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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 28, 2019

What the decade meant

The web site Politico has just asked 23 historians or other authors to predict how history books will remember the 2010s in just one paragraph.  The results are rather interesting.

Only 9 of the 23 suggested that this decade will become part of a story with a happy ending.  James Goodman of Rutgers predicted a Biden victory in 2020, followed by steady progress on a Democratic agenda in Congress.  Sara Igo of Vanderbilt predicted that the citizenry would rebound and turn things around and repair our politics in the 2020s.  Keisha Blaine of the University of Pittsburgh argued approvingly that Black Lives Matter has transformed the American political landscape.  "The story of the 2010s," wrote Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College,  "is of increasing American polarization, but also the rise of politically active women to defend American democracy against the growing power of a Republican oligarchy."  While the decade of the teens was "marked the demise of a still white, post-industrial, baby-boomer society filled with men and women resisting their decline, . . .2020 was a powerful new beginning built on the destruction of the previous years," wrote Jeremy Suri of UT Austin. "The United States renewed its democracy through a messy, prolonged and ultimately productive generational change in leadership at all levels— from local businesses and schools to the White House. It was an ugly time that generated bright reforms thereafter." Claire Potter of the New School saw final four years of the decade marked by "by the collapse of the political center, by the consequences of moving conservative populism to the center, and by the determination of left populists to remake the Democratic Party—and retake the government,"  and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu of UC Irvine said that after a decade of "civil war," "the 2020 [sic] brought the possibility of a faint, new hope." Nicole Hemmer was similarly tentative.  Jack Rakove, a Professor Ermitus at Stanford, laid out the most sweeping optimistic scenario, predicting that after the Supreme Court gutted the ACA and Roe v. Wade in 2020 and Biden defeated Trump, the blue states would force a Constitutional convention upon the red ones and put through sweeping constitutional changes, including direct popular election of the President, an end to gerrymanders, a larger Supreme Court, and much more.  The vast majority of the optimists, interestingly enough, said nothing about the sources of increasing inequality or anything that might be done about it.  

The 23 lacked a single optimist of another type:  someone who sincerely believed that our recent economic changes are good for us and that we are moving into a new era of prosperity and progress.  The closest person to that was my one-time colleague Tom Nichols of the Naval War College, a Never Trump Republican, who pointed to a rise in everyone's standard of living, complained about the growth of bitter partisanship, and suggested that the real question was whether democracies could cope with success.  I would suggest however that were Donald Trump to be replaced by a centrist Democrat like Biden, or even by a calm, sane Republican who could inspire confidence around the world, the view that all was well in the land would gain ground.

Leaving Nichols aside, the remaining 13 contributors, while making few predictions about the future, could not find it in themselves to offer any specific hopes.  Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown lamented the rise of white supremacy under Trump, which had grown partly through the use of new technology.  Vanessa Walker of Amherst, who focused on the growth of big data, concluded that "without meaningful transparency over what was collected, who had access and how it was used, the looming surveillance state’s threat to individual freedom and collective security dwarfed those potential benefits.”  The venerable David Kennedy of Stanford cited a number of developments over the last 30 years that had "swept away the very foundations of the social and political order that had prevailed since World War II.," and declined to predict what might come next.  David Greenberg of Rutgers thought while many still hoped for a more equal and just society, "there seemed at least as great a chance that it would fatally undermine the liberal international order that had underwritten peace and prosperity for so long."  William Imboden of the University of Texas lamented that Trump's rejection of our traditional foreign policy had allowed China and Russia to fill a new void.  Peniel Johnson of the same institution cited Presidents Obama and Trump as the polar opposites of the 2010s and made no predictions.  

