Will the Trump Presidency Need an Asterisk?

Why you should care

Because (rigged) elections have consequences.

You have to look closely to see it. But it’s there. A five-pronged star cut right into the cowhide of one of the most significant baseballs in history. This is slugger Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Historic and record breaking, but forever tarnished by allegations of steroids use by Bonds, and now branded with perhaps the most powerful typographical character we have: the asterisk.

When a baseball player or other professional athlete is tied to performance-enhancing drugs, most sports fans agree that an asterisk (*) should be placed next to any noteworthy accomplishments or records they hold. Sometimes, as with the retraction of steroid-aided Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic gold medal, more drastic remedial measures are required.

An asterisk is a good place to start.

But what do we do if an American president is found to have enhanced his electoral performance through improper means? There are no do-overs or special presidential elections authorized by the U.S. Constitution, no retractions. And as the evidence continues to mount that Russia intervened to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election (even if the ballots themselves were not tampered with), it’s time to start thinking about how we will denote for posterity the special circumstances underlying this presidency. If indeed the 2016 election is found to have been tainted, I propose we take a number of remedial measures to recognize this unprecedented fact — including placing the all-mighty asterisk next to the 45th president in the history books.

One of the many amusing things about the Richard Nixon Presidential Library trolling Donald Trump on Twitter for firing FBI Director James Comey was the Ghost-of-Christmas-Future aspect of it.

Another fun fact: In the years after Nixon’s presidency ended in scandal and disgrace, it looked like his presidential library might never get built. The faculty council at Duke University, where Nixon had attended law school (and instigated another break-in), rejected a proposal to house it there in 1981; when it did finally open, in Nixon’s hometown of Yorba Linda, California, in 1990, the Watergate exhibit portrayed the event as a “coup” executed by a dishonest media.

Still, despite his meddling in the 1972 election, and the subsequent cover-up, there’s no question Nixon would have won. What do we do when there are serious questions as to a president’s electoral legitimacy? An asterisk is a good place to start to ensure we never forget what transpired in the 2016 election, just as baseball fans will never forget the muddied records of the Steroid Era. But perhaps we should do more: namely, no official portrait, no presidential library, no animatronic figure in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.

Other political observers are not so sure. History will indeed judge the Trump administration, says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, but we will never be able to disentangle Russia from the many other factors, from Comey to Anthony Weiner, that contributed to the 2016 outcome. Presidential libraries are also too important a resource to historians to be withheld, says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney, who proposes a more appropriate remedy. “Trump loves to see his name on things,” he argues. “The ultimate slap would be not to name anything after him. No Trump highways, no Trump office buildings, no Trump dams.”

Fortunately, when the Nixon library entered the official presidential library system in 2007, its efforts at revisionist history came to an end, and it is now a more fitting monument to a flawed presidency. I suspect when it comes to remembering the 45th president, we will have to endure a similar struggle to determine how best to remember his legacy. “We should not honor Trump,” Pitney says. “But we should remember him, as a sad, bizarre chapter of American history.” 

Let’s just hope that chapter has an asterisk by it — and does not appear in textbooks at your local Donald J. Trump Middle School.

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