The Benefits of Impeachment: Some Lessons from Andrew Johnson

Johnson

Historian Gregory Downs thinks that Trump should be impeached even if the Senate keeps him office. There is a good chance that the time between the impeachment in the House and the trial in the Senate might “curtail Trump’s worst behaviors” and neutralize him politically.

Downs uses the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to make his point.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Johnson’s adept attorneys succeeded in protecting his tenure in office in two ways. First, they sought to delay the Senate trial. Then, they used that delay to persuade Johnson to keep his hands off Reconstruction. As the trial hung over him and then dragged on through April and May, a chastened Johnson pledged to appoint a moderate secretary of war, stop shuffling generals in the Southern states, and let the Army and African American Republicans complete their work in the South. By April, a half-dozen former Confederate states had ratified their new constitutions and asked Congress for readmission. Only then, in mid-May, did the Senate finally vote on Johnson’s fate.

Even with his acquiescence to Reconstruction, Johnson survived only by a single vote in that Senate tally. Although the 14th Amendment was not ratified until July 1868, the impeachment trial that put Johnson’s fate into question allowed freedpeople, white Southern Republicans and the Army to freely engage in the crucial work of making what some scholars call a “Second Constitution,” a refashioning of the federal government’s role in protecting individual rights through the 14th Amendment’s pledges of equal protection and due process. Most significantly, those reconstructed states provided the votes to ratify the proposed amendment, which has subsequently shaped Supreme Court decisions on desegregation, voting rights, same-sex marriage, freedom of speech and assembly, and many other basic rights we enjoy today.

Impeachment also did play a role in Johnson leaving office by weakening him politically. In 1866, Johnson had explored the creation of a new party that combined Democrats and conservative Republicans. When that collapsed, he spent part of 1867 trying to engineer nomination by the Democratic Party, his old home. But the trial helped make him untouchable, and the Democrats turned to a different candidate, New York’s Horatio Seymour, leaving Johnson off the ballot.

Analogies are never perfect. We are not now in a period of Reconstruction, or a moment when Congress and the president are primarily at war over such a specific set of laws. Nonetheless, as Johnson did, Trump threatens the nation’s stability by attacking our faith in elections and the rule of law, as well as our global alliances. His tweets and incendiary rhetoric are dangerous, and although no one can say how he would respond to a looming trial, one possibility is that he, like Johnson, might tone down his behavior to avoid removal. And this possibility makes it worth taking the political risk posed by impeachment.

Trying to judge the worthiness of impeachment solely by whether it ends in conviction and removal would be a mistake. If the presence of a trial disciplines Trump to stop encouraging foreign interference in U.S. elections and to start curtailing his destabilizing rhetoric, impeachment will have been worth it, whether it ends in conviction or acquittal, in 2020 reelection or defeat. While many will call for a speedy impeachment trial if the House votes to impeach, senators might look to the Johnson case to ask whether a deliberate process will sustain pressure on the White House to behave more responsibly, and give the president the opportunity to save — or destroy — his tenure in office.

Read the rest here.

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

Bacon's

We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

Worse Than Watergate?

Watergate

Conservative politicians and pundits believe that the FBI is secretly working to undermine the Donald Trump’s presidency.  This, of course, is why Trump released the Nunes memo yesterday.  Here is Iowa Congressman Steve King:

“This is earth-shaking and it does go deeper than Watergate.”

We have heard this before.  In fact, Politico has managed to dig up forty-six scandals that were also “worse than Watergate.”  They include Chappaquiddick, Iran-Contra, a lot of stuff from the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama birther controversy.

Taylor Gee and Zack Stanton of Politico write:

Political Comparison 101 includes a few basics everybody knows. Want to accuse the current administration of budding authoritarianism? Allude to Nazi Germany. Imply your opponent is leading a witch hunt? Invoke Senator Joe McCarthy.

Recently, one cliché comparison has risen above the rest: “worse than Watergate.”

For decades, the legacy of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., has formed a sort of yardstick against which to measure the scandals of the day—hence the lazy tendency to abbreviate every controversy with a moniker ending in “-gate” (see: Bridgegate, Gamergate, Deflategate, Celebgate, and so on).

