I’ve been reading President Dwight Eisenhower’s diaries this election season, and I recently started laughing out loud at the entry from May 1, 1953. It wasn’t so much what Ike wrote, but how it contrasted so dramatically with our current election cycle and the noxious way that Donald Trump has run his campaign.
There are many ways to dissect Trump’s vision for the future of America. But one way to interpret it is to simply take him at his word when he says that America used to be a fantastic country. He’d like to bring us back there; back to some romanticized ideal of when the United States was somehow better in his eyes. Make America Great Again. Roughly 72 percent of Trump supporters say that life was better in the 1950s.
You can point out the obvious flaws in this argument by simply looking at things like the progress of civil rights or environmental protections or myriad other things in this country. But if we put all of that aside for a moment—and I do mean all of it—and simply compare Trump and one of his supposed political idols (Dwight Eisenhower), you’ll probably start laughing too when you read the entry below.
The passages from Eisenhower’s diary lay out a scene wherein Eisenhower is meeting with Republican leaders, including Robert A. Taft, a conservative Senator from Ohio. Senator Taft, the eldest son of former President William Howard Taft, had taken issue with some of the budget proposals in the meeting.
From Eisenhower’s diary:
[Senator Taft] used adjectives in describing the disappointment he felt that were anything but complimentary. He accused the security council of merely adopting the Truman strategy and, by a process of nicking here and chipping there, built up savings which he classed as ‘puny.’ He predicted that acceptance by the Congress of any such program would insure the decisive defeat of the Republican party in 1954. He said that not only could he not support the program, but that he would have to go on public record as fighting and opposing it.
Eisenhower continued: “I think that everybody present was astonished at the demagogic nature of his tirade...”
Two others in the room could apparently sense that Taft was angering Eisenhower and jumped in to defuse the situation. And by the end of it everyone seemed to be level-headed and on the same page about the budget proposals. But this brief outburst by Taft left an impression on Eisenhower that sounds so decidedly quaint.
Again, from the diary:
I do not see how [Senator Taft] can possibly expect over the long run to expect to influence people when he has no more control over his temper than seemed apparent at the meeting; likewise, I do not see how he can maintain any reputation for considered judgment when he attempts to discuss weighty, serious, and even critical matters in such an ill-tempered and violent fashion.
Ill-tempered! Violent! Demagogic! And all, from Eisenhower’s perspective anyway, relatively tame when you consider modern political posturing.
Even the words Eisenhower used to describe the scene seem like they’re coming from a completely different species of politician. Honestly, try to read any portion of the diary entry below in Trump’s voice and you’ll probably start laughing like I did. Or crying. Either way.
I’ve published the entire diary entry below so you can read it with the full context from Eisenhower’s perspective. Again, try reading it in Donald Trump’s voice. Especially passages like “Of course I am pleased that I did not add any fuel to the flames...”
Quoting from the May 1, 1953 entry in The Eisenhower Diaries:
Yesterday was one of the worst days I have experienced since January 20, the major part of the wear and tear coming through a meeting of the legislative leaders. Luckily there were one or two features of the meeting that provided reason for a subsequent chuckle. All in all, therefore, the day’s end was not quite as bad as some of the moments in its middle.
The difficulty arose at the weekly meeting of the executive departments and the leaders of the Republican party in the Congress. The purpose of the meeting was to bring about some kind of rough agreement as to the general character and extent of the changes that would be recommended by the administration in the Truman budget, submitted to the Congress at the end of last year.
After three months of sweat and study, the executive departments had come up with recommendations that the requests for new money be cut by something like $8 billion. Moreover, the expenditure program for the fiscal year 1954, although largely frozen by commitments and contracts made long ago, was cut and figured until it had been reduced by $4 billion.
This whole program was explained in the light of the desire of the administration to avoid any weakening of our defensive posture in the world; in fact, in the light of the need for increasing the presently available strength, particularly in the air forces.