"As the decade ended," wrote George H. Nash, "no one could say with certainty whether the worldwide ferment was a passing spasm of discontent or a harbinger of deeper upheavals," and Kevin Kruse of Princeton found that  the United States in 2019 "seemed more deeply divided and directionless than it had been in a half century." (I would call that an understatement.)  "The shape of the next decade," wrote Geoff Kabaservice, "was thus determined by whether parties of the center-left and center-right could revive anything like the post-World War II social unity and capitalism that produced steadily rising living standards for all, or whether the 2020s would look more like the 1930s."  "The signature of the ensuing Age of Trump," wrote my friend Andrew Bacevich, "was venomous division. In terms of policy, the theme of the 2010s became drift, with issues such as climate change treated as an afterthought, if at all."  David A. Hollinger, an emeritus professor at Berkeley, more specifically lamented the collapse of the New Deal state created at midcentury.  "Ultimately," he wrote, "it was the Democratic Party’s failure to use the political and cultural resources available to it to enact and maintain an appropriate regulatory structure as late as the mid-1990s—during the neo-liberal administration of Bill Clinton—that did more than any other single factor to determine the course of American history in the 2010s. Rarely in the history of industrialized societies had a political leadership equipped with such magnificent opportunities squandered them so spectacularly, and thus betrayed the nation of which they were entrusted to be the stewards." Eric Rauchway of UC Davis lamented the rise of conservative populists, whose "principal proponents won and kept office, weakening the alliances and institutions entrusted since 1945 with keeping the peace."  Alone among the contributors, Elizabeth Borgward of Washington University speculated that Trump might be the start of something.  "Democracy in America did not end with Trumpism, of course. But younger, smarter politicians such as Josh Hawley were taking notes even then, and as of 2020 the writing was already on that initial slice of border wall: The 2010s were when a demagogue willing to promote division, disfranchisement, and corruption first dealt himself a winning hand."

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that I had not been asked to contribute.  My work (see above right) has never fitted conveniently into the kind of pigeonhole that editors look for in these situations.  What would I have said?

"The 2010s marked a collapse of the American political system more profound than any since 1860.  They began with the Tea Party victory that put an end even to Barack Obama's very tentative steps to create a fairer economic order.  In Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the government pursued new variants of the wasteful, useless policies introduced in the previous decade by George W. Bush.  And in 2016, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party could produce a candidate who could defeat an ignorant, inflammatory, narcissistic reality tv star, who took only a few years to establish a stranglehold over the Republican Party, while governing incompetently and in many ways illegally.  Only a great new national enterprise commanding both the assent and the resources of our whole society could restore the kind of faith the government had enjoyed in mid-century, and none such was on the horizon a 2020 dawned, whatever the outcome of the coming election."

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Three Decades of Best Films

A funny thing happened on the way to this post.  I was going to blog on some politically correct themes in this morning's New York Times, but I looked on my favorite facebook page, where acolytes of Strauss and Howe meet, and was challenged to name my 10 best films of the decade now coming to an end.  After checking some lists, I did so.  Then I stared at my own list for a while, and decided to a quick comparable list for the previous decade, the 2000s.  Here are the results, with some comments.

My 10 best films of the current decade, in no particular order:

The Social Network
The Big Short
Blue Jasimine
The Artist
Inside Job
The Death of Stalin
Green Book
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I believe I have already seen six of these more than once and there isn't any of them that I wouldn't enjoy watching once again.

This list, I suppose, tells you as much about me as it does about the movies on it.  Eight of them are, in one way or another, historical, either because they deal with actual events (The Social Network, The Big Short, the documentary Inside Job,The Death of Stalin) or because they were excellent portrayals of earlier eras (The Artist, Roma, Green Book, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)  Three of them--The Social Network, Green Book, and Inside Job--won academy awards, showing to me that the academy can get it right.  Other films that I initially flagged while making the list were Manchester By the Sea, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, Argo, Midnight in Paris, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, Birdman, Lincoln, The Florida Project, What Maisie Saw, Love and Other Drugs, The Ghost Writer, Can You Ever Forgive Me, and The Company you Keep.  Seven of those are also historical in one way or another.  Of the non-historic ones on my lists, most tend to be rather emotional adult dramas, though children are also very much involved.  They don't include any superhero movies, obviously, or cartoons, even though I've enjoyed some of the latter.  Like Martin Scorsese, I have an idea of what a serious movie is.