But over the past year in particular, politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle have grown particularly fond of describing their opponents’ actions as “worse than Watergate”—especially in the context of the Russia investigation. In January alone, conservatives like Sean Hannity, GOP Rep. Steve King and radio show host Howie Carr have accused Democrats or the FBI of corruption that is “bigger” or “worse” or “more serious” than Watergate. Meanwhile, critics of President Donald Trump—ranging from former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean (who literally wrote a book titled “Worse Than Watergate”) to former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum to Obama White House ethics czar Norm Eisen—allege wrongdoing on the part of the president and his aides that rivals only Tricky Dick in its flagrant disregard of the rule of law.

We compiled a list of almost every “worse than Watergate” comparison we could find, from Barry Goldwater’s description of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick scandal to the Trump-Russia musings of journalist Carl Bernstein, who helped break the original Watergate story. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to see that the overused phrase does anyone any good—other than the Watergate Hotel’s publicity team, of course. As a matter of style, perhaps the only thing worse than Watergate is the phrase “worse than Watergate.”

Read the rest here.

 

 

Trump Echoed His Favorite President Last Night

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Andrew Jackson was a great defender of American democracy.  He was a president elected by the “common man.” He believed that the people gave him his mandate to rule.  “The people,” of course, were white men.  They deserved his loyalty and compassion.  They deserved Jackson’s protection.  Jackson promised to protect their access to the American dream.

One of Jackson’s most important democratic “reforms” was the The Indian Removal Act (1830).  This act gave the federal government authority to move southeastern native America groups (Choctow, Cherokee, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, among others) to a designated Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma.  Tens of thousands of native Americans were sent to Indian territory on the “Trail of Tears.”

As a champion of democracy, it was essential that Jackson got the Indians out of the way so he could open-up native American lands for the “common men” who voted for him.  Let’s remember what Jackson’s idea of democracy was all about.  Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

I thought about Jackson as I listened to Trump’s first State of the Union Address last night.  I am not sure if Jackson ever used the phrase “American first,” but as a populist he certainly embraced the idea.  Indian removal was his attempt to put American citizens “first.”  White men needed this land and Jackson was going to make sure he prioritized their needs.

Last night Trump said:

The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things. I want our poor to have their chance to rise.

So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.

White “Americans are dreamers too.” We need to protect them from the Indians immigrants who are threatening them.

As I argue briefly in Chapter Five of my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the idea of “America first” has always been tied to racial division.

More on Historical Analogies

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From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for POTUS historians began making analogies.  Then, after nearly all of the analogies were exhausted, they began interrogating the very idea of historical analogies.  Zachary Jonathan Jacobson‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education fits into the latter category.

Here is a taste of his piece, “Trump is the New ______”:

But analogies persist — and they can prove potent. Drawn from a shared past, they can serve as rhetorical weapons: Don’t favor a war? It’s the next Vietnam! Abhor your compatriots’ military forbearance? Brand their hesitation a Munich moment! Don’t like the president? He’s a Tricky Dick. This matchy-matchy juvenilia may score quick points and spawn memes, but flimsy historical analogy can blind the historian from the grail he truly seeks. As the Viscount James Bryce, the one-time British ambassador to the United States, tut-tutted in his classic 1888 tract The American Commonwealth,”the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.”

What Temkin and other critics really target is not so much historical analogy as an epidemic of bad ones. Temkin winces at the “rapid-fire, superficial” takes in the mass media. Once in front of the camera, leaning back pensively in their studio chairs, historian-heavyweights trade in their sweeping, exhaustive, and often beautiful scholarship for trivia-minded TV punditry. They hawk banality. Quizzed by anchors, boxed into panels, these academics have become cable contestants in a game of History-wood Squares.

“Sure, there are similarities,” Temkin wrote of Trump and Long. Like Trump, the Kingfish “ran in the name of the ‘people,’ attacked the establishment.” Both their opponents branded them “demagogues” and “fascists.” But Temkin ably rehashes their fundamental dissimilarities: “Long was self-made, a genuine populist who took on powerful interests, and as governor was responsible for building roads, bridges, and hospitals and helping the poor.” Trump may dream out loud of massive infrastructure projects, but he has yet to exhibit any of the skill and ingenuity to follow through with them.

