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Welcome to the 19th Century

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A few days before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as 45th president of the United States, my mom called me. She was in a state of despair mingled with panic over what the world might look like on Saturday, Jan. 21. Between angrily fantasizing about a "do-over" election and wondering aloud whether the earth itself can withstand four years with Trump in the White House, my highly educated, civic-minded, passionate mother repeated the phrase, "I've never seen anything like this."

As any good son would, I tried to talk her down—specifically by reminding her Trump is far from the first tactless, vulgar, corrupt bully to serve as chief executive of the U.S.

As noted in the New Republic last year, John Quincy Adams admitted in his own diary that he was considered by many to be "an unsocial savage." His presidency, which included public works projects like those promised by Trump, was ultimately sunk by his personality. Andrew Jackson (also a vulgarian of the Trump order) beat him like a gong after only one term. For his part, Jackson was notorious for his "petty and vindictive acts" and draconian attitudes toward everything from civil liberties to trade policy.

Beyond anger management issues, we have also had our share of presidents elected under dubious circumstances or whose administrations were rife with financial scandal. Even though Samuel Tilden trounced Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 election, it was Hayes who ended up in the White House following a shady "compromise" that remains controversial to this day. Ulysses S. Grant's two terms in office included so many scandals, that his presidency is widely regarded as among the worst in U.S. history.

To borrow an insult Hunter S. Thompson applied to Richard Nixon in an acerbic 1994 obituary for the former president, Trump is "so crooked that he need[s] servants to help him screw his pants on every morning." Looking to 19th century America, however, the Trump style has clear precedence.

I'm not sure if this should be cause for comfort, but at least we know how far back the arc of American progress might be set.

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