Friday, November 29, 2019
"Donald Trump, Meet Your Precursor
By Manisha SinhaNov. 29, 2019, 6:00 a.m. ET
Last week, in defense of her father, Ivanka Trump tweeted out a quotation she wrongly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville: “A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.”
The misquotation came from an opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal that has since been corrected. What is fascinating about this incident though, is that the quotation actually comes from an 1889 book, “American Constitutional Law,” that defends Andrew Johnson against his impeachment in 1868. By the time the book was written, emancipation and the attempt to guarantee black rights lay in shambles, and conservatives rallied to the defense of Johnson, one of the most reviled presidents in American history.
Much more than impeachment connects the presidencies of Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump. No one expected either man to enter the White House. Both presidencies began with a whiff of illegitimacy hanging over them: Johnson’s because he became president when Lincoln was assassinated, Mr. Trump’s because he won the Electoral College despite having nearly three million fewer popular votes than his opponent, the largest losing margin of any president who actually won the election. The size of the gap did not bode well for American democracy.
Historical parallelism rarely works in a simplistic manner. But it does work when historians discern broad similarities and patterns that link our present moment to the past. Many fallible men have inhabited the office of the presidency. Only a handful have been so oblivious to the oath they took that they have met the constitutional standard for impeachment.
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The first president against whom impeachment proceedings were considered was John Tyler, who like Johnson became president after an untimely death, that of President William Henry Harrison. A proslavery zealot, Tyler has the unique distinction so far of being the only president to commit treason against his country. He voted for Virginia’s secession from the Union.
Unlike Tyler, Johnson refused to go with his state, Tennessee, when it seceded from the Union. For this, he was appointed military governor of Tennessee and then rewarded with the vice-presidential spot on the National Union Party presidential ticket headed by Lincoln in 1864. Johnson came closest to being removed from the presidency when his conviction fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority needed in the Senate.
If the recent House impeachment hearings have revealed anything, it is that Mr. Trump’s actions clearly meet the criteria laid out in the impeachment clause, “Treason, bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” While Mr. Trump’s criminality is of the same order as Richard Nixon’s, trying to interfere in a presidential election, like Johnson, he exhibits no public or private decorum. Johnson’s and Mr. Trump’s biographies could not be more different but their lack of presidential demeanor was evident from the start. As the historian Eric Foner has put it, “Americans, more often than not, choose mediocre presidents, but require of them a decorum foreign to other aspects of their life.” Johnson, a poor white Southerner, became a slaveholder and successful politician, occupying local, state and national office. Mr. Trump, brought up in the corrupt and highflying world of New York’s real estate business, is an oddly successful political neophyte.
Both Johnson and Mr. Trump amply displayed their unfitness for the presidency before getting the job. Johnson so fortified himself with whiskey on taking his oath of office for the vice presidency that his rambling, drunken speech mortified all who were present. Lincoln, who gave his memorable Second Inaugural Address the same day, noted, “This Johnson is a queer man.” Mr. Trump is a teetotaler but ran a presidential campaign full of grotesque insults, ridicule, lies and vulgarity. His crude and cruel pronouncements after his ascent to the presidency are too many to recount. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a Trump pick, in his testimony at the impeachment hearings in the House, uses the term “TrumpSpeak”: profanity-laced language that guided a personal political agenda and undermined United States foreign policy and national security. Both Johnson and Mr. Trump, neither blessed with literary or oratorical skills, succeeded two of the most gifted presidential wordsmiths.
But most significantly, both men made an undisguised championship of white supremacy — the lodestar of their presidencies — and played on the politics of racial division. For Johnson, it was his obdurate opposition to Reconstruction, the project to establish an interracial democracy in the United States after the destruction of slavery. He wanted to prevent, as he put it, the “Africanization” of the country. Under the guise of strict constructionism, states' rights and opposition to big government, previously deployed by Southern slaveholders to defend slavery, Johnson vetoed all federal laws intended to protect former slaves from racial terror and the Black Codes passed in the old Confederate states, which reduced African-Americans to a state of semi-servitude. Johnson peddled the racist myth that Southern whites were victimized by black emancipation and citizenship, which became an article of faith among Lost Cause proponents in the postwar South.
It is a myth that Mr. Trump seems to have fully bought into, given his defense of “beautiful” Confederate statues and monuments. Like Johnson, he uses derogatory language for people of color and he has expressed his preference for Nordic immigrants. Mr. Trump’s handpicked man in charge of immigration policy, the brain behind the separation of families in immigration detention camps, is Stephen Miller, who has recently been publicly revealed to be a white nationalist. The abolitionist feminist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper called Johnson an “incarnation of meanness,” words that are still applicable today.
Both Johnson’s and Mr. Trump’s concept of American nationalism is narrow, parochial and authoritarian. Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, that guarantees equality before the law to all persons and citizenship to all born in the United States. Mr. Trump has threatened both to revoke its constitutional guarantee of national birthright citizenship and have the entire amendment overturned. Johnson’s highhanded actions and disregard of Congress led to Thomas Nast’s famous “King Andy” cartoon in Harper’s Weekly. Today Mr. Trump’s unaccountable style of governing reflects his Attorney General William Barr’s doctrine of unitary executive power, oblivious to the checks and balances and separation of powers in the Constitution.
