The Trauma of the Trump Years Is Being Rewritten

Americans rehabilitate ex-presidents all the time.

It was fascinating to see the rebranding of George W. Bush — the man who took us into the disastrous Iraq war and horribly bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina — into a charming amateur artist who played buddies with and passed candy to Michelle Obama.

And it didn’t just happen for him. The Monica Lewinsky scandal faded in our consideration of Bill Clinton. Barack Obama’s reliance on drone strikes and his moniker “deporter in chief” rarely receive mention now.

This is because our political memories aren’t fixed, but are constantly being adjusted. Politicians’ negatives are often diminished and their positives inflated. As Gallup noted in 2013, “Americans tend to be more charitable in their evaluations of past presidents than they are when the presidents are in office.”

Without a doubt, Donald Trump benefits from this phenomenon. The difference is that other presidents’ shortcomings pale in comparison to his and his benefit isn’t passive: He’s seeking the office again and, as part of that, working to rewrite the history of his presidency. His desperate attempts, first to cling to power, then to regain it, include denying the 2020 election results and embracing the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection that his denials helped fuel.

His revisionism has worked remarkably well, particularly among Republicans. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in December found that Republicans “are now less likely to believe that Jan. 6 participants were ‘mostly violent,’ less likely to believe Trump bears responsibility for the attack and are slightlyless likely to view Joe Biden’s election as legitimate” than they were in 2021.

This is one of the truly remarkable aspects of the current presidential cycle: the degree to which our collective memory of Trump’s litany of transgressions have become less of a political problem for him than might otherwise be expected. Even the multiple legal charges he now faces are almost all about things that happened years ago and, to many citizens, involve things that the country should put in the rearview mirror.

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