Truman as a metaphor

US President Donald Trump (C) speaks to the press as he waits at his desk before signing conformations for General James Mattis as US Secretary of Defense and General John Kelly as US Secretary of Homeland Security, as Vice President Mike Pence (L) and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (R) look on, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

We live in interesting times. History and diplomacy are unraveling in ways foreign to history and diplomacy. It is growing more frenzy by the day in America with the mercurial billionaire on the seat of Abraham Lincoln who insists on playing by no known rules of history and diplomacy. Unlike Lincoln who said he bore malice to none, Donald Trump does not hide that he in fact covets foes and that he came to Washington with bags full of grudges. The new president is unequivocal that he considers see himself a deity; at least in the Greek sense of the word. The man erupts like a volcano against everything and everyone that deign to question his authority. Hilary Clinton alleged the other day that Mr. Trump has a thin skin but it is turning out that Mr. Trump has no skin at all.

In less than a hundred days the new president has stirred more controversies than any other president in America’s long history. The surprise is not that Trump rails, it is that he rails about everything that has given his nation its unique hue in the contemporary world. He said the American press admired for its eclectic vibrancy is in fact a purveyor of fake news. He charged the judiciary with prejudice and rated the FBI as inept. J. Edgar Hoover, the taciturn player who spent his lifetime building the investigation bureau must be turning in his grave. Apparently, Mr. Trump is also irked by the heterogeneous nature of his country going by his choice of lieutenants. The 45th president of the United States is showing that he is ready to roll back the Civil Rights and expiate the dreams of Martin Luther King. The president seems blind to all other colours except lily white.

Some Trump supporters curiously see no wrong in their man rather they luxuriate that he is a straight-talker. They say you are never in doubt as to where he stands with you. They compare Donald Trump with Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States who ruled from 1945 to 1953 who was also a straight-talker and nearly as politically inexperienced as when he packed in the White House. They say Truman truly ended up doing great for America and the world despite all the baggage he brought to Washington.

For pedigree, the routing of Thomas Dewey by Harry Truman in the 1948 election was similar to the trouncing of Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump in 2016, especially if you remove the Russian sleight of hand. Back in ‘48 even George Gallup the progenitor of the Gallup Polls awarded the White House to Thomas Dewey even before the first ballot was cast, drawing from the opinion polls. So did Chicago Tribune also give it to Mr. Dewey. The paper, in fact, went ahead and call the race before the final ballot was cast, with a screaming banner: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In that junction of history in 1952, Mr. Dewey was like Mrs. Clinton the heralded president that never made the inauguration.

Talking about comparisons it is also a fact Harry Truman did not always like to take prisoners. It was the nature of Truman to begrudge even when occasions did not call for grudge. Take the case of Paul Hume, the Washington Post music critic who in a review in 1950 called Miss Margaret, the First Daughter and an aspiring songster, a beauty with a terrible voice. Truman immediately retorted and took it personal. The President went ballistic on Hume: “I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert,” he wrote to the journalist, “I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” Truman practically challenged Mr. Hume to a duel over the issue before a tenuous truce was forged.

Like Harry Truman could not also see the point in waving an olive branch to a political foe. He said of Richard Nixon, the rising Senator from California and a consummate foe from the late ‘50s: “(Richard) Nixon is a no good, lying bastard and can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. If he ever caught himself telling the truth he’d lie just to keep his hand in.” Harry Truman was overly condescending in 1951 to Douglas MacArthur, the army general he fired over a strategy difference in the middle of the Korean War: “I fired (MacArthur) because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that is not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” The Truman retort on Douglas MacArthur and the generals could well have been tweeted by Trump this morning.

But apparently Trump cannot plausibly be all Harry Truman, especially given that the men belong in different ages. The world in the age of Truman basically operated in the analogue mode. It was an era spared of the intrusion of television, computer and smartphone. News therefore travelled very slowly in those days. Mr. Truman was also privileged to live old Washington where he could count on aides to abide by the law of Omerta. It remains a conjecture if the presidency could have survived the untamed tongue of its principal in this digital age and time.

President Trump most likely would disdain to be cast in the mold of Truman. If Truman had been in politics today he likely would be counted a foe by Trump for his liberal hue. Truman learned at the feet of Franklin Delano Roosevelt the 32nd president of the United States and author of the New Deal that singularly expanded the reach of government. Truman was an apostle of regulation and big government as Trump is an advocate of unfettered market and limited government.

The theory on Trump as Truman grows surreal especially if thrown into the raging Russian equation. Harry Truman pitted against Stalin and Russia all his life and would likely flinch hearing the manner in which Mr. Trump is now pitting for Putin and Russia. Remember, the Truman Doctrine sired and nurtured the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation the military machine that has rolled back the influence of Russia from Western Europe since 1948. Truman’s Marshall Plan also saved France and Germany from certain economic collapse in the aftermath of World War II, preventing the countries from the grip of communist takeover predicted by Karl Marx.

History also avers that the Truman straight-talks often emanated from deep thinking, like in the winter of 1952 when as a lame-duck he rued the election that threw up General Dwight Eisenhower as his successor in office. He was concerned that the consummate soldier might not fare well under the peculiar demands of democracy. President Truman reportedly pointed to the desk Eisenhower would soon occupy in the Oval Office as he ruefully commiserated with the man Americans also call Ike: “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it is very frustrating.”

The Truman lines on “Poor Ike” could serve also for President Trump who is finding out in bits and pieces that the White House does not run like the Trump Towers. It would be interesting to see how history and diplomacy pan out with Trump in the coming years, if his presidency is not consumed by this gathering storm in Congress over Russia.

Akinyosoye wrote from Lagos.

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