The American republic was founded on the repudiation of the divine right of kings to rule. That is the reason that the impeachment clause of the Constitution holds elected officials, including the president, accountable for bribery and criminal wrongdoing.
Johnson and Mr. Trump not only managed to diminish their office but also engaged in actions that have dangerous repercussions for American democracy. Their crimes are not just specific impeachable acts but also the systematic undermining of the rule of law, democratic governance, human rights and the national interest. Johnson pardoned nearly all high-ranking Confederates who had taken up arms against the United States government. In one case, he also pardoned a white Virginian who murdered a black man in broad daylight and looked the other way at reports of massacres of freed people and harassment of Southern white unionists. Mr. Trump, against the advice of the Defense Department and the Navy, has just pardoned a Navy SEAL, Edward Gallagher, who violated the military’s rules of conduct. He has even hinted that he wants the disgraced Chief Gallagher at his rallies.
What Mr. Trump and his enablers call the “deep state” is nothing but the rules and norms of democratic government. It has become clear from the testimony of upstanding national security and foreign service officials like Ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and William R. Taylor, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill and David Holmes that he undermined the very fabric of the United States government in seeking to profit personally from the conduct of foreign policy, by withholding aid from a democratically elected anti-corruption Ukrainian government unless its officials investigated his domestic political rivals, the Bidens. Over 150 years ago, the testimony before Congress of ordinary patriotic Americans, former slaves, Southern unionists, Northern travelers to the post war South, Union Army officers and federal officials completely discredited Johnson’s racist policies.
Mr. Trump openly invites and, now we know, privately demands foreign interference in our elections, a scenario that the men who founded the American Republic and wrote its Constitution repeatedly warned against. He attacks his opponents and even supporters who do not agree with him on Twitter. Johnson, too, loved to vilify his opponents, like Frederick Douglass and Radical Republican congressmen. Both presidents precipitated a constitutional crisis that could be solved only through an impeachment process. The author Brenda Wineapple has written that Johnson was “the chief architect” of his own impeachment. The same is true of Mr. Trump.
Unlike with Nixon and Mr. Clinton, attempts to impeach Johnson and Mr. Trump preceded the actual impeachment inquiry because both systematically undermined federal laws and democratic institutions the moment they took office. Their personal narcissism and disregard for the principles of democratic governance led to early calls for impeachment. In Johnson’s case, violation of the Tenure of Office Act when he removed Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, led to his impeachment. While this law encroached on executive privilege, it was intended to prevent Johnson’s interference in congressional Reconstruction and his increasingly dangerous obstructionism. It was the law of the land when Johnson violated it by firing Stanton. Similarly, while it is certainly a president’s prerogative to appoint and fire American ambassadors, the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch was the result of a sleazy attempt to pressure Ukraine’s government.
In 1866, a Northern public sickened by Johnson’s antics and vitriolic rhetoric elected a thumping majority of his opponents. In 2018, the country handed a rebuke to Mr. Trump by electing a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, which has now begun impeachment proceedings against him. Trump has handed his own smoking gun to them, his infamous call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Johnson removed and belittled Union Army officers. The Purple Heart-wearing Lt. Col. Vindman has been subject to nativist, anti-Semitic slurs and death threats after his moving testimony.
Johnson’s defenders, like Senator William Saulsbury of Delaware, the one man who could drink him under the table, and Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky, were as oblivious to facts, reason and propriety as their modern counterparts, Senator Lindsey Graham and Representatives Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. The vote to convict Johnson lost as a handful of moderate Republicans voted to acquit when he promised not to interfere in Reconstruction any longer, though he remained unrepentant, continuing to criticize the attempt to establish black citizenship until the day he died in 1875. But Johnson was damaged goods after impeachment, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats wanted him anywhere near their presidential tickets in1868.
House Democrats face a different scenario today given a Republican majority in the Senate. The likelihood of convicting Mr. Trump is much lower than it was for Johnson. The Republican Party, no longer the party of Lincoln, refuses to be persuaded, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Like the Republicans in 1868, House Democrats are not waiting for a presidential election to send a rebuke to a president who behaves with impunity against his country, its ideals and interests. The House Judiciary Committee would do well to develop articles of impeachment not just on narrow legalistic grounds but also on the broad ground of violation of the Constitution and the undermining of American democracy.
In drawing up 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson, House Republicans focused narrowly on violation of the Tenure of Office Act in the first nine. But the last two articles accused Johnson of opposing Reconstruction and bringing “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach,” onto “the Congress of the United States” and for his “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing,” language that could be used verbatim against Mr. Trump. As Representative George Julian pithily put it, Johnson ought to be impeached for “his career of maladministration and crime.”
Some of the most damning testimony against Mr. Trump has come from impressive women like Ambassador Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill. Their 19th-century counterparts were abolitionists like the stalwart Lydia Maria Child, who wrote words as true today as then: “Every true lover of the country must want to creep into a knot hole and hide himself, wherever the name of our president is mentioned.” Johnson and Mr. Trump are both authoritarian demagogues who threatened the world’s longest lasting experiment in democratic republicanism. Democrats must convince the American people not only of Mr. Trump’s specific crimes, but of the very real danger that his continuing presence in office presents to the Republic."
Opinion | Donald Trump, Meet Your Precursor - The New York Times