And yet just because a historical analogy is flawed or even misleading does not make the exercise in historical comparison, in Temkin’s word, “meaningless.” For we compare to discover similarities, and we compare to dredge up differences. By studying the political minutiae, social and economic structures, and cultural milieu that made Long’s projects work, we may be able to tease out the differences for what today makes Trump falter. From another angle, one possibly fruitful question from the Trump-Long analogy: However different, why did these two anti-elitist populists both become ensnared in allegations of profligate corruption?

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump

Ashbrook

Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

What Should Historians Be Doing in the “Age of Trump?”

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Moshik Temkin, a historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is not a big fan of historical analogies.  These analogies are never perfect and they often say more about the politics of the historian making them than they do about his or her expertise in historical thinking.

So what should historians be doing in the so-called age of Trump?  Temkin attempts an answer to this question in yesterday’s New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Ultimately, the most important thing historians can do is to leave the analogies to the pundits, and instead provide a critical, uncomfortable account of how we arrived at our seemingly incomprehensible current moment (many do just that, though not in the media spotlight).

This isn’t a radical idea; in fact, it’s something that the best politically engaged historians have always done.

In 1955, the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward published “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” a masterfully concise history of the origins of post-Civil War segregation. He did not seek analogies from the past, but instead demonstrated that, contrary to the perception of many Southerners, Jim Crow laws were not a tradition from time immemorial but a more recent product of the heightened racism of the late 19th century.

By showing social and political change over time — really the meat and potatoes of the historian’s craft — the book made clear that progress was possible. Woodward did not speak in sound bites or pundit-friendly analogies. And yet his work had an enormous impact on postwar racial politics: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “Strange Career” as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

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At The New Republic, Graham Vyse asks this question to several historians and gets several different answers.  This, of course, should be expected.  Historical analogies are always problematic.

Rick Perlstein, for example, describes “the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.”

Kevin Mattson says “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”  He says “quite honestly, I don’t understand where [Perlstein’s] coming from.  I’m kind of at a loss.”

Luke Nichter says: “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press…At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”

And here’s CNN’s own Tim Naftali: “Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” but he does add “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Read the entire piece here.  It is a great conversation about the role of the historian in public life and the relationship between the past and the present.  Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle, but I resonate the most with Perlstein. Go read Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  🙂

Johnson, Not Jackson

Johnson

If you want to draw a historical analogy between Donald Trump and a previous POTUS, historian and writer Joshua Zeitz thinks that Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson, “provides the best model for Trump’s collapsing presidency.”  Johnson, of course, was the first president to be impeached by Congress.

Here is a taste of Zeitz’s piece at Politico, “When Congress Almost Ousted a Failing President.”

It was an ugly scene that left reporters slack-jawed. The president of the United States—a man notoriously short of temper and stubborn in his disregard for polite convention—had addressed a howling throng of political supporters outside the White House. Rambling and incoherent, he managed to refer to himself over 200 times over the course of an otherwise wild, angry screed. He incited the crowd to violence against his political enemies, including prominent member of the House of Representatives. A moderate news outlet critically observed that he was “the first of our Presidents who has descended to the stump, and spoken to the people as if they were a mob.”

Though Donald J. Trump has attempted to situate his presidency in the tradition of Jacksonian populism, it is another Andrew—Andrew Johnson, the man who staged that lowly performance—who provides the more apt comparison. A full-throated white supremacist and rabble-rousing populist, Johnson—who came to power in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—offended friends and foes alike with his unrestrained rhetoric and rash exercise of executive authority. As president, he veered from one self-manufactured crisis to another. His political enemies suspected that he colluded closely with enemies of the state.

And Zeitz concludes:

But for Democrats, and some Republicans, who quietly hope for Trump’s impeachment and removal, the case of Johnson offers only cold comfort. In 1868, Congress established a high bar for presidential removal. It’s not enough to be obnoxious or racist, nor to incite violence and mismanage affairs of state, nor even to collude spiritually with enemies of the American government. Precedent establishes that to be removed from office, a president must manifestly violate the law, as was the case with Richard Nixon, whose far-reaching and well-documented efforts to obstruct justice, evade taxes and suborn criminal conspiracy would almost certainly have resulted in impeachment and conviction had he not resigned first.

We’re a long way from that. And Democrats opposed to Trump will have to do what Johnson’s opponents did: rely on the president to undermine his own credibility and capacity to govern, one crazy speech (or tweet), and one ill-considered action, at a time.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Historical Perspective on the Watergate-Comey Comparison

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Nixon’s resignation speech (Wikipedia)

Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Martin Keller wonder if current comparisons between Watergate and the firing of James Comey are just another way for liberals, progressives, and Democrats to score political points.

