There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
On February 12, when 43 Republican Senators voted to acquit former President Trump of the charge of incitement to insurrection, they reaffirmed the Faustian bargain they had made with him in 2016. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell was the central figure in the GOP’s bargain: in exchange for tax cuts and conservative judicial nominations, he and the Republican senators enabled, supported, tolerated, and lent mainstream conservative legitimacy to Trump. For a month after the 2020 election which Trump had obviously lost, McConnell remained silent while Trump repeated the “stab in the back” lie about the “stolen election.” So, it was not surprising that on February 12, 2021, faced with overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt, that McConnell voted with 42 other Republican Senators to acquit him. He was at the center of that nullification. We do not know if McConnell could have found an additional ten votes to convict Trump, but there have been no reports that he tried to do so or that he was willing to join a minority short of the needed 67 votes on the basis of the law, the constitution, the facts and the evidence.
For Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson and Lindsay Graham, and no doubt others, the vote was also an expression of ideological agreement with Trump and Trumpism. For them the bargain with Trump had moved beyond McConnell’s marriage of convenience to an alliance of shared ideological conviction or of a cynicism so deep that they repeated his lies in public. Their problem was that the House Managers were led by former law professor Jamie Raskin, with a remarkable team composed of Diana DeGette, David Cicilline, Joachim Castro, Eric Swalwell, Ted Lieu, Stacey Plaskett, Joe Neguse and Madeline Dean. That team offered a blend of argument and evidence, from their pretrial brief to Raskin’s opening statement, and those of others that set a formidable standard of clarity and causal reasoning that historians would applaud in their own work. The vote to acquit by the 43 Republican Senators was a clear case of jury nullification, that is, of rendering a verdict that ignored the weight of fact, evidence, and argument.
If the Republicans did not want to admit that a team of Democrats made the case based on the Constitution, the law and the facts, they could have sought shelter in the warm embrace of Charles Cooper, the lawyer with close ties to the Republican legal establishment, who several days before the trial argued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that impeaching a former President was indeed within the constitutional powers of the Senate. Or, they could point to the 144 constitutional experts, include leading conservatives, who issued a public statement that the First Amendment protection of free speech did not defend the right of the President of the United States to incite a mob to attack the Capitol. Or, being the lawyers many of them are, they could admit that Raskin, and the team of House Managers shredded Trump’s lawyers efforts to use those arguments. Conservative legal scholars and practitioners, as well as the House Managers gave McConnell the arguments, he needed to attempt to rally his Republicans majority to convict Trump. He could have done so with paeans to constitutional originalism, and of the prerogatives of the Senate.
In the course of the trial, Plaskett and Dean documented Trumps’ months long campaign repeating the lie of the stolen election and the need to come to Washington on January 6th. Trumps’ lawyers offered no rebuttal to Raskin’s rejection of the “January exception” to Presidential misconduct in the last weeks in power, nor did they refute the factual record about Trump’s campaign of lies and its consequences. They did not refute the House Managers’ accounts of Trump’s tactical use and approval of political violence. The Senators themselves knew that Trump refused to order his mob to stop when the entire Congress, its staff, and others working in the Capitol were in imminent physical danger. They also knew that when House Manager and Congressman Joaquin Castro said Trump had “left everyone in this Capitol for dead,” he, Castro, was telling them a truth they knew as well as anyone.
Yet after all that, McConnell voted to acquit Trump, hoping that he could assuage the enraged Trump base. Yet McConnell, firmly planted in the reality of this world rather than that of Trump’s “alternate facts,” then unleashed the anger he had kept under wraps for the past four years. As McConnell’s denunciation of Trump may be lost in the mass of words about the trial, it bears quoting at length. Bear in mind, that these are the words spoken by McConnell, not Raskin.
Let me put that to the side for one moment and reiterate something I said weeks ago: There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their President. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.
The issue is not only the President’s intemperate language on January 6th. It is not just his endorsement of remarks in which an associate urged ‘trial by combat.’ It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe; the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup by our now-President.
I defended the President’s right to bring any complaints to our legal system. The legal system spoke. The Electoral College spoke. As I stood up and said clearly at the time, the election was settled. But that reality just opened a new chapter of even wilder and more unfounded claims. The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things. Sadly, many politicians sometimes make overheated comments or use metaphors that unhinged listeners might take literally.
This was different. This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.
