passed, it has the approval of Congress and the presidency, and that means a whole lot more than if it's just the preference of a president.

1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), the 32nd president of the United States.
Keystone Features / Getty Images

Sean Illing

Has the Trump administration been as abnormal as the Trump campaign, or do you think he’s been moderated by the institutions and the various checks on power?

H.W. Brands

I think he's been moderated by the institutions and the expectations and the practices of American politics and the presidency. He discovered what every president-elect discovers, and that is that presidents are less constrained by what they want to do than what the world will let them do, and the world includes Congress. The world includes the courts. The world includes the rest of the world.

Presidents with little or no background in government often think that our problems are attributable to the misguided thinking of their predecessor. Sometimes that's the case, but more often it's the case that there are hard problems in the world. Trump might think he was going to solve the Syrian problem overnight, but that’s not how the world works. The Syrian problem is a hard problem, and this president [faces] the same kind of restraint that the previous president did, and China is as intractable in its own way. And for that matter, so are domestic constituencies.

Candidate Trump, President-Elect Trump, can talk about tax reform and he's going to change the corporate tax structure, he's going to do this and that, but he is discovering that the tax code is the way it is because it has constituencies. And there are people who like the tax code the way it is, and every time you modify something, you're up against this group that says no, they don't want to do that. They rarely come out against you in a campaign, and so somebody who's defending a particular corporate loophole is not going to campaign against you on that. They know that the way to get or keep what they want is just to lie low, wait for it to be proposed, and then sink it at the committee level in Congress or if it comes to a vote in Congress.

The forces of the status quo have a great advantage over the forces of change because they're defending interests, and interests are easier to defend than they are to secure for the first time.

Sean Illing

Of course the job of judging Trump is complicated by the fact that he promised to do a bunch of big (and often stupid) things but never explained how he would do [them].

H.W. Brands

Trump's genius in campaigning was don't get too specific. Just say that we're going to do X and it's going to be beautiful, it's going to be great, we're going to make America great again. Donald Trump was blessedly ignorant on this stuff. Even if you pressed him on something, he didn't know enough to get specific about exactly what he was going to do because he didn't know what he was going to do.

I think Donald Trump is somebody who doesn't have a core set of policy principles that he's following. He was an improviser on a campaign trail, and what got a response is something he repeats and amplifies, but I don't think he went into the campaign saying, "Okay, these are the five policy items I want to accomplish."

Sean Illing

Before the election, and still today, a lot of people worry that Trump is an existential threat to our constitutional democracy. What’s the historical perspective here?

H.W. Brands

A president who has very firm and enthusiastic beliefs can be a danger to the principles and practices of this country. But it's hard to identify anything that Donald Trump believes is really worth fighting for. Trump doesn't seem to have enough passion for what he says to really fight for it, and to turn the screws really tight, to push people to the wall. Another thing is you have to be willing to take chances with your popularity, and Trump seems to value his popularity more than he values anything in the way of accomplishment.

Trump Returns To White House Following Kentucky Rally Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Can you think of a good counterexample to Trump on this front? Someone who put policy achievements over political self-interest?

H.W. Brands

A good counter example of this is Lyndon Johnson, who was elected with a huge majority in 1964. He really valued what he wanted to do, and he gathered his team at the beginning of his term in '65, the one where he was elected in his own right, and he said, "We've got this huge majority, but we're going to lose it soon. We'll probably have 18 months or two years to accomplish everything we want because the stuff we're going to do is going to be hard and will ruffle feathers."

Johnson knew he would pay a price for big changes and that he would be unpopular by the end of this time, but he also knew he would have accomplished something.

With Trump, the balance between those two seems just the opposite. He would rather stay popular and be unaccomplished than be accomplished and become unpopular.

Sean Illing

We've had a lot of what you might call backlash elections in American history, and often these are on the heels of great upheavals in society or things just changed too fast for too many people, and there was a reaction. How do you explain Trump’s ascendance?

H.W. Brands

There are a lot of Trump voters who thought that pretty much everything was broken with the status quo, and what they wanted to do was send a message to the establishment: "We're not going to stand for it anymore." Hillary lost — although she won the popular vote, and that’s important to keep in mind — but still, a minority sentiment in the country was that anything was preferable to the status quo.

Now, they didn't all agree on how it didn't work, so a lot of people who voted for Trump were people who were doing fairly well economically, so if you ask them what's your complaint, sometimes their complaint was, "I don't feel I'm getting the respect that I used to."

Trump had a big chance, and the big chance included people that Hillary Clinton very mistakenly called deplorables, which simply confirmed them. Trump was also very slow to disavow racists. He wanted the racist vote. Now, he could have said, "If you're racist, I don't want you to vote for me." But of course he wanted them to vote for him. Any candidate would if they thought they could get away with it. More precisely, if they thought they could get the racist vote without alienating another constituency.

Sean Illing

What’s the historical lesson from 2016?

H.W. Brands

The lesson of Trump's election was that in November 2016, there were just enough people sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo and they lived in just the right places to win him the electoral vote. I don't think you can say a whole lot more than that. I don't think his has become a model for a campaign in 2020.

Sean Illing

So you still see Trump as an anomaly?

H.W. Brands

I do. A lot of it is Trump himself, and so if Ted Cruz had tried to mimic Donald Trump earlier, would it be President Cruz now? I don't think so at all. Part of it has to do with the very fact that Trump had no track record in government. When you're campaigning against government, the last thing you want is a record of votes where people can say, "You did this and this." Nobody can hold that against Trump.

Trump did have this brazen ability to get away with saying one thing today and something else tomorrow, and that’s because his supporters simply didn’t care, or they didn’t hold it against him, in any case. Politicians are constantly hammered for flip-flopping. Trump flip-flopped all over the place, and it didn't seem to hurt him.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sean Illing

It was really a perfect storm of nebulousness for Trump. He was a tabula rasa without a record in politics, and his spectacle-driven campaign gave him the freedom to be vague about ... everything. The idea, as far as I can tell, was to just let people project onto him whatever they needed to project.

H.W. Brands

In an odd way, he mirrored the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama had little in the way of a track record. He was a first-term senator, and his campaign slogan was "Yes, we can." Well, yes, you can what? He let people fill in the blanks for themselves. Obama was pretty good at not saying exactly what he was going to do, and his timing was good in its own way because it was amid the financial crisis and people were frustrated and scared.

The key to a successful candidacy is often allowing voters to project on you their hopes or in some cases their fears for what might happen if you're not elected, and don't get too specific, because every time you get specific, then you risk alienating people or disillusioning them. It's in the nature of democracy, within American democracy, that candidates often win with disillusioned voters.

Of course, they become disillusioned after a while, and the real question now, during and after the 100 days, is how long does it take Trump supporters to become disillusioned when they discover he's not delivering on what he promised to deliver? That's an interesting question. Trump has been very good until now in shifting the blame onto somebody else, but I don't think he can do that forever.

We'll see.

Sean Illing

Imagine you’re writing a historical dispatch 50 years from now. What do you think it would say about the Trump era?

H.W. Brands

I think it'll say that he was a one-term president, who was elected on this wave of revulsion against the status quo. He came in with vague promises, most of which he wasn't able to fulfill, and Americans decided after four years that they needed to turn back to the people who did this for a living, the people who really took governing seriously.