Here is a taste of their conversation at The Atlantic:

Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump’s action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.

Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.

This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0  vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.

And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators.

Let us accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see Trump elected (though given Hillary’s reset efforts, and the isolationist, small-American profile of her party, that preference needs more explaining). But how much solid, Watergate-like evidence is there that Russian hacking, etc., made much difference in the election? Or are we supposed to swallow whole the risible idea that the disgruntled working-class (and middle-class) Trump voters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were receptive to Putin’s blandishments? Even in the current out-of-control politics of our time, that is a stretch.

I’m quite ready to see what emerges with respect to Trump, his associates, and Putin. But to airily equate the still far-from-demonstrated fact of significant Russian influence in the election (compared, say, to Hillary’s massive missteps) with the incontrovertible facts of Watergate is something I’m not prepared to do.

There is another defect in any meaningful Watergate-Comey comparison. The departures of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were sought by Nixon and his aides alone. The Democrats have been baying for Comey’s scalp since the days of the election. To erupt in high dudgeon when Trump—quite legally, if questionable politically—fired him, is to bring political hypocrisy to a high level indeed. Do you think for a moment that if Hillary Clinton was president, Comey’s tenure could be counted in more than milliseconds? Would she have bounced him because he had been a political detriment? Of course.

Did Trump do it because of the Russian inquiry? Perhaps—though there was good reason for him to have had doubts about Comey from the beginning of his presidency. Did he do it with typically Trumpian ham-handedness? You bet. Can more come out about Trump and Putin, Russia and the election, than we know now? Possibly. Has it yet? Not to my knowledge. As historians, we should not rush to judgment until there is good and sufficient evidentiary reason to do so.

At present, I don’t think the action is a demonstration of authoritarianism—any more than former President Barack Obama’s playing fast and loose with the handling of illegal immigrants or the specifics of Obamacare was. That’s just the sort of things that presidents do.

Read the back and forth here.

Donald Trump Will Be Bringing a 1,400 Pound Block of Cheese to the White House Next Week

Trump Jackson

Just kidding. I think the kids call that “click bait.”

Everyone seems to writing about Andrew Jackson this week.  Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that Donald Trump visited his grave the other day? 🙂 (And by the way, click here to learn more about the cheese story).

Michael Gerson devoted his most recent column at The Washington Post to Trump’s fascination with the 7th POTUS.

Jamelle Bouie reflects on Jackson and Trump here.

Here is David S. Reynolds at CNN:

When President Donald Trump laid a wreath Wednesday at Andrew Jackson’s grave in Nashville, he paid homage to a president whose mantle as a populist hero he is trying to wear. Does he deserve the honor?

There are, to be sure, similarities between Jackson and Trump.

Trump succeeding Barack Obama resembles Jackson taking over from John Quincy Adams. In both cases, a populist president followed a cerebral one. Adams, like Obama, enjoyed reading books. Adams graduated second in his class at Harvard and read widely on all kinds of subjects, from science to history. He engaged in careful discussion of political issues, as does Obama.
 
Jackson, by contrast, had little time for books — so little, according to contemporary biographer James Parton, that the only book besides the Bible that Jackson read all the way through was “The Vicar of Wakefield,” a novel by Oliver Goldsmith. Trump, likewise, prefers bullet points to books and tweets to discussion.

They also shared a near-obsession with the media. A curator at the Hermitage, Jackson’s home, explained to Trump during his visit that Jackson subscribed to over a dozen newspapers and made notes on what he liked and what he disagreed with. One one editorial he found particularly irksome, Jackson drew a big black X, the curator said. “We know that feeling, we know that feeling,” Trump responded.

Jackson anticipated today’s anti-intellectualism, epitomized by Trump, who has — among other things — rejected the science behind climate change. His science denial was matched by Jackson, who, according to his private secretary Nicholas Trist, reportedly told a family member that he didn’t believe the Earth was round.

But, like Trump, Jackson spoke the language of everyday Americans, who went delirious in his presence. When Jackson was elected to a second term in 1832 by a tremendous margin, a politician of the time said, “My opinion is that he may be President for life if he chooses.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Betsy DeVos the New Ruby Bridges?

