Finding historical context for 2016–or manufacturing it?

Posted on December 16, 2016. Filed under: American history, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.

You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!

This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.

Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.

So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility.  Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.

We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.

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Who is—or will be—the most radical U.S. president?

Posted on May 31, 2016. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

…as we continue through this election year, we’re reposting from the last presidential election year: a list of U.S. presidents that could be considered radical in one way or another.

We first posted this in 2012 because of an angry complaint in the news that President Obama was “the most radical president in American history.” Today, in 2016, “radical” has morphed into a positive word for most voters: it means an outsider ready to tear up Washington and change the country, whether that’s Sanders or Trump. (Somehow a potential first woman president is no longer radical; the powers of sexism have made sure that Clinton is depicted as just another politician).

As we consider who may end up being our president next year, let’s review:

 

We heard someone involved in the campaign of a Republican primary candidate recently state that President Obama is “the most radical president in American history.” One is accustomed to hyperbole during an election season, but this was a particularly arresting case of myth-making. I assume this person meant “radical” as a negative, although radical change can be positive or negative. Whether well- or ill-intentioned, though, the claim that our current president is the most radical ever does not hold water. Even an extremely brief glance over presidential history brings to light many other candidates for that title:

George Washington: Radical in a good way. Encouraged a radically new form of government, one without a monarch, even when offered the post himself. Supported our new democratic system, represented it with honor and dignity to the world, and set crucially important precedents, including stepping down from office after his second four-year term. Tried to prevent political parties from forming—if he had been successful, we’d have a radically different political scene today.

Thomas Jefferson: Radical in mixed ways. It’s hard to picture Americans today admiring a president who supported a violent dictatorship and felt the U.S. should provide military support for it  (as Jefferson did in France during the Reign of Terror). Jefferson also overrode the Constitution to make the Louisiana Purchase (Congress, not the president, should likely have carried out any geographic expansion).

Andrew Jackson: Radical in a bad way. Sponsored intense corruption within his Administration by appointing cronies to high political office, legislated through the veto, broke the law by dueling, put his own sense of personal honor above the law, and, most importantly and unforgivably, demanded and carried out the removal of the Native Americans of the southeast, even after the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokees’ remaining on their land.

Abraham Lincoln: Radical in a good way. He ended slavery in the United States by writing the Emancipation Proclamation, and refused to negotiate an end to the war by agreeing to allow slavery to continue in a restored Union. Pushed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. Planned to move an Amendment giving black men the right to vote through Congress as well. Went from racist to abolitionist in a few short years.

Woodrow Wilson: Radical in mixed ways. Promoted legislation to end child labor, pushed for the creation of the League of Nations and for U.S. membership. On the other hand, an entrenched racist who kept civil rights legislation at bay, helping to ensure that the 1910s extended the nadir of civil rights in this country by another decade.

Franklin Roosevelt: Radical in mixed ways. Tried to govern bascially without Congress, tried to tamper with the Supreme Court to make it his tool, pursued a series of economic policies that helped lengthen the Depression. On the other hand, he understood that the government had an obligation to protect vulnerable categories of citizen, such as the elderly, children, and the poor. Provided a reliable federal safety net to these people for the first time in U.S. history.

Lyndon Johnson: Radical in a good way. The series of civil rights acts passed not only during his Administration, but because of his untiring efforts, finally put the nation on the track Lincoln had envisioned for Reconstruction. Education reform, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, space exploration, and a war on poverty, all pushed forward by Johnson. His failure to see through the advisors who pushed the war in Vietnam is the blot on his record.

Ronald Reagan: Radical in a bad way. Set in motion the anti-government movement amongst conservatives, made cutting taxes and running a federal deficit a battle-cry of the Republican party, was generally unmoved by opportunities to negotiate an end to the Cold War.

George W. Bush: Radical in a bad way. Pursued war with Iraq based on misinformation about Iraqi arms manufacture from advisors, trampled on civil rights in the  name of homeland security, and moved aggressively to stop taxation of the wealthy, immobilize the federal government, remove the federal safety net for vulnerable citizens, and pay for the war through deficit spending.

So there’s a short list of some radical presidents. We could use a few more who are radical in good ways.

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