Meanwhile, on the small screen, this has also been the decade of Breaking Bad (in part), Homeland, The Americans, Billions, and (here in the US) A French Village, five long-running tv series that each probably meant to me than any of those movies. 

As I looked at my list, however, I didn't think it stood up that well to earlier decades, and I decided to test that proposition out with a little more tweaking of my memory and additional research. It took only a few minutes to come up with this list for the 2000s (also in no particular order):

Good Night and Good Luck
13 Days
After the Wedding
The Lives of Others
Lost in Translation
In the Bedroom
Match Point
The Pianist
Man on Wire

A lot of film fans have never seen After the Wedding, a Danish drama that lost the best foreign film Oscar to The Lives of Others in 2007.  It's amazing.  A recent American remake was apparently disastrous and sank like a stone at the box office. This time I have picked six films with an historical theme including one documentary (Man on Wire, about the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers in the early 1970s.)  What disturbs me is that I think this is a much stronger list, whose films consistently engage the viewer more intensely from start to finish.  Other films that I decided not to include were Little Miss Sunshine, The Departed, Up in the Air, Before Sunset, and De-Lovely.

Now let me see what I can do, off the top of my head, for the 1990s.

Schindler's List
A League of Their Own
Quiz Show
Good Will Hunting
Sleepless in Seattle
Pulp Fiction
Deconstructing Harry
Leaving Las Vegas
Apollo 13

That list seems to be better than either of the others.  This was also the decade in which The Sopranos debuted.

Hollywood writers have become extraordinarily adept at writing 10-episode season plots, that is, stories that would make a good long novel.  The first seasons of The Sopranos and Homeland were as brilliantly plotted as any comparable works of literature, and the cumulative impact of the first three seasons of Breaking Bad was even greater.  Billions has also been extraordinary.  "Adult drama," however, has become unfashionable in Hollywood, and it shows.  I think we are seeing the impact on film of the decline of serious literature.  I hope there will be a good many comments on this relatively unusual post.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The State of the Democrats

I have remarked many times that Donald Trump's nomination and election could only have happened thanks to a collapse of our political system.  Neither of our two major parties could come up with a candidate who could defeat a serial bankrupt and reality tv star who obviously lacked the knowledge and the managerial skills necessary to be President.  Had the Republican Party still possessed some sort of national organization, it would surely have unified around one candidate, and if the party had retained real links with its voters, that candidate could have defeated Trump.  Unfortunately, a similar story may be playing out among the Democrats this year.

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much I value my right to say what I think.  Truth is truth, no matter what it says about particular political parties, individuals, or institutions (like the press.)  And truth, I think, should be an asset, not a disability, in the kind of crisis we are now going through.  Some readers will feel that a good Democrat (such as I certainly feel myself to be) owes it to the party and the nation to be upbeat about the current situation and the chances of one of our candidates.  While I'm certainly going to vote for any Democratic candidate against Trump in November, I think that the emerging field says a lot about the sad state of my party and our political system, and I can't keep my mouth shut about that.

Joe Biden not only remains the front runner, but has widened his lead in recent weeks.  The RealClearPolitics poll average shows him with 28% of the vote, a full 10 points higher than his next rival Bernie Sanders, and only 5-6 points behind Sanders and third-place Elizabeth Warren combined.  How did Joe Biden achieve the stature of front-runner?  In the same way that Richard Nixon (1960) and George H. W. Bush (1988) did among the Republicans, and Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984), and Al Gore (2000) did among Democrats: by serving as Vice President of the United States, which gave them national name recognition and access to Democratic donors.  Except for Nixon and Mondale, every one of these men--like Biden--had also run for President before becoming Vice President, and none of their campaigns had gotten anywhere.  Only one of those five men, Bush, was elected,  although Gore had the presidency taken away from him by the Supreme Court, partly because of his own fatally flawed strategy in the Florida recount controversy.  Biden is of course one of the oldest major candidates ever at 77, and he has always been loose cannon on the stump.  He has loyal support from older and blacker Democrats but very little from younger ones--and many of the black Democrats who may win him the nomination live and vote in states that the Democrats have no chance of carrying in November.