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Ruby Bridges, November 11, 1960.  That is one brave 6-year-old.

I am sure many of you are familiar with Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With.  The painting depicts Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old black child who desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.  The painting shows Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals amid attacks from white protesters.  It is an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement:

rockwell

Last week Glenn McCoy, a conservative political cartoonist, compared the plight of Ruby Bridges to the plight of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.  I am assuming that McCoy is comparing the Bridges episode to this:

Frankly, I think DeVos was treated poorly by these protesters.  But I don’t think the way she was treated merits McCoy’s comparison:

devos

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has been quite critical of McCoy’s historical comparison and the people who are defending it.  You can read his tweets here.

.  Here are a few of them:

The Pope Goes There

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That’s right. Francis played the Hitler card.

Here is a taste of an NBC news article about the Pope’s recent interview with a Spanish newspaper:

ROME — Pope Francis has warned against growing populism in Europe, saying such movements could result in the election leaders of like Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

“In times of crisis, we lack judgment, and that is a constant reference for me,” the pontiff said in an in-depth interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais. “The most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler.”

“Hitler didn’t steal the power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people,” the pope added.

Pope Francis’ warnings come as a wave of populism washes over Europe, and as voters angry with traditional political elites throw their weight behind nationalist, anti-immigrant leaders.

During the same interview, the pope said he was reserving judgement on President Donald Trump.

“I don’t like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion,” he said.

Read the rest here.

Do You Want Some Historical Context for the Trump Presidency?

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Twenty-one historians have weighed inhave weighed in at Politico.  The list includes Joanne Freeman, James Kloppenberg, James McPherson, Heather Richardson, Stephanie McCurry, Kevin Kruse, Julian Zelizer, Margaret O’Mara, Jack Rakove, and Michael Kazin.

Here is a taste:

Michael Kazin, author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent.

Donald Trump has no real predecessor. No previous occupant of the White House won the office by being a tough-talking celebrity who breathed contempt for nearly every member of the political class. However, several other presidents began their terms at a time when the nation was bitterly divided, with millions of Americans angry at one another for the choice they had made. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all faced such a crisis. Each of their administrations became a watershed in political history, with quite different consequences, of course. I don’t believe Trump’s election will, like Lincoln’s, hurl the nation into a civil war. I am far less sure that he will avoid ending up like Nixon, whose uncontrolled hatred of his opponents drove him from office.

Read the rest here.

More Trump Analogies

Who is Donald Trump most like?

Rick Shenkman of History News Network has asked a few historians at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association to weigh in:

What should we make of these historical analogies?  Here is what we have written about this approach to history and the election at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Historians on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

From the Archives: Our historical narcissism indicts us”

History Does Not Provide Easy Answers

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

The 2016 Presidential Election and Historical Comparisons

“Our historical narcissism indicts us”

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Rick Perlstein, the author of several excellent (and big) books on American conservatism since the 1950s, is skeptical about the way his readers have turned to his work for historical analogies in this election cycle.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Baffler:

History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.

And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.

There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.

Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.

Perlstein adds:

The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.

It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”

Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?

Great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of history, and historical analogies.  I may use this in my Intro to History course.

Thinking Historically About Donating Your Time and Money

MonizAmanda Moniz is the Associate Director of the National History Center and the author of From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism. (Some of you may recall that she recently visited The Author’s Corner to discuss this book).

Over at the blog of Oxford University Press, Amanda has published a fascinating post about how her study of the history of philanthropy influences her decisions about how to donate her time and money in the present.  It is a great model for the way historical thinking can inform these kind of everyday decisions and moves beyond some of the far-reaching historical analogies that are often used in public discourse.

Here is a taste:

I approach questions about humanitarianism both with my historian’s mindset and with contemporary concerns. For a time, the two ways of thinking led to intellectual – and moral – paralysis. I eventually realized that the question I had been asking is how can historical perspectives help with decision-making? In my role at the National History Center of the American Historical Association, I think about this question in relation to policy conversations. I believe that understanding the history behind today’s policy challenges can meaningfully inform public decision-making. It was when I sought to apply this belief to my own life that I had to think more carefully about what I meant.

