When false allegations from court evangelical Charlie Kirk resulted in death threats to a Harvard professor

Danielle Allen is a politics professor at Harvard. In a recent article at The Washington Post she writes about the death threats she received after Charlie Kirk, a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, made a false allegation about her teaching. The allegation occurred on the Tucker Carlson Show on Fox.

Here is Allen:

Let me share a 2017 email exchange between myself and Fox News host Tucker Carlson after he broadcast my face on his television show and permitted his guest, conservative activist Charlie Kirk, to falsely allege that, in my classroom at Harvard, I taught that the rise of Trump was similar to the rise of Hitler. Immediately following that broadcast, I received death threats called into my office phone. I wrote to both Fox News and Carlson requesting a correction. I received none. Here is the exchange that resulted:

Danielle Allen: You failed to vet your interviewee for factual accuracy or to take responsibility for the falsehoods articulated on your show.

Tucker Carlson: How would I have vetted that claim? You compared Trump’s election to the rise of Hitler in the Washington Post. It didn’t seem outlandish to suggest that you might teach similar things in class. And, in fact, I still have no evidence that you haven’t taught that in class. How can I verify that?

Allen: Before accepting the interview, you should have asked him for his sources. Journalism should be based on facts, not your gut instinct for what is or is not outlandish. You were broadcasting a national story that directly affects people’s professional reputations. Also, even here, in this email, you are inaccurate. I wrote my piece in [February] 2016. Trump was not yet even the party nominee. I did not ever compare his election to the rise of Hitler. Not in print, not orally, ever. I compared his fast rise within a fractured Republican party during the primary to Hitler’s rise in a similarly fractured Germany.

Carlson: I’m committed to accuracy. You say you’ve never compared Trump’s rise to Hitler’s rise in class. How can we prove that?

Allen: Basic journalistic protocol would suggest that you should have begun by asking Mr. Kirk that sort of question.

Carlson: I had no idea he was going to say you’d made that comparison in class. I’d be happy to correct the record. Just send me conclusive evidence you’ve never made that comparison while teaching. Thanks.

Allen: You have my word and until Mr. Kirk provides you with any evidence to support his claim or any sources for his claim, the burden is not on me.

Carlson: I hear that a lot, unfortunately.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 72: Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump, and the Upending of SHEAR

Podcast

In this episode we talk with Daniel Feller, the editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We discuss his work as a documentary editor, the uses of Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump, and a controversial paper he recently delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

You can also listen at your favorite podcatcher, including Apple Podcasts.

What Can We Learn From the Great Depression?

Soup

Here is Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen at The Atlantic:

Americans are out of work. More than 20 million lost their jobs in April alone. Lines at food banks stretch for miles. Businesses across the country are foundering. Headlines scream that the coronavirus has brought about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The economic collapse of the 1930s, one of the defining traumas of the 20th century, is still the benchmark against which recessions are measured. And, for many Americans, the New Deal, launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remains the standard for how the federal government should respond to a major national emergency. By the late 1940s, the United States had exited economic calamity and entered into an unparalleled period of national prosperity—with measurably greater income equality. America did not merely endure the Great Depression; its response transformed it into a richer and more equitable society.

Many hope to replicate that achievement today. But the success of the New Deal was built on more than all the agencies it spawned, or the specific programs it established—it rested on the spirit of those who brought it into being. The New Dealers learned to embrace experimentation, accepting failures along the path to success. They turned aside the ferocious opposition their bold proposals provoked. They organized supporters, and learned not just to lead, but to listen. And, perhaps above all, they pushed for unity and cultivated empathy.

The New Deal offers us more than a simple guide for returning to some semblance of normalcy. The larger lesson it offers is that recovery is a complex and painful process that requires the participation of many, not directives from a few. And that, ultimately, we’re all in this together.

Read the rest here.

 

Historians Doubt Received Wisdom

1918FluVictimsStLouis

Influenza epidemic in United States. St. Louis, Missouri, Red Cross Motor Corps on duty, October 1918. (National Archives)

How should the 1918 influenza pandemic inform our response to COVID-19?

Here is a taste of Kevin Peraino’s piece at Politico:

So what is history for? Yes, it can reinforce one’s pet theories. But there’s another way to think about it: History is most useful when it is marshaled to overturn received wisdom, not reinforce it. The highest and best use of Spanish flu comparisons may be to poke holes in our own presumptions about what to do.

The deans of this school of thought were Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, two popular Harvard University professors who taught a beloved class on reasoning from history. Their classic 1986 book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, was designed as a guide for leaders who sought to incorporate history into their work. One of their central case studies shows how American policymakers have, in fact, gotten the lessons of the Spanish flu wrong before.