Bernie Sanders's whole remarkable career as a presidential aspirant testifies to the residual strength of our democracy.  He came out of nowhere four years ago and won some key primaries, but couldn't overcome the structural advantages of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose service as first lady had played the same role in her career as the vice-presidency had in Biden's and others'. He clearly stands for the average American, and his personality has convinced millions of Americans that he honestly speaks his mind and doesn't fear anyone.  He, however, will be 79 by next November, and he just suffered a heart attack.  More importantly, he represents a type familiar in American history, one that contributes importantly to progressive politics but rarely reaches the top.  The type included many of the more famous leaders of the Progressive era, who were identified, and brilliantly characterized, by the Washington journalists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, in their anonymous classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which earned them fortune and fame when they published it in 1932.  They called them the Senate Insurgents, among whom they identified George Norris of Nebraska, young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin (who had essentially inherited his Senate seat from his father), William Borah of Idaho, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, and others.  "The Senate insurgents," they wrote, "are the strongest and weakest element in American national affairs.

"Individually they are the strongest.

"Collectively they are the weakest.

"Individually they are the most righteous and forward-looking men in public office in the capital. They are sincere, law-abiding, and intelligent.  Collectively they have been without plan or purpose, unorganized and ineffectual. . ."

Herbert Hoover, Pearson and Allen noted, had recently coined the phrase "rugged individualism." Certainly he had not intended it to describe these men, but Pearson and Allen thought it fit them perfectly--as it surely does Bernie Sanders as well. "They personify all the noble qualities of character he implied when he used that pat phrase.

"And just as completely they demonstrate the pathetic and utter inadequacy of individuals, no matter how admirable, to cope with the colossal economic and political problems of the present day as long as they are nothing more than individuals persisting in an individualist philosophy. . . .Against the might and unified power of national and international capitalism they have had nothing to offer but their own individual forthrightness."

Like so many of the insurgents of another era, Bernie Sanders represents a small and rural state.  He has all the courage of his convictions that one could wish for and he has an acute sense of what is wrong with America.  Yet he was not even part of a recognizable faction in the Senate and has very little legislative record.  His independence--including his refusal even to be formally identified as a Democrat--has helped win him a devoted following among liberal and younger Americans.  I voted for him in my primary in 2016 and I wish he could have been the candidate, but he has many vulnerabilities going into a general election this year and I have no idea if he would be an effective President.

Elizabeth Warren is both my Senator and my candidate, as I informed a telephone pollster just the other night.  (Interestingly enough, I could not bring myself to give an opinion about the Senate primary pitting another septuagenarian, Ed Markey, against young Joe Kennedy, but that's another story.)  Like Sanders and myself, she has genuine New Deal values.  Bernie and I learned them in our youth; she, interestingly enough, appears to have come to them much later as a result of her work as a bankruptcy lawyer.  She did create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at least in theory an important new regulatory body, under the Obama Administration.  But as a recent article showed, that was a very uphill battle, fought against the real policy titans of the early Obama years, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Typically, Obama himself, while blessing the idea, gave in to her opponents and refused to appoint her to head the bureau.  Now the bureau has been gutted by the first Republican administration to have taken office.  Similarly, Warren has now had to back away from Medicare for All, the only real solution to our health care crisis, because it lacks enough of a constituency in the country or even in the Democratic Party.  And she too is in her eighth decade, and her candidacy would have to deal with anti-elitist prejudice and sexism around the country.  Her career, like Sanders's, would have fit easily into Pearson and Allen's discussion of the Senate insurgents in 1931.  Were the Democratic left truly organized, it seems to me, the Sanders and Warren forces would be planning to coalesce around one candidate, but I see no evidence that that is happening.