A reason for my dilemma, I realized, was that I initially considered questions about contemporary philanthropy by making analogies to the past. In the late eighteenth century, doctors played leading roles in the spread of innovative charitable institutions around the Atlantic world thanks to their strong networks. Recognizing doctors’ role and the professional imperatives that shaped it is important for understanding eighteenth-century humanitarianism. Analogizing from it to ask how a novel charitable movement today had spread across the United States, however, proved unhelpful. The contexts are too different for the parallels to be meaningful.

Once I quit trying to draw analogies, I was able to reflect more holistically and found that my exploration of leading American and British philanthropists of the eighteenth century helped me think about where I wanted to make a contribution. The men I study acted both locally and globally. They founded and ran charities in their cities and collaborated with far-flung friends to advance medical charity, anti-poverty efforts, antislavery, prison reform, and other causes around the Atlantic and beyond. They were motivated by sincere concern for the well-being of humanity. In the years after the American Revolution, Americans and Britons also used their correspondence about beneficent projects to feel out their new relationship to one another. Transatlantic philanthropy helped them contribute to transnational conversations. Thinking about that dimension to my subjects’ activities helped me realize that I feel most equipped to participate in local conversations about poverty, gentrification, and inequality. As a result, I have chosen to focus my energies on local organizations.

Read the entire post here.

2016 Republicans and the Whig Party

HoltMichael Holt of the University of Virginia, the author of several books on antebellum American politics, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, is the latest historian to play the historical analogy game.  Over at Larry Sabato‘s blog at University of Virginia Center for Politics, Holt shows the limits of comparing the present Republican Party with the 19th-century Whig Party.

Here is a taste:

Far more parallel to the contemporary situation was the rise of notorious Know-Nothing Party, which in fact did far more to gut the Whig Party before 1856 than did Republicans’ exploitation of anti-southern hostility. Economic dislocation that destroyed blue-collar jobs, unemployment during a severe recession in 1854 and 1855, and the palpable growth of both the foreign-born population and the Catholic Church, which in precisely those years demanded that local governments divide local tax revenues between public and Catholic parochial schools, allowed Know-Nothings to exploit burgeoning religious and anti-immigrant prejudices. “How people do hate Catholics,” future Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary after watching Know-Nothings sweep Cincinnati’s fall elections in 1854, “and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show [that hatred] in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner” by voting Know-Nothing. But Know-Nothings allowed angry voters to vent more than religious and ethnic prejudices. They also allowed them to smite established Whig and Democratic leaders who had betrayed them by groveling so overtly for Catholic and immigrant support. A genuinely spontaneous, populist grassroots revolt of angry working- and lower middle-class dissidents, Know-Nothings initially pledged that they would never support any candidate who had ever held or previously sought public office. All professional politicians, they ranted, were the enemy. In their oft-repeated phrase, they exclusively sought candidates “fresh from the ranks of the people.” In its causes and expression, in sum, the Know-Nothing uprising of the 1850s comes as close to previewing today’s Trump phenomenon as one can imagine. Yet it took a different form than the Trump crusade, and that is the all-important difference between then and now.

Read the entire piece here.

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

Trump and Hoover

Some are comparing Trump to Hoover

As I wrote this weekend, everyone is making them these days.  Historians (including myself on numerous occasions) are going public with analogies.  They usually go something like this: “This presidential election is exactly like the election of (insert year).” And then there is this one: “Donald Trump is the second coming of (insert name of historical figure–Jackson, Hitler, and Wallace seem to be the most popular).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ian Beacock, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Stanford, reminds us that such analogies will never be perfect.

Here is a taste:

Many commentators appear to be searching for the Goldilocks explanation, the just-right historical comparison that makes sense of Trump’s position in American politics and forecasts his future. They won’t find it. While certain analogies are more persuasive or illuminating than others, none of them is ironclad. The 2016 election is sui generis.

Yet we should also consider whether so many past parallels are making it easier or more difficult for us to defend democracy. Do they help us identify and understand threats to the common weal? Or are they leading us astray? When are historical analogies justified, and what are they good for?

Appeals to history are wickedly hard to resist. For one thing, they’re almost always good politics. The most effective historical analogies condemn and canonize all at once, turning policy debates into morality plays and draping candidates with ersatz seriousness. (This is why Republicans have been so keen to frame President Obama as our generation’s Neville Chamberlain; it allows them to play Winston Churchill.) Historical comparisons also serve a more essential function by allowing human beings to safely encounter and organize a world in flux. Experience and previous categories help us evaluate new threats and opportunities while protecting us from information overload. History appears to tame epistemological chaos.