Most of those present seemed to have a clear appreciation of the agony of work and scheming that had gone into the business of making this kind of a cut, and it was carefully explained that future experience ought to bring about even greater opportunities for savings. Quite naturally, when we have achieved the defensive buildup that is considered the minimum necessary, savings should be much greater, even if we have to continue in the conduct of the more or less “cold war.”
In spite of the apparent satisfaction of most of those present, Senator Taft broke out in a violent objection to everything that had been done. He used adjectives in describing the disappointment he felt that were anything but complimentary. He accused the security council of merely adopting the Truman strategy and, by a process of nicking here and chipping there, built up savings which he classed as “puny.” He predicted that acceptance by the Congress of any such program would insure the decisive defeat of the Republican party in 1954. He said that not only could he not support the program, but that he would have to go on public record as fighting and opposing it.
I think that everybody present was astonished at the demagogic nature of his tirade, because not once did he mention the security of the United States or the need for strength either at home or among our allies. He simply wanted expenditures reduced, regardless. Of course, the individuals who had been working so hard on this program, the secretary of the treasury, the director of the budget, the director for mutual security, and the acting secretary of defense, were all astounded, and it was obvious that they felt they had been badly let down—that they had had a right to expect great understanding and cooperation—particularly in view of the fact that they had never failed to keep the leaders as well informed concerning their progress as was possible in the circumstances.
The ludicrous part of the affair came about when several of my close friends around the table saw that my temper was getting a little out of hand at the demagogic proceeding, and of course they did not want any breach to be brought about that would be completely unbridgeable. So George Humphrey and Joe Dodge in turn jumped into the conversation as quickly as there was the slightest chance to interrupt and held the floor until I had cooled down somewhat. After that I simply laid out the general basis of our global strategy, its inescapable requirements in terms of vital areas, the obvious truth that protection cost a mint of money, and defended the individuals on the security council who had worked so long and so earnestly to bring about the projected savings—a process that of course had to encounter and accept calculated risks at more than one point. By the time that the senator had seen the reaction to his own talk and heard the general comment about the table, he was, to a very considerable amount, backing up; before the meeting was over he had the appearance of being a jolly good fellow who had merely expressed himself emphatically.
Nevertheless, even assuming that he now accepts our position in complete detail (which I do not expect), he still has lost a great bit of his leadership position in front of his associates who were here with him. I do not see how he can possibly expect over the long run to expect to influence people when he has no more control over his temper than seemed apparent at the meeting; likewise, I do not see how he can maintain any reputation for considered judgment when he attempts to discuss weighty, serious, and even critical matters in such an ill-tempered and violent fashion.
Of course I am pleased that I did not add any fuel to the flames, even though it is possible that I might have done so except for the quick intervention of my devoted friends. If this thing ever has to be dragged out into the open, we at least have the right to stand firmly upon the platform of taking no unnecessary chances with our country’s safety, but at the same time doing everything we can to protect its solvency and its economic health.
Before the day was over, my friends dropped in to chat with me about the occurrence and to express the opinion that the whole incident cleared the air and enhanced the prestige of the administration, because of the quite obvious acceptance by all the others present of the honesty and efficiency of our work. However, I still maintain that it does not create any confidence in the reliability and effectiveness of our leadership in one of the important houses of Congress.
Political historians will no doubt divide America into the pre-Trump and post-Trump ages. Donald Trump’s entire campaign is predicated on romanticizing this idea of America that never really existed in the first place—back when America was simply great, no questions asked. Make America Great Again is quite literally his slogan, stolen from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan of Let’s Make America Great Again. But Trump isn’t talking about about having a normal human conversation using our inside voices.
If Donald Trump wants to make America great again perhaps he can start with the most poisonous element of his own campaign—the vitriol and contempt he shows for the American public through his incessant whining about how the whole world is stacked against him.
It’s somewhat dangerous to start saying that politics was more civilized in America at midcentury when you consider that Congress was comprised almost exclusively of white men and two parties that had even more control to exploit the opacity of the system for their own gain. But, again, if we take Trump at his word that he’d like to make this country great again, perhaps he can start with some diplomacy advice from Eisenhower.
Of course I am pleased that I did not add any fuel to the flames...