Pete Buttigieg, who currently polls at 9.2% nationally but ranks first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire.  He represents the Millennial generation.  Like Barack Obama, he is a bright young man who has eagerly jumped through every hoop that society has put up in front of him, from Harvard to Oxford to the U.S. military, and like Obama and Hillary Clinton, he has excited some voters because he would be the first representative of a particular demographic to occupy the White House.  Among elite Democrats that is a recommendation, but it has not necessarily proven to be so in the country at large.  A close friend recently wondered with me whether the nation was ready for the image of Buttigieg and his husband on the podium on the last night of the Democratic national convention.  I don't think that he really has much chance of being nominated, and I would not be confident of his chances against Donald Trump if he were.

Traditional politics sought candidates with an impressive record in public service, whose demographic matched the great bulk of the American people, whose age was somewhere between 45 and 60, and who came from an electorally important state.  None of the top four Democrats fit that mold, and Democrats who came closer to it, such as Mitch Landrieu, Sherrod Brown, and Beto O'Rourke, either declined to run or flamed out early.  No governing political intelligence, it seems to me, now plays a major role in our nominating process.  Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, but it is not clear that the Democratic Party will come up with a candidate who can take sufficient advantage of that to defeat him.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Are We in a New Era?

In 1995 I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and it changed my life.  Two amateur historians had identified an 80-year cycle in American history--a cycle that also applied, as I realized fairly quickly, to modern Europe and East Asia as well.  Three great crises: the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the 1933-45 period--had each created a new order, a new set of allegiances, and a new consensus about political and even social values.  That was almost 25 years ago and there has not been a week in all that time that I did not think about this view of history and what it meant for the future--since the next crisis was due to arrive by 2010 or so, if not sooner.  I now think, as I have said here many times, that began in 2000-1, marked by two key events: the election of 2000, in which a partisan Supreme Court and an inept Gore campaign did not allow us to discover who had actually won the presidency, and 9/11, which started a new era in American foreign policy that continues to this day.  Yet it now seems clear that this crisis will not end like any of the others, and that it will have weakened our institutions to the point that I am wondering if they will begin to function effectively any time soon, and even if they will survive at all.

We tend to assume in the United States that the excellent design of our institutions guarantee that they will survive, but that has never really been the case.  In 1860-1 secession would have destroyed the Union had not Lincoln refused to recognize it and undertaken a war to prove that a democratic nation could preserve itself.  The victorious Republican Party, which remained in power for another 20 years, abolished slavery, paid off most of the national debt, established high tariffs, and turned loose a gigantic wave of industrialization.  The Civil War experience effectively assimilated Irish and German  minorities whose presence had been quite controversial as late as the 1850s, and new immigrants flooded in at a rapid rate.  In 1932 the Depression threatened the economic and possibly the political collapse of the nation, but Franklin Roosevelt restored confidence in the government, found ways to put many of the unemployed back to work, and changed the whole relationship of the federal government to the economy.  Confronted by the rise of aggressive dictatorships in Europe and Asia, he warned the people that the western hemisphere was threatened, won an unprecedented third term, and prepared the nation not merely to fight, but to win, the greatest war in history.  That war assimilated new waves of immigrants and created a bond between the government and the men who had fought it and their families.  After the the war, the US embraced a new world role.  The postwar consensus, however, did not really survive the Vietnam catastrophe, and by the 1980s, the Republican Party had embarked, slowly but surely, on the destruction of the New Deal legacy.