We know, of course, that historical parallels are crude and imperfect tools for making sense of the present. We make false comparisons on the basis of distorted information or neglected facts, warping the past (and present) to our particular ends. Or we forget that history, even if it rhymes, never does repeat itself. After all, individual decisions matter. And any particular compound of causes will ever exist only once, not least of all because our choices and alternatives are influenced by historical memory itself: our sense of what’s possible, the lessons we think we’ve learned.

The greatest civic danger, however, is complacency. Peddling certainty and solace, many historical analogies make beguiling but dangerous promises about what will happen next. When we compare Trump to George Wallace or Henry Ford, similar men who never became president, we feel worse about the Donald’s chances and better about ourselves. But historical analogies offer only the illusion of sense. And as they move things strange and shocking back to familiar terrain, as they reassure us that the past explains the present, many historical comparisons invite us to disengage. We know the script. We know how it ends. Instead of sparking our political imagination, the past can sometimes short-circuit it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  (Of course everything that I post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is worth your time!).

As I read Beacock’s piece, I thought about Jay Green’s excellent essay “Public Reasoning by Historical Analogy in our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (U of Notre Press, 2010).  Green writes:

It’s not surprising that historical analogies are attractive, because they provide us with tools to Confessingunderstanding, anticipate, and control the shape of the present and the course of the future.  As we have seen, they are natural, necessary, even inevitable elements in our personal and social lives.  But these same otherwise helpful tools regularly warp, obfuscate, and undermine honest examinations of history, doing severe damage to the integrity of the past.  Visions of the present and future that we desperately want to believe too often urge us to remember the past quite selectively, and to use it narrowly to the strategic advantage of our own party, cause, and a priori convictions.  When this happens, appeals to historical analogy ironically impoverish public discourse by creating conceptual barriers between genuine historical awareness and moral inquiry about present realities.  So we are left with the difficult challenge of handling the powerful instrument of historical analogy in ways that both promote a genuines understanding of the past and shed needed light on the present, while resisting the urge to turn them into dangerous forms of propaganda.

Is Trump the New Andrew Jackson?

Trump Jackson

Yesterday Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” argued that Donald Trump is channeling Andrew Jackson.  When I read Inskeep’s piece at The New York Times I wondered what Mark Cheathem thought about it

Cheathem has had a busy week.  The Martin Van Buren Papers Project, which he is editing, was launched on Monday at Cumberland University.  But I had a hunch that Cheathem would be unable to resist responding to Inskeep’s op-ed.  I was right.

Here is a taste of his response as his blog, Jacksonian America:

What makes me uncomfortable about these comparisons of modern-day politicians with those from nearly two centuries ago is the shoehorning that has to take place to find parallels. Yes, Trump is bombastic and temperamental, but he’s not quite Jackson because the latter actually got his hands dirty killing people. Yes, Trump styles himself a populist, but as Inskeep points out, the Donald didn’t quite have the same upbringing as Jackson, who, whatever you might think about how he acquired his wealth, didn’t exactly start from the same place as Trump. Most politicians style themselves champions of the people, so Trump’s populist rhetoric isn’t even new or fresh. (By the way, Bernie Sanders’ hair is just as wild, if less luxurious, than Trump’s and his rhetoric is certainly as populist, if a different flavor, as his “Republican” counterpart’s, but no one is comparing the Vermont senator to Jackson.)

What I’ve concluded is that the real question isn’t “is Trump is a modern-day Jackson”; it’s actually “what leads U.S. voters to support a (mostly) successful businessman who wants to build a wall to keep out immigrants, speaks disparagingly about women, feigns religious piety to court voters, and shows no self-awareness that he can be wrong?” That’s the real historical parallel that needs to be drawn, in my opinion. I think commentators would be better served by looking at other politicians in U.S. history who more closely resembled Trump’s true ideology and perspective and explain why people were attracted to them. Or, compare the zeitgeist of different eras, which may offer a better explanation even than personalities. Or, focus on groups, such as the Populist party, the Dixiecrats, and the Birchers, that used anger toward, and resentment of, the government in order to make sense of Trump and his supporters.

Read the entire post here.