It took me by surprise.
I was in town for a series of lectures at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Gary, a history professor, picked me up at the airport and asked me if I wanted to take a short drive around the city before getting settled into my hotel. We were immersed in conversation as we started to cross the Bingham Island Bridge. Gary interrupted and pointed to one of many Spanish-style resorts designed in South Florida during the 1920s by architect Adam Mizner. From our vantage point atop the bridge it looked like a small paradise. The sun was glimmering off Lake Worth Lagoon, the landscaping was bright green, and the palm trees were swaying in the breeze.
South Ocean Boulevard in Palm Springs is filled with these Mizner mansions, but Gary wanted to call my attention to this particular estate because of its significance in American political history. Its name was Mar-a-Lago. Between 2017-2021 it served as the “Winter White House” for President Donald J. Trump.
Seeing Mar-a-Lago brought back a lot of memories—nearly all of them bad.
Neither Gary nor I wanted to spend too much time rehashing the Trump presidency as we drove along South Ocean Boulevard. We were both glad to be talking about 45 in the past tense.
After Trump was elected, I got into the habit of ending my tweets about him with the hashtag #AgeofTrump. Although his presidency drew heavily from older, darker moments of America’s past, there was also something new about it. The former businessman and reality television star seemed to be ushering in a new era of populist, personality-driven politics that, with the help of social media and conservative cable news, we had never seen before.
My use of the phrase “Age of Trump” to describe his one-term presidency rankled some folks. John Wilson, the editor of the now defunct quarterly Books & Culture, tweeted: “The phrase itself [“Age of Trump”] is fundamentally in defiance of historical perspective. Incredible that historians, of all people, should traffic in it.”
Wilson was probably right. I started using the phrase in December 2016, weeks before Trump took office. Would Trump usher in a new era of American political history? It was too early to tell.
Today, however, nearly five years after the 2016 election, it may be time to revisit the phrase “Age of Trump.”
Trump has been at the center of American politics since 2015. If the months after he left office are any indication, he will continue to dominate the American political landscape and especially the Republican Party through 2024 and possibly, God forbid, through 2028 and beyond.
We can no longer ignore the fact that Trump was a consequential president. The United States will need to deal with what he did to this country for generations to come.
Some will see Trump’s presidency in terms of American greatness, while others will see it as a precipitator of American decline. Ultimately, historians will get the final say on the matter as they consider the Trump years in a larger context. But there now seems to be little doubt that these guardians of the past will interpret the years between 2015 and 2024 as an important moment—an era, if you will—in the history of this country.
Compare the “Age of Trump” to the “Age of Jackson,” the first significant populist era in United States history. Jackson lost the 1824 presidential election to John Quincy Adams. In 1828, Jackson’s supporters formed the Democratic Party. Later that year he defeated Adams to become the nation’s seventh president. He served two terms. And if one adds the presidency of Old Hickory’s protégé Martin Van Buren to this era, we can safely argue that the Age of Jackson lasted nearly two decades.
Trump initiated a new era of populist politics, marshaled new media forms to communicate his message, remade the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, re-energized white supremacists, reframed the way Americans think about immigration, divided churches and denominations, and was partly responsible for an insurrection at the United States Capitol.
Since he left office, Trump has endorsed political candidates and demonized others. He has done everything in his power to undermine the Biden administration. He has turned most congressional Republicans into sniveling sycophants. He has undermined millions of Americans’ confidence in presidential elections. And he continues to practice his brand of populism through the revival of his now-famous political rallies. The evangelicals who carried him to office long for the return of his “leadership.”
Future history textbooks will offer considerable space to Donald Trump. They will make sure students know all about the twice-impeached president. Perhaps those textbooks will have a picture of Trump standing in front of a Washington D.C. church holding a Bible and declaring himself a law-and-order president—juxtaposed with a picture of thousands of Americans a few blocks away, protesting in the streets against systemic racism. Or maybe there will be a line or two about how Trump told the nation not to worry about the deadly coronavirus because it would soon disappear.
Americans will pay homage to Mar-a-Lago for decades to come. But their visits will seem less like a stop at Poplar Forest (Jefferson), Sagamore Hill (Teddy Roosevelt), Hyde Park (FDR), or Rancho de Cielo (Reagan)—presidential retreats where tourists go to learn more about their country’s history—and more like a visit to Graceland—a shrine where the faithful go to pay their respects to “The King.”
John Fea is Executive Editor at Current