We easily forget, now, that George W. Bush and Karl Rove--whether or not they ever read Strauss and Howe, which I suspect that Rove did--wanted to build a new Republican consensus around another great foreign crusade.  After 9/11 they embarked upon the conquest and transformation of key parts o the Middle East.  Yet their new crusade proved disastrous both in the targeted area and here at home.  While they could destroy organized enemy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, they could not govern them effectively, and they created power vacuums in which chaos and extremist movements thrived.  Meanwhile, at home, they remained true to Republican principles, and cut taxes instead of raising them while piling up trillions of dollars of debts to fight these wars.  The failure of their wars, in my opinion, has destroyed the national consensus on behalf of an activist foreign policy--something which Donald Trump does seem to have understood.  Yet while cutting back on the Iraq war, the Obama Administration continued the crusade to democratize the region in Libya and Syria--both times, with disastrous results.

In 2008 the financial crisis swept the Republicans out of power and gave President Obama a chance to reverse course domestically and re institute a New Deal--but he did not take it.  Relying on centrist economic advisers, he restored the deregulated financial system that had emerged in the last two decades rather than replacing it.  Losing the Congress, he had to accept big cuts in government spending, and the Affordable Care Act was his only important domestic achievement.  Then, in 2016, a huckster who had survived repeated bankruptcies and become a reality tv star decided to run for President, and neither major party could produce a candidate that could beat him.   Three years later the Republican Party is completely in thrall to him, and cares nothing about his clear unfitness for office.

I think the chances are somewhat better than 50-50 that Trump will be defeated next fall, but I have no confidence that the election of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or even Elizabeth Warren will restore a vigorous and effective national government.  Voters under 60--the vast majority of them--have literally never seen the government do anything big and effective over a sustained period of time.  Partisanship has paralyzed the Congress and will probably continue to do so no matter who wins.  Under our system as it has evolved, many key decisions are now the province of the Supreme Court.  Worst of all, as this election shows, it has apparently become impossible to become a national political figure by making an impressive record of public service.  As I write, the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic polls shows Joe Biden with 27.8%, Bernie Sanders with 15.6, Elizabeth Warren with 14.2, and Pete Buttigieg with 11.4   Biden leads for one reason: he was Vice President for 8 years, giving him name recognition and a reflected glow from Barack Obama.  Sanders is second because he has won the allegiance of some millions of voters by bluntly speaking his mind, and Warren has established herself as a genuine heir to the New Deal tradition.  Buttigieg, like Barack Obama in 2008, is drawing on general personal qualities and the novelty of his candidacy.  Three other Senators have a total of 7.8%, and none of them (Harris, no longer in the race, Klobuchar and Booker) has any legislative accomplishments to their name--largely because the whole Congress doesn't.

The American people have lost a sense of citizenship based on participation in a great common enterprise that serves us all.  The Republican Party wants nothing but to set private capital and private enterprise free; the Democratic Party is making some noises about equality, but focuses more on social issues, including gun control and minority rights, and pays lip service to the very serious crisis of climate change.  We also desperately need a huge common enterprise to integrate our millions of now-illegal immigrants into our polity, rather than continuing to rely upon a large working class that cannot vote.  But a common enterprise would require a common view of certain problems facing us and a broad faith that we can use our brains and energy to solve them, and these things are lacking as well.  Our faith in rational solutions to problems peaked quite some time ago, and only effective action can restore it--but where will this come from?   

A Democratic victory would at least temporarily restore some respect for our institutions, and Democratic appointees, unlike Trump's, would make a real effort to make the federal government function.  That alone would represent a significant gain from our catastrophic state under Trump.  But it will not solve the crisis of democracy that has struck not only the United States, but Europe and some Asian nations as well.  Of all the major nations, only France at this moment appears to have a leader with a strong majority behind him and a definite course of action.  Inevitably he has aroused a great deal of opposition, as de Gaulle did before him in the last stage of the previous great crisis, but if he can prevail against it he will have shown that democracy can still work.

