President Donald Trump no doubt enjoys the constant media attention, and maybe even uses it as sustenance. But it would be also no exaggeration to say that he’d like to be etched into our memories forever.
And this is where his existing strategy may fail him. Consistent public outrage, declarations about his superior ability to grab them by their pussies, revelations about previous affairs with porn stars, getting impeached, racism, etc—these are all very nice and good things for hijacking media’s attention and keeping everyone focused on him. Yet, all of that will probably be not enough to keep Trump carved into collective memory long after he leaves the office.
Studies show that most presidents are forgotten sooner than they would hope: somewhere around 50 to 100 years after they leave the office. Even more unfortunately for the great Donald Trump, psychological research suggests that merely having a quirky personality is usually not enough by itself to get carved into the nation’s collective memory. “If Trump is remembered in 75 years, it will probably be because of what happens during his term of office, not his personality,” says Henry L. Roediger, III, a co-author of paper “Remembering the Presidents,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2019.
Thankfully, psychological research shows there are a few practical things Trump can do to be remembered longer and better than others. First, and the most reliable way is to start a major war. According to Roediger, “Presidents during cataclysmic events such as wars are likely to be better remembered than those who governed in times of peace”.
Iran here presents a wonderful opportunity for President Trump to be remembered much longer and better than other presidents. Of course, merely bombing Iran with light ammunitions would not be enough—all American presidents in modern history carried out some minor bombings of foreign nations. It has to be more impressive than that—it has to be a bigly war.
Another alternative is to be assassinated. That’s one reason why JFK is still remembered widely, even though he was the president for less than three years, but Lyndon Johnson is not remembered as widely even though he served much longer and achieved more. Being assassinated also didn’t hurt Lincoln’s memorability.
Yet, the research suggests that being assassinated is not as reliable way to be remembered as governing during a major war. For example, being assassinated didn’t help James Garfield or William McKinley. (No doubt Trump’s assassination would be much bigger and better than any presidential assassination ever before in history, but that’s probably still no guarantee.)
Let’s also keep in mind the simple fact that the great Donald Trump probably likes assassinations only insofar as they are carried towards his enemies or someone who is not him. So starting a major war and killing countless people seems to be the best way for a great man like Donald Trump to achieve symbolic immortality.
K. Andrew DeSoto and Henry L. Roediger, III. “Remembering the Presidents.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 28, Issue 2 (2019). DOI: 10.1177/0963721418815685.
Image copyright: Patrick Kelley, Department of Defense.