An eternity ago, when the 45th was still in office and not yet wiped out of existence by Jack Dorsey, it was fun to guess at which previous POTUS could be taken as the closest model for The Donald. Such comparison is both a natural habit in thinking about so historically charged an office and a sad testament to our times—that our leaders can only hope to imitate, but never match, the great men of the past. It was also uniquely entertaining with a commander-in-chief who seemed so utterly unprecedented.
Many of the president’s supporters were keen to draw parallels with Andrew Jackson, the brash populist outsider who redefined American politics and ushered the Republic into a wholly new generation. Critics often pointed to Nixon, apparently unaware of what a glowing compliment that is. Allegations of sexual misconduct and an unpleasant hot-mic incident inspired a few unflattering mentions of Bill Clinton. By the end, with talk of trust busting front and center, Teddy Roosevelt came into the conversation, and just as quickly left it. The boring take was always Reagan, and—given that this is American political commentary we’re talking about here—boring takes abounded. Nobody (except for a few real fanatics) dared to utter the word “Lincoln.”
Joe Biden, for his part, has been proactive. In his first hundred days, the 46th president has been actively posturing as the next FDR, an ambitious, programmatic president with a sweeping popular mandate and a commitment to old-school patrician liberalism. Critics flip that programmatic ambition to a more negative incarnation in LBJ, tying Joe to a high-reacher whose agenda most people are ready to admit has been a failure.
But both evaluations miss the mark. If we’re being honest, Joe Biden—the unexpected president, whose millennium-spanning quest for the Oval Office ended with an accidental stumble over the finish line—can only be compared to one predecessor, a man so like him and so unlike anyone else that their coexistence (and the nature of their paths’ crossing) can only be taken as proof that God has a sense of humor. That man, of course, is Donald J. Trump.
The unexpectedness itself is one key similarity. Of course, for the most part—with notable exceptions like 1972 and 1984—there is always an element of uncertainty heading into elections, and so every presidency is in some sense unexpected. But these two were really unexpected. Donald Trump was the scion of a real estate empire and the host of a reality TV show who hijacked a sleepwalking party in the primary and even then was considered a long, long, long shot headed into the general election. Joe Biden had dropped out in disgrace before the primaries even started in the ’88 cycle, then mounted a halfhearted attempt again two decades later before settling for the second spot on the ticket. Even after his stint as V.P. to a man young enough to be his son, and especially after sitting out the Democratic primary in 2016, nobody in his right mind would have told you that the septuagenarian from Scranton had a real shot at the Oval. That he should come back and actually win in 2020, a full generation after his first run, was about as likely as Harold Stassen winning in 1988, 40 years after he had been a real contender. What really happened to Stassen in ’88—0.01 percent of the GOP primary vote—is what’s supposed to happen to politicians whose moment has come and gone, and gone, and gone.
That’s the first important lesson that runs through both administrations: Our politics are getting weirder, less predictable, and more chaotic. We hear it said often enough in the commentariat that Trump was a symptom, and not a cause, of America’s ills, but—given that Donald was a very bad doctor—the disease has not been cured, and Biden is a symptom too. A healthy nation wouldn’t have been faced with either of these options, to say nothing of a choice between the two. This is evidenced, of course, by the fact that when our nation was even marginally healthier neither man was a serious option. The current president’s signal campaign promise was effectively a return to normalcy; but the very fact that Joe Biden managed to carry out a successful campaign for the presidency is itself undeniable proof that “normal” is not coming back.
Such unfulfilled campaign promises are likewise a shared characteristic of these last two administrations. Of course, this is hardly unique either; that politicians never govern as they campaigned is as obvious to most people as the fact that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself. But the degree of disappointment since 2016 has certainly been extraordinary. When Donald Trump was looking for a victory lap in January 2021, the best he could do was to give an uneventful speech in front of the tiny section of border wall that had been put up over four years. Biden’s problem may be the opposite: He promised not to do much, but may get dragged into doing quite a bit.
The reasons for the failure are generally the same, too. Both men are ancient, though Biden shows it far more than his predecessor. Neither is particularly bright. But more importantly than anything, neither has actually had the support of his party for his governing agenda. Both men have been pushed leftward by the establishment—Trump toward the impotent center, Biden away from it. Thus we end up, for instance, with two presidents who are instinctively doves, but practically hawks (albeit moderate ones). We end up with a Republican who campaigned as a populist but can’t deliver anything better than a hefty corporate tax cut, and a Democrat who campaigned on just getting through the COVID crisis and wound up delivering a so-called relief package that made all the comrades, a number of powerful special interests, and a couple foreign entities positively giddy.
On the spectrum of social conservatism, meanwhile, I’d be willing to bet that Joe Biden and Donald Trump fall disturbingly close to each other, though each will occasionally journey in the appropriate direction to toss a bone to his party’s true believers. Thus we end up, after four years of Republican administration, with nothing to show at the federal level except a de minimis ban on transgender people serving in the military that gets scrapped as soon as the next guy gets in office. Thus we end up with a senile old codger from Scranton who just wants to be FDR, announcing his support for transkids in an address to the United States Congress. Thus we end up with a transgender discourse in which the conservative position is a valiant defense of…high school girls’ sports teams? Thus, at the end of the road, we wind up with both a transgender assistant secretary of health and a transgender GOP candidate for governor of California.
The similarities, and the shared place at the center of our nation’s political hurricane, is hardly even limited to all this. Both presidents, for instance, are very rich men—who, by the way, may not have been the most scrupulous in amassing their respective fortunes—who somehow managed to present themselves as Average Joes. (Let’s not forget that Barack Obama chose the senator from
Citibank Delaware for a running mate because he felt Joe could relate to blue collar and middle class voters, who were put off by Obama’s Harvard vibes.) Neither man has any real ties to the underclasses, and each has done his fair share of both helping them out and screwing them over—but that hasn’t stopped either from getting widespread, diehard support from millions of underclass voters. Again if we’re being honest, Joe Biden is probably about as much of a genuine populist as is Donald Trump. Make of that what you will.
The most obvious point of comparison, though, is temperamental. Neither looks too flattering on this front. It’s little remarked on, but if you watch the way Joe Biden treats the media—or anyone critical of him on the campaign trail, for that matter—it’s eerily similar to the way his sometime rival carried out both campaigns and his single term in office. Of course, a fawning media that shares most of his politics—and that really wants to move past Donald Trump, even as it struggles to stay interesting without him—won’t hold Biden to account the same way, but Biden’s personal hostility and outbursts are hardly any different from his predecessor’s. And whatever you might think of candidate Trump’s conduct at the 2016 rallies, no DJT insult from the stump will ever top Joe’s classic “Look, fat, look, here’s the deal…,” which came just after challenging the critical questioner to a pushup contest.
This is all important not just because it illustrates what a false choice and a joke our political game has become (though it is valuable for that) but because it casts some doubt on the search for a successor that has already begun within the Republican party. If we’re looking for a national populist who can deliver elections and follow through on the better priorities of Trumpism, that’s a long, hard road that’s likely to go on well past 2024. But if we’re out looking for The Donald 2.0—well, I think we can call off the search. He’s in the Oval Office.