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The WBUR iLab wants your feedback. We are developing a new politics and history podcast featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Ron Suskind and Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson. Each week, Heather and Ron will take an in-depth look at the Trump administration through the lens of American history.
In this episode, guest Matt Bai, national political columnist for Yahoo! News, joins Ron and Heather to look at the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
Take a listen and tell us what you think in the comment section.
Matt Bai, Yahoo News: Anyone who has started a new job knows that 100 days isn’t very long to figure out on-boarding, how the health plan works, how the phones switch over and all that. For this president and his team, that learning curve is extra steep. Love him or hate him, he had no idea what the presidency was about or how to tackle the job. I think most of his first 100 days on the job were about transitioning, with some isolated departures that were momentous like a successful nomination to the Supreme Court. He’s been filling jobs, thinking about an agenda and thinking about what kind of president he wants to be.
Heather Cox Richardson: I’m a little shocked that we should think about it as a transition because we’re talking about the president of the United States. The president should have some clue about what he or she wants to do once that person is in office. The fact that we should stand back and say, “well, he has to figure out where the light switches are” seems to me to be extraordinary. I think we’ve seen a lot of signs from Trump in these first 100 days, including that he hasn’t accomplished very much. He promised a lot of things to a lot of people which he cannot deliver because his party is so completely divided. But for all the talk about being a populist president and helping the little guy what he has really done in these first 100 days is taken the platform of the Republican Party since at least the 1980s and put it on steroids. After all his comments about Hillary Clinton and Goldman Sachs we have one of the richest cabinets in American history, comparable only to the 1920s or the early 1890s.
Ron Suskind: Trump was a Rorschach test for a lot of people. His policy was “Make America Great Again.” What is that as policy? Part of what we are all thinking about is, “Who the hell is the guy? What does he actually believe?” None of us really knew that.
Matt Bai: And I don’t think he knows. You can certainly argue that a president ought to be qualified and know something about the White House and not wander around in awe for a month. But this is the situation we face. I think the question for all of us watching this presidency is: are we going to let him do that and should we? Does he have the space to figure out what kind of president he wants to be? To figure out what his ideology actually is? Or are we going to box him in and say you said one thing and now you’re saying another and you have no idea how to be president? To some extent it is always in the interest of the country for a president to figure out the job and do it well. But I think there is a strong undercurrent of feelings among the media that were he to be successful in the job that it would validate a whole host of ideas and values that we find repugnant, one of which is you don’t have to be qualified to come in and be a successful president. We do and should wrestle with this question of how invested are we in his success.
Ron Suskind: We have a pretty evenly divided country with mostly tired prescriptions for what might be done from both the left and the right. Here we have a man who pretty much arrives without principles that are in any way discernible. And without a functioning party, after his battle with the Freedom caucus, does this liberate Trump in a variety of ways to say, “teach me, what’s the deal with health care?” That might provide avenues for him to do some sort of improvisations, maverick style, that get off the traditional left-right grid.
Heather Cox Richardson: I agree that we are in a moment of extraordinary re-working of American politics. Both parties are in tatters. There is a grassroots movement out there trying to rebuild things and it would be absolutely wonderful if the president jumped on board and helped to redefine the country. I’m rooting for the president. But right now the pressure that I see is not coming from the president. We are seeing a level of popular protest that is absolutely unprecedented in American history. You have a grassroots movement that is pressing American democracy more effectively than anything we have seen in generations.
Ron Suskind: When was the last time you had a president arrive to the office and summon this sort of vigorous public protest?
Heather Cox Richardson: It’s the presidency that everyone comes to first, the presidency of Benjamin Harrison! It was a very similar situation. Harrison came to office after the popular Democratic President Grover Cleveland. Harrison said he would make some reforms, including to the tariff. He did not win the popular vote and was put in with the electoral college. He and his men kept saying that they knew how to make America work again, how to bring the economy back. He puts his son in an important position. He refuses to note the protests and the fact that people were starving in the West. Those protests become the Alliance Movement of 1890 and that is where we get the populist movement and the progressive movement comes out of that.
Ron Suskind: What do we expect in the next three and a half years? I swing around between impeachment, World War Three, the Kardashian White House, a weird maverick government with a lot of democrats because he is surrounded by democrats, and things that are beyond imponderable.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.