In the 1990s Strauss and Howe showed how disunity and strife had threatened the nation and, crucially, how we had overcome them.  That is what we have failed to do this time.  Perhaps historians in a century or two will conclude that the United States of our time--by which I mean the nation of the last 50 years or so--was too spoiled and too self-confident, and came to believe, in many different ways, that old rules no longer applied to it, and that, like Athens in the 5th century BCE, we could have whatever we wanted by wishing for it.  We couldn't.  No one, I think, really knows where this will lead.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Further Ukraine update

The Washington Post has discovered that when the US government in May 2018 decided to supply Javelin missiles to Ukraine, the Poroshenko government had just closed its own investigation of Paul Manafort and stopped cooperating with the Mueller investigation.  It seems that this may have been an earlier quid pro quo.  It's appalling that no House staffers thought about this and asked then-Ambassador Jovanovitch about it.  They should.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Have we had a Trump before?

In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, both supporters and opponents of Donald Trump have looked for similar presidents in the American past.  Steve Bannon famously encouraged Trump to see himself as the new Andrew Jackson, another populist who encouraged the forcible movement of Indian tribes from the deep South to what is now Oklahoma, and plenty of Trump's critics have been delighted to embrace that analogy as well.  Today's New York Times includes an op-ed by Manisha Sinha, an historian at the University of Connecticut, comparing him to Andrew Johnson, who rejected equality for freed slaves, opposed Reconstruction, and escaped removal by the Senate after impeachment by a single vote.  The Johnson comparison in particular has some merit, since both of them have held office during one of the great crises in American life, and both certainly have pandered to white bigotry.  Yet at the same time, a different kind of comparison of Trump on the one hand, and Jackson and Johnson on the other, shows that Trump remains an utterly unique phenomenon in American history, and one that illustrates how far our political life had to deteriorate before he could even get within shouting distance of the White House.  Today's critics of earlier generations of American leaders feel much too self-righteous to pay much attention to what they actually said, or to acknowledge a very real decline in the quality of our political life.

Let us begin with Andrew Jackson, and specifically with the first annual message--what we now call the State of the Union address--that he submitted to Congress in December 1829.  That message began with a lengthy survey of the foreign relations of the United States, including a careful discussion of the major issues then being disputed between the US and the great powers of France, Great Britain, and Spain.  Donald Trump, asked to do the same, would undoubtedly content himself with one sentence apiece about his wonderful personal relationships with the leaders of various countries, and a complaint about the excessive burdens that the nation bears.  Later, however, Jackson made a remarkable proposal for the amendment of the US Constitution, one designed to make it more democratic.  I quote:

"To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the House of Representatives. Experience proves that in proportion as agents to execute the will of the people are multiplied there is danger of their wishes being frustrated. Some may be unfaithful; all are liable to err. So far, therefore, as the people can with convenience speak, it is safer for them to express their own will. . . .

"In this as in all other matters of public concern policy requires that as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will. Let us, then, endeavor so to amend our system that the office of Chief Magistrate may not be conferred upon any citizen but in pursuance of a fair expression of the will of the majority.

"I would therefore recommend such an amendment of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the election of the President and Vice-President. The mode may be so regulated as to preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election, and a failure in the first attempt may be provided for by confining the second to a choice between the two highest candidates. In connection with such an amendment it would seem advisable to limit the service of the Chief Magistrate to a single term of either 4 or 6 years. . . ."

It is noteworthy, to begin with, that Jackson, whom we are now taught to believe was one of our most reactionary presidents, was proposing a reform that is once again very much vogue, the abolition of the electoral college and the direct election of the President.  He was to my knowledge the only president that we have ever had to make this proposal.  How exactly he thought he could "preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election"--an apparent reference to the 3/5 clause--is not clear, and I am curious to look into this further, but this proposal was not one designed to preserve an oligarchy, nor could it have that effect. Jackson also had the sense to realize--as many current proponents of this reform do not--that his proposal would have to provide for two rounds of voting to make sure that the winner enjoyed an actual majority--the system now used in France and many other countries.  Jackson's proposal, of course, reflected his own history as a candidate, since in 1824 he had been the first candidate to win a substantial plurality of the popular vote, but fail to win a majority of the electoral college, and then losing the election of John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives.  Jackson thus differs from Trump by being a sincere small-d democrat.  He was also a bitter foe of economic privilege,  whose veto message killing the Bank of the United States reads as if it could have been written by Franklin Roosevelt or Elizabeth Warren.  I quote:

