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Have We Ever Had a President Like Donald Trump?

Yes, we have—but you have to go back to the nineteenth century.

Rhona Wise/Getty Images

He is the presidential candidate with no filter, a man compelled to reveal all the thoughts that pop into his head—no matter how violent or crude—including his sexual fantasies about his own daughter. While many have accused Donald Trump of having an abnormally large ego, the opposite is true: His ego happens to be so small that it is barely able to control any of the rumblings of his own id. Whenever Trump feels slighted, he finds it necessary to start a holy war—with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, or even Pope Francis himself. Simply put, he does not bond with the rest of humankind. He may know everyone who is anyone, but he has few real friends. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough recently told The New York Times, “I have known this guy for a decade and have never once had lunch with him alone?” Trump trusts hardly anyone besides his third wife, his children, and his lackeys. He’s a suspicious loner who has convinced himself that he has little need for advisers. As he said earlier this month, before finally naming a handful of unfamiliar, press-averse foreign policy advisers, “I’m speaking with myself.”

Have Americans ever placed anyone with the curious characterological make-up of the Donald in the White House before? To find comparable presidents, we have to go back to the nineteenth century: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler. While these four nineteenth-century presidents were all more qualified than Trump to set foot in the White House—each had previously served in a high-elective office—they did share his reckless temperament. This history lesson should make Americans wary of Trump, as three of the four were doomed to unsuccessful one-term presidencies. 

Though John Adams was an intellectual powerhouse, his fiery disposition caused him problems throughout his political career. As biographer John Ferling has noted, “Adams’s great failing seemed to be his volcanic temper, which could explode with such suddenness and so little provocation that some of his colleagues feared that passion occasionally eclipsed reason.” At the Continental Congress, fellow delegates liked to pick Adams’s brain, but they saw him as too unstable to be a leader. Thus, the admission of Adams’s character in the musical 1776 that he was too “obnoxious and disliked” to draft the Declaration of Independence hews closely to reality. As president, Adams exhibited a Trump-like contempt for his cabinet, most of whom disagreed strongly with his policies. And like Trump, the only advisor Adams ever took seriously was a member of his own family: his wife, Abigail. In early 1800, Secretary of War James McHenry resigned in the wake of a vicious tirade by the president. In writing of the incident to a family member, McHenry described Adams as “totally insane.” Adams also had little tolerance for dissenters in the media. On the ninth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which punished journalists who made what were deemed “false, scandalous and malicious” statements against government officials with both hefty fines and prison sentences. While Adams tried to pass off this draconian measure as the handiwork of his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary considered it an act of tyranny; Hamilton also argued that an “ungovernable temper” made Adams unfit to govern. American voters apparently agreed: Adams lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson by 23 points.

Adams’s eldest son, John Quincy, had an even harder time getting along with his fellow man. As our sixth president wrote in his diary, “my political adversaries [call me] a gloomy misanthropist; and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage.” Biographer Paul Nagel, describes him as “notorious for his harshness, tactlessness and even rudeness.” Like Trump, who was once a Democrat, Adams had no use for party loyalty. His only allegiance was to himself. As a young Federalist senator from Massachusetts, he repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans; the Federalist party honchos were greatly relieved when he resigned his seat in 1808. This undiplomatic man turned out to be a good diplomat, but his success had more to do with his towering intellect than his people skills. As the chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, he managed to get the Brits to agree to accept the status quo ante bellum (though he was unable to maintain cordial relations with fellow U.S. delegates such as Albert Gallatin, the treasury secretary under Jefferson). And as James Monroe’s two-term secretary of state, he authored the Monroe Doctrine. But his presidency was a disaster. As Gallatin observed, the temperamental Adams lacked “that most essential quality—a sound and correct judgment.” On the domestic front, he launched a host of ambitious proposals—including a national university and a vast network of roads and canals—but he refused to curry favor to build support for them. Pennsylvanian Congressman Samuel Ingram noted in the last year of Adams’s administration, “[The president] has always been hostile to the government and particularly to its great bulwark—the right of suffrage.” In his bid for re-election in 1828, Adams was trounced by Andrew Jackson, who earned more than twice as many electoral votes. 

