Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Little Historical Perspective on Presidential Elections

[This piece by Joseph Rago appeared in the WSJ on Nov. 5. In other times, it might even help to ease one's depression about the election that is about to fall upon us, but unfortunately, it doesn't for this election cycle given the uniquely abysmal ignorance and dangers presented]

Americans elected the greatest president, Lincoln, four years after the worst, Buchanan,so there’s some hope that 2020 will redeem 2016, whoever wins on Tuesday. But whatever the future holds, perhaps the past could help beleaguered voters make sense of the choice between the two most unpopular candidates since the advent of modern polling.
How unusual, from a historical perspective, are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Is the country as divided as it seems? Will the 45th president be as terrifying as both sides claim, and by the way, is the apocalypse nigh? And where do the political themes of 2016 fit within the American experience?
“Honestly, I believe this may be the most important election of our lifetimes,” Mrs. Clinton said Tuesday in Dade City, Fla. “There has never been a movement like this in our country’s history,” Mr. Trump declared the same day in Eau Claire, Wis. They’re both wrong, according to conversations this week with historians and other political observers.
“I think we, especially people who look at politics for a living, are much too excitable, and there’s a new crisis of the century every week,” says Andrew Ferguson, the Weekly Standard’s Mark Twain and an amateur Lincoln scholar. “The country is divided, and it’s pretty ugly,” he allows. “But we’ve been divided in much, much worse fashion before, like 1861 when we were actually killing each other, or 1865 after half the country had been destroyed.
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PHOTO: KENNETH FALLIN
“Even the constitutional convention was extremely divisive,” Mr. Ferguson continues. “When you think about it that way, division is sort of baked into the whole country, you know? We’re supposed to be divided, because the point of democracy is to reconcile different interests.”
“Less bad than the Civil War” could be construed as setting low expectations in a year that has failed to meet even those, though Richard Brookhiser also counts politicians not killing each other over their differences as progress. The author of “Founders’ Son,” a life of Lincoln, notes dryly: “When Vice President Cheney shot that man, it was an accident and he lived. When Vice President Burr shot former Treasury Secretary Hamilton, it was intentional and he died.”
Mr. Brookhiser adds that “the level of crazy rhetoric in the founding era was worse than what we have now. Jefferson believed that Hamilton was a monarchist and a British agent. Hamilton wrote that Jefferson might set up guillotines. These were brilliant, great men, but they had these insane notions.”
The Adams-Jefferson tournament to succeed Washington in 1796, which the Bay Stater won, and 1800, which the Virginian won, was scurrilous. “You might say Jefferson led the ‘Never Adams’ movement, and vice versa,” jokes Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College.
If 2016 won’t be remembered for its civility, the elections of 1824 and 1828 were no more ennobling. Mr. Guelzo thinks they’re the only ones that can compete with 2016 for “the sheer depth of the nastiness.”
Neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson earned an Electoral College majority in the first round, throwing the election to the House, which broke for the son of the second president. Old Hickory spent the next four years assailing the “corrupt bargain” he said Quincy Adams had struck with the House speaker.
David Reynolds, who teaches the Age of Jackson at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, remarks: “Very improbably, the intellectual and rather snobbish John Quincy Adams was charged with being a pimp, because as minister to Russia he had allegedly offered his nursemaid to the czar as a kept woman in exchange for political favors. Then there was the scandal surrounding Andrew Jackson, who was charged with being a bigamist.” Jackson got his revenge on JQA in 1828, but he blamed the vitriol for the coronary that killed his wife the same year.
The Trump train is not history-minded—the campaign actually adopted “America First” as a slogan—but the first leg of the track begins with Jackson. The war hero was an outsider who ran as the champion of the common man against rich and powerful East Coasters, not to mention Mexicans, and his frontier coarseness appalled the elites. The franchise was reserved for Mr. Trump’s core constituency, white men. Mr. Reynolds says Jackson was the first candidate to ride “image and sensationalism” into the White House, and to convene “huge rallies.” Adams thought campaigning beneath the dignity of the office.
Trump-as-Jackson is less than reassuring, not least because the seventh president, Mr. Guelzo says, “never should have been a candidate in the first place, because the man was guilty of murder.” In 1806, he shot a newspaper editorialist for disparaging him, while Mr. Trump prefers legal threats. Jackson’s first major act was to sign the Indian Removal Act, a mass deportation that became a death march. The Panic of 1837 hit weeks after his second term ended, leading to a deep recession.
The Jackson analogy collapses, argues Jon Meacham, a Jackson biographer working on a book about the Madisons. “He never would have said ‘what the hell do you have to lose?’ because he had an affirmative agenda. His opponents saw him as a wild man, but he had wide experience within the established order he wanted to reform.”
“Ransack history how you will looking for antecedents, there aren’t any,” says George F. Will, the dean of conservative columnists. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, dismisses the journalistic temptation to ask: “ ‘What is this like? What are the parallels?’ I tend not to think that way.” She believes 2016 is “uncharted territory, really. It’s not like any other election, in a deep, structural way, because there are too many variables and no constants.” These include the potential for “gross abuses of power” by a President Trump, new modes of mass communication like social media and what may be an epochal political realignment.
Robert Merry, a biographer of President James Polk, thinks such a shift is under way. The status quo is never permanent, and the post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cold War consensus about globalization and internationalism, he says, “has been killed by Donald Trump, for all his flaws and limitations. What we know from history is that when the identity and definition of the nation is at stake, the politics gets very intense.”
In such periods of upheaval there is often “a recrudescence of populism, a revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites,” says George Nash, who studies the postwar conservative intellectual movement. He distinguishes between “anti-capitalist” left-wing versions that oppose wealth and corporate power, like the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the last century, and more recent “anti-statist” right-wing populism that opposes big government, like the tea party (circa 2009, not 1773). Mr. Trump’s ideology confounds, he says, because it is “a hybrid of both manifestations.”
Eric Foner, of Columbia University, also sees Mr. Trump as “reflecting things that have been around in our politics in one form or another and now somehow joined together in one campaign.” The businessman is a merger of Ross Perot in 1992, who “raised the question of the loss of jobs through trade agreements,” and George Wallace in 1968, “appealing to white people’s sense that they’re losing out in some way.”
Speaking of which, “this isn’t the most disturbing election even of my lifetime,” mentions Mr. Brookhiser. He names 1968, which visited the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, urban riots, the Democratic convention fiasco in Chicago and escalation in Vietnam.
In 1969, black-power militants took over the student union at Cornell, armed with rifles and wearing bandoleers of ammunition. Today the kids on the quad shriek about Halloween costumes.
No pre-1965 comparisons are relevant in any case, says Amity Shlaes, “because of the entitlement state. The larger the federal government is, the more the president matters.” Ms. Shlaes, whose history of the Great Society will be published next year, says, “We live in Lyndon Johnson’s America.”
HRC would probably govern like LBJ, stressing economic centralization, though presumably she’d prosecute fewer wars in southeast Asia. Nixon may be the 20th-century president whose mind most resembles Mrs. Clinton’s, with her paranoia, insistence on secrecy and desperation for power. But you don’t have to reach back further than the 1990s to imagine what the second Clinton administration would be like, ethically speaking. Don’t be surprised if Clinton Inc. lists the Lincoln Bedroom on Airbnb.
“The clinical historical fact is that we’ve never had a contrast with such a less conventionally prepared major-party nominee,” counters Mr. Meacham. Yet compulsive overachievers are often lousy presidents. Nixon had a great resume. So did James Buchanan—a senator, ambassador and secretary of state. He capitulated to the Confederacy.
There’s a popular thesis that Republican complicity with Mr. Trump will stain the party for all time. Not likely. Democrats were the party of the traitors in what used to be called the War of Rebellion. Grover Cleveland was returned to the White House in 1884, merely two decades after Appomattox. A Republican presided over the Great Depression, which didn’t disqualify Dwight Eisenhower. “People say the Republican Party’s going to break up after this, but the last time a major party disappeared, the Whigs, was in the 1850s. We have been stuck with the Democrats and Republicans ever since,” says Mr. Foner.
One rough consensus among the historians is that while there have been worse candidates— Aaron Burr, John Breckinridge, both Wallaces—they never all stood for election at the same time. There’s never been a Democratic or GOP nominee “who in autumn was viewed by a majority of the American people as dishonest and untrustworthy. We have two this year,” says Mr. Will. Mr. Brookhiser thinks the ballot is between “a criminal and a psychopath.”
Mr. Nash also worries that the election is being litigated over “cultural and social disputes that are beyond pragmatic political accommodation.” He senses “real apprehension of impending persecution by the state,” whether among people of faith under Mrs. Clinton or minorities under Mr. Trump, which is “not going to dissipate quickly. I do not see a catharsis, another Era of Good Feelings breaking out here.”