The key to using history well, Neustadt and May argue, is to doubt received wisdom. Each historical comparison should be taken apart and analyzed. The shrewdest policymakers refuse to take historical analogies at face value. So it should give us pause when a bureaucrat makes a slick passing reference to a complex historical inflection point.

Read the entire piece here.

Should Historians Judge People by the Standards of Their Time?

Why Study HistoryI get this all the time: “Let’s not judge slaveholders based on present-day morality because they were products of their time.”

Indeed, slaveholders were products of their time.  The historian’s primary goal is to try to understand them in context so that we can better grasp why some people believed slavery was a good thing.  Some historians believe that their work stops at this point.  They let the activists, pundits, and critics decide how to use their historical research to advance present-day arguments or agendas.  This perfectly fine. When it comes to world-changing work, the historian plays a limited role.

Other times, however, historians are not satisfied with mere understanding.  They feel called to move beyond “what happened” or “why what happened happened” to moral judgments about whether what happened was good or bad.

I have argued that historians are primarily responsible for uncovering and explaining the past.  I am not opposed to moral criticism–and I have done plenty of it here and elsewhere–but such criticism must always come after we have grasped a particular subject in its historical context.  I actually prefer to introduce audiences–students, readers, hearers–to the moral critiques of people who lived in that time period.  For example, rather than expounding on how slavery is immoral, I prefer to call attention to slavery-era abolitionists or other opponents of slavery and let them do the work.

Erin Bartram gets it right in her recent piece at Contingent Magazine, Don’t We Have To Judge People By The Standards Of Their Time?”  Here is a taste:

…let’s consider one way the cliché is frequently used by white people in the United States: in conversations about the history of enslavement, especially ones about “Founding Fathers” who enslaved people. It is right to say they were products of their time—products of a time that affirmed in law the right of people like them to own other people. It’s why they set up innovative new systems of government that still preserved their right to own people.

To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a “standard” view is to erase the fact that no society, even a culturally- and religiously-homogeneous one, has a “standard” view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions. Moreover, there’s no situation in which everyone who holds one view doesn’t at least have a sense of opposing views.

And this is why bolstering this argument with the idea that some people just didn’t know is so wrong. It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing. There were a lot of people who believed that enslavement was wrong. Enslaved people believed it was wrong. Free black people believed it was wrong. Even some white people believed it was wrong. People in all three of those groups allowed their beliefs to guide the choices they made, including small and large public and private resistance where and when they could, sometimes at great risk to their lives.

On the other hand, many white Americans were aware of abolitionist sentiments but didn’t agree with them, and instead made choices based on their own belief that chattel slavery was a necessary evil—or even a positive good. What I suspect is more distressing to white Americans, however, what provokes the use of this cliché more often, is the idea that many white people in the past believed enslavement was wrong and chose to keep their mouths shut and participate anyway, even as secondary recipients of its “benefits.” In this sense, perhaps the “standard of the time” we’re talking about is moral cowardice, though I doubt that’s what people who use the phrase are thinking.

Read the entire piece here.

Andrew Johnson’s 1866 Anti-Impeachment Tour

Johnson

This sounds familiar.

Over at The Washington Post, Ronald Shafer describes Andrew Johnson’s attempt to rally supporters against his possible impeachment.  Johnson took the road to make his case.

Here is a taste:

“Congress, factious, domineering, tyrannical Congress has undertaken to poison the minds of the American people,” the embattled president declared in fiery speeches. His political foes have been aided, he charged, by their “hirelings” in a “mercenary and subsidized press.”

The president was Andrew Johnson, who in 1866 was already facing impeachment threats just a year after succeeding assassinated Republican President Abraham Lincoln. So Johnson sought to rally his supporters in speeches outside of Washington in much the way President Trump has done for months.

Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was under attack from Radical Republicans in Congress for his post-Civil War unity policy of bringing Southern white supremacists back into government. Although he was anti-slavery, he vetoed bills giving black Americans new rights, but Congress overrode his vetoes.

In the late summer of 1866, the 57-year-old president began an 18-day speaking tour to promote what he called “My Plan.” The trip’s purpose ostensibly was to travel to Chicago to lay a cornerstone for a monument honoring late U.S. senator Stephen Douglas. But “the unmistakable object,” the Philadelphia Press said, “is of course to influence the fall elections.” Johnson hoped to help elect more Democrats and moderate Republicans to Congress.

The route would take the president by train from Washington through Upstate New York, then as far west as St. Louis and back through Maryland. The press called it “Andy’s Swing Around the Circle.”

Read the rest here.  The tour did not help.  The House impeached Johnson on February 24, 1868.  He was the first president ever to be impeached.

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

trump-jackson

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

trump-jackson

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

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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?”

usa-trump

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

Richard_Nixon's_resignation_speech

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:

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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:

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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.