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How Much Does Trump Matter?

With a narcissistic personality and a short attention span, and lacking experience in world affairs, Donald Trump tends to project slogans rather than strategy in foreign policy. But just as US global primacy never depended on the personality of its president, so America's ability to retain its geopolitical role may not depend on Trump's.

CAMBRIDGE – The United States has never had a president like Donald Trump. With a narcissistic personality and a short attention span, and lacking experience in world affairs, he tends to project slogans rather than strategy in foreign policy. Some presidents, like Richard Nixon, had similar personal insecurities and social biases, but Nixon had a strategic view of foreign policy. Others, such as Lyndon Johnson, were highly egotistical, but also had great political skill in working with Congress and other leaders.

Will future historians look back at Trump’s presidency as a temporary aberration or a major turning point in America’s role in the world? Journalists tend to focus too heavily on leaders’ personalities, because it makes good copy. In contrast, social scientists tend to offer broad structural theories about economic growth and geographic location that make history seem inevitable.

I once wrote a book that tried to test the importance of leaders by examining important turning points in the creation a century ago of the “American era” and speculating about what might have happened had the president’s most plausible contender been in his place instead. Would structural forces have brought about the same era of US global leadership under different presidents?

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