***

Is there a historical case for optimism, despite everything? The late Bob Bartley, for three decades the editor of The Wall Street Journal, made one in his 2002 valedictory address. “Don’t wish for the good old days. In 1972, problems were worse. We did overcome communism, stagflation, Watergate and Vietnam,” he said. “In the sweep of this history, today’s problems loom as another set of momentary nuisances. What I think I’ve learned over 30 years is that in this society, rationality wins out, progress happens and problems have solutions.”
One lesson is to trust the genius of the Constitution’s federalist separation of powers. “American democracy is incredibly strong, and the republic will survive,” concludes John Steele Gordon. Mr. Reynolds cites Walt Whitman, who “thought that the greatest aspect of America was this collision every four years between the parties. He says it’s greater than Niagara Falls or the Mississippi, he calls it America’s choosing day.”
Another is that recovery from political discord is often elusive. “We stagger from one trauma to another,” Mr. Guelzo says, “and we’ve just had to kind of live our way through the results.” “What generally happens is that people go back to doing the American thing, which is to try and make money,” says Mr. Ferguson. “Everyone becomes more prosperous, and all the questions that once seemed so vexing disappear and are replaced by a whole new set of questions that gets everybody exercised.”
The other fail-safe is the patriotism, decency and generosity that often recedes amid partisan passions, and, finally, relief once the election is over. Which assumes that it will be over on Election Day. But then there’s 1876 and 2000, and, well, let’s not think about that until we have to.

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