"Every monopoly and all exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent. The many millions which this act proposes to bestow on the stockholders of the existing bank must come directly or indirectly out of the earnings of the American people. It is due to them, therefore, if their Government sell monopolies and exclusive privileges, that they should at least exact for them as much as they are worth in open market. The value of the monopoly in this case may be correctly ascertained. The twenty-eight millions of stock would probably be at an advance of 50 per cent, and command in market at least $42,000,000, subject to the payment of the present bonus. The present value of the monopoly, therefore, is $17,000,000, and this the act proposes to sell for three millions, payable in fifteen annual installments of $200,000 each. . . .

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles."

Is such a President necessarily a man we must consign to the moral dustbin of history because he owned slaves and supported the removal of the Indians, or would we do better to recognize, as earlier generations did, his very real commitments to political democracy and greater economic equality?  I turn now, for the moment, to Andrew Johnson.

I have no good to say about Andrew Johnson's policies.  Originally a Democrat from the border state of Tennessee, he had left his party early in the Civil War and supported Lincoln's all-out attempt to crush the rebellion.  He had become the war governor of his state, and the Republicans had chosen him as Vice President in 1864 to broaden their appeal among Democrats and the border states.  As President, however, he immediately tried to allow the defeated states to re-enter Congress on generous terms, opposed the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal rights, and would have happily allowed the white populations to treat the freed slaves however they wished.  After the 1866 elections the Republicans in Congress, who enjoyed veto-proof majorities, had passed sweeping reconstruction laws over his veto, to which they eventually added the 15th amendment forbidding disenfranchisement based on race.   They also tried to take his authority to remove and replace federal officials away from him in the Tenure of Office Act, an unconstitutional measure that he violated early in his last year in office by trying to remove Secretary of War Stanton, leading to his impeachment and trial.  Let me again simply quote a couple of paragraphs from one of his annual messages, in December 1867, to show what a great gulf separates him from Donald Trump.

"It is . . . a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation. . . .

"It is therefore a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation."

Now Andrew Johnson had origins at least as modest as any other American President, and may have been the only one never to have attended a school of any kind.  Originally a tailor, he went into politics in his late twenties.   But clearly, the above paragraphs show, he had developed a sense of the history of the United States and a command of the English language to which Donald Trump has never even aspired, and which he most definitely does not possess.   Neither he nor Jackson had a team of speechwriters who could provide these documents for them. They wrote them themselves. Literary and historical knowledge, for the first two centuries of our history, qualifications that successful politicians were expected to possess--and those who had modest origins were if anything more eager to acquire them.  The nomination and election of Donald Trump, who entirely lacks either one, reflects a profound decline in our political life and our broader culture.  Although himself a child of privilege who attended a leading university, he clearly has less intellectual ability, and probably less historical knowledge, than anyone who ever occupied the White House before.   George W. Bush, who also held office recently, would not rank much higher, in my opinion, in either of those categories either.  That says something about the 21st century United States.

The leaders of earlier generations--particularly in our previous crises periods of 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45--specifically put their own struggles in the context of a broader history of the development of liberty and human rights.  Lincoln and FDR explicitly built upon their ancestors' achievements, about which Trump knows little and cares less.  The American sense of a key role in a broader historical drama has been under attack from both sides of the political spectrum for some time.  My own profession of history has also lost interest in keeping it alive.  That is one reason why about half the nation, at least, has abandoned our political class, allowing Trump to get into the White House.  We have had other presidents who pursued evil policies, but our political life, in important respects, has reached a new low.