Just as a second-grade Donald Trump punched his music teacher, the ten-year-old John Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster, whom he left for dead. And like Trump, our tenth president was not only combative, but lusty; he, too, liked to fling around sexually explicit language. In his first speech on the floor of the House, the 26-year-old Virginia congressman compared popularity to “a coquette—the more you woo her, the more she is apt to elude your embrace.” In 1844, a couple of years after the death of his first wife, Tyler, then in his final year in the White House, married a raven-haired beauty with an hourglass figure, Julia Gardiner, who was 30 years his junior. For the rest of his life, Tyler would brag about his sexual prowess, noting, for example, after the birth of their fifth child, that at least his name would not “become extinct.” Within a few months of assuming the presidency after the sudden death of William Henry Harrison in April 1841, the headstrong former vice president who demanded absolute allegiance from his political allies alienated just about everyone in Washington. That September, after he twice vetoed banking legislation that he had promised to sign, five of his six cabinet members tendered their resignations. Suddenly, the former Whig was, as the influential Senator Henry Clay put it, “a president without a party.” Hardly anyone came to Tyler’s defense. That fall, future president Millard Fillmore, then a Whig Congressman from upstate New York, noted, “I have heard of but two Tyler men in this city [Buffalo]…and both of these are applicants for jobs.” In 1844, Tyler had to create his own party to mount a re-election bid, but when he found few takers, he was forced to drop out of the race.

Andrew Jackson, who served for two terms in between John Quincy Adams and Tyler, was the one fiery president who ranks high in polls taken by historians. Like Trump and Tyler, the young Jackson liked to punch people out, and rage attacks would remain a constant throughout his life. As one biographer put it, “He could hate with a Biblical fury and would resort to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred and keep it bright and strong and ferocious.” Of his brief career as a senator from Tennessee in the late 1790s, Thomas Jefferson observed, “He could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.” But over time, Jackson gained more self-control and most historians insist that what enabled Jackson to thrive as the country’s leader was his ability to harness his anger to good effect. Jackson’s strong-armed tactics led to his major accomplishments as president. When southerners tried to get around the “Tariff of Abominations” by invoking their right to nullify federal laws, Jackson put his foot down, declaring, “Disunion by armed force is treason,” and threatened punitive measures. He also pushed through legislation that gave him the power to use the military to collect import duties. “Again and again at crucial moments of his public life,” concluded biographer HW Brands, “Jackson carried the day because opponents were terrified of his temper.” Jackson was constantly threatening to let his wrath loose on his opponents—and because of his record of getting carried away in duels and brawls, everyone was forced to listen to him carefully.

Trump has no such equivalent in more recent American history. Even our most labile twentieth-century presidents had enough sense to keep their rage attacks private. According to Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff, when President Dwight Eisenhower (aka “the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang”) told aides that his mother had taught him how to control his emotions, they would respond sotto voce, “And she didn’t do a very good job.” But Ike was self-aware enough to hire his son, John, as his Assistant Staff Secretary in his second term. In John’s presence, Ike would give himself permission to lose it, figuring that he would thus be able to keep himself in check the rest of the time—a strategy that was largely successful. In 1965, in discussing the situation in Cyprus, Lyndon Johnson did tell the Greek ambassador to the US to “f…your constitution.” But for the most part, LBJ tended to confine his potty-mouthed rages to his private discussions with White House insiders such as those he held from his perch on the potty. Likewise, Richard Nixon could not stop going off on paranoid rants against “disloyal” Jews and other political enemies, but most Americans did not find out about this dark side until the release of his Oval Office tapes. Trump hasn’t even secured the Republican nomination, and already he makes both LBJ and Nixon seem prudish.