Is Donald Trump the New Thomas Jefferson?
Editor’s note: Lots of people are writing about Donald Trump these days, but we happen to think the definitive piece was written on these pages in 2011, by our very own Mr. C. Take a look again and see if you agree.
I hate to be the one to point this out, but if the Founding Fathers were around today, Donald Trump would be one of them. And not necessarily because he was invited. He’d just bully his way in.
The Founding Fathers intended for the country to be run by men like them—people of accomplishment and natural leadership, with plenty of money and a vested interest in continued prosperity and low taxes. I’m sure they would be appalled by what that has morphed into—a political class of mediocre nonentities who make a career of getting elected to this and then to that, with no excitement, no drive, no new ideas—like most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. True, they are easy to control through financial contributions, but it certainly makes you long for a new Thomas Jefferson.
And that’s where Trump comes in.
As a student of history, I have taken it upon myself to examine the similarities between the two men, Trump and Jefferson. And they’re amazing. Let’s take a look at the record.
Both were inveterate womanizers. Jefferson was particularly notorious in this regard, what with wife Martha, mistress Sally Hemings (who was his wife’s half- sister), plus that French countess when he lived in Paris, plus the banker’s wife in Charlottesville. Trump follows in this tradition, though he often marries his girlfriends—his clever first wife, Ivana; his second, the talented Marla; and his current one, the cat-eyed Melania from Slovenia. Oddly enough, even though they both appreciate the female sex, there seems to be an underlying contempt for women. Jefferson famously declared that “Our good ladies should be contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate.” Trump agreed in principle, although he phrases it differently. He said he married his second wife because she was “the best piece of ass I ever had.”
Both were popular writers. Their specialty was the philosophical essay. Jefferson’s essays have certainly proven to have “legs”—the Declaration of Independence jumps to mind—but Trump is no slouch in this department. He has written 10 or so books offering advice for becoming successful and making money. I’ve read many of them and they are right on target. “Hire the right people,” “think like a champion,” “keep an open mind,” “sign the checks yourself.” If only the Declaration of Independence had more stuff like this.
Both had enormous gaps in their way of thinking. Yes, every politician has his blind spots—issues that he just doesn’t see clearly, positions that make him appear smaller and stupider than he actually is. Jefferson believed the black race was intellectually inferior and that all the Indians should be expelled to the wilderness. Trump believes in direct sales of weight-loss products and is promoting something called Donald Trump the Fragrance. And many people feel his beauty pageants are a little unseemly for a U.S. president, particularly when he has to come out and defend the contestants against charges of being tramps. (Although I have a feeling that Jefferson may have been more in sync with the beauty pageants than we think.)
They both were always in debt. Jefferson died owing $100,000, a tremendous sum in those days. And Trump has gone bankrupt three times in the past 20 years. Even his gambling casino went bankrupt, quite an accomplishment in the gaming world.
Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Trump founded Trump University, or he did until the government told him he had to change the name because it wasn’t really a university. It was an online motivational course, with occasional seminars that cost up to $35,000.
Both men were the phrase makers of their day. Let’s not forget that Jefferson dreamed up “All men are created equal” and “the pursuit of happiness.” But Trump is close behind, with “You’re fired” and “Rosie’s a loser.”
Both are noted for their hair. It is exactly the same color, a sort of wispy reddish blond. Trump’s hairstyle has been the source of endless speculation, with the feeling that it just can’t be real. Hair doesn’t grow that way. How does he comb it? Jefferson had the opposite problem. His hair was a mess. It was tidied up for portraits, of course, but when he first got to Paris for his job of American ambassador he was known as “le pissenlit” (“the dandelion”).
Both men were, at their core, builders. That’s what they were proudest of, and that’s what they did best. Jefferson, of course, created the famous University of Virginia and his own home, Monticello. Trump created the various Trump towers, condos, pavilions, hotels and office buildings that dot the American landscape. And if you examine, say, Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and compare it with Monticello, you’ll find some uncomfortable similarities. Both are “statement” buildings, meant to show off and impress. And both are indeed impressive—not original, certainly, but impressive.
Then you go inside and things become tiny and cramped. Monticello’s interior is all split up and weirdly arranged, full of gimmicky technology like dumbwaiters, servant’s bells, candle enhancers and that silly bed that divides the master, the one you can’t walk around. Trump Tower also disappoints. That lobby falling off into a pit of marble is a little disconcerting, and the marble itself—pink and red—is way too overwrought. Trump is very proud of it, and boasts that he went to Italy himself to pick it out. I don’t doubt it for a second.
Both crave the spotlight. Trump . . . well, the fact that he’s running for president is its own example. And Jefferson not only ran for president, he won. Even during his retirement he couldn’t stop wanting to be in charge of everything. His door was always open, and he was so involved in the construction of the University of Virginia that the construction foreman had to tell him to stop hovering around, as he was “making the slaves nervous.”
Both chimed in on the birther issue. Jefferson was the one who dreamt it up, in fact. He came up with the phrase “natural born,” an English common law term meaning you belong to the place you are born—like Hawaii.
Thomas Jefferson was also famous for saying that in the United States, any man could become President, even the lowest. And just think—now it might actually happen.