The unconscionable behavior did not end when the violence began. Whatever our ex-President claims he thought might happen that day… whatever reaction he says he meant to produce… by that afternoon, he was watching the same live television as the rest of the world. A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags, and screaming their loyalty to him.
It was obvious that only President Trump could end this. Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the Administration. But the President did not act swiftly. He did not do his job. He didn’t take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed, and order restored. Instead, according to public reports, he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded. He kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election!
Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger… even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters… the President sent a further tweet attacking his Vice President. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence. Later, even when the President did halfheartedly begin calling for peace, he did not call right away for the riot to end. He did not tell the mob to depart until even later. And even then, with police officers bleeding and broken glass covering Capitol floors, he kept repeating election lies and praising the criminals.
In recent weeks, our ex-President’s associates have tried to use the 74 million Americans who voted to re-elect him as a kind of human shield against criticism. Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters. That is an absurd deflection. 74 million Americans did not invade the Capitol. Several hundred rioters did. And 74 million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage that provoked it. One person did.
The new Majority Leader, Senator Charles Schumer, gave an address of ten minutes which, had it not been for McConnell’s statement, would be regarded as one of the most remarkable delivered in the Senate in decades. It too is a very important historical document and should be part of the record on History News Network. Yet McConnell, despite knowing that the House Managers had made their case, joined the jury nullification of the ideologists and cynics in his caucus. He resorted to the constitutional argument about not impeaching a former President, an argument that defies common sense and was rejected by most constitutional scholars and voted to acquit the man he knew was guilty.
It was here that the master tactictian McConnell made a blunder of probable long-term significance. In so doing, he passed up a fleeting and superb opportunity to convict Trump, then disqualify him from running for federal office, and thus take the offensive in a political fight to retake the GOP from Trump’s inflamed base. Instead, McConnell’s denunciation of Trump enraged that Trump base, and confounded what is left of a diminishing number of moderate Republicans. Most importantly it left Trump able to brandish his acquittal and denounce the trial as part of “the witch hunt.” Wounded but not politically dead, Trump remained a danger to the remnants of the GOP that had any claim at all to respect the rule of law.
McConnell thus sustained the Faustian bargain made since 2016. In so doing he failed to learn the meaning of the mob’s chant “hang Mike Pence,” the barbaric calls to find House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Trump’s mocking reference to “Mitch.” Trump and his followers will turn on McConnell and the GOP establishment which voted to acquit but shared McConnell’s hatred of Trump. Trump and his base will turn on Republican politicians in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona who refused to submit to Trump’s threats to overturn the results of a free and fair election. The split in the GOP was going to happen anyway, but now the cynics in touch with reality will enter that battle with the Trumpists unable to say they had used their considerable powers to inflict on him the defeat he deserved.
Such historical moments when forces are aligned as they were on February 12, 2021 do not come often. Though McConnell made all the arguments needed to convict Trump, he blinked at the crucial moment. In so doing, he seized defeat from the jaws of possible victory. Trump’s conviction would not have meant the end of Trumpism, but it would have been a severe blow against the past four years of lies and conspiracies. McConnell’s failure to act on what he knew was true and to rally what troops he had in the Senate emboldened Trumpists, and the right-wing extremist practitioners of violence with whom they are now in a relationship of mutual benefit. Before February 12, Republican mantras about law and order and respect for the Constitution had become threadbare. After the acquittal, there is no reason to believe anything McConnell and the 42 other Republican Senators for acquittal say about the rule of law now. Their pleas for bipartisanship are a bitter joke.
In Nazi Germany, the Faustian bargain launched by Franz von Papen and Otto von Hindenburg with Hitler ended in Germany’s destruction. The clever cynics who thought they could outsmart Hitler, if still alive in 1945, stumbled through the ruins of their country. In numerous works of historical scholarship, our profession has demonstrated that the German conservatives of the 1930s were nowhere near as clever as they thought they were. They too passed up moments when they could have brought the dictator down. After 1933, that tiny number of German conservatives who dared opposed Hitler paid with their lives.
Mitch McConnell and the Republican senators did not live in fear of the Gestapo. On January 6th, Trump endangered their lives but on February 12 their only fear was of possibly losing an election. Yet, on February 12, with really nothing of lasting significance to fear, McConnell refused to use the power of the Constitution and of the United States Senate to convict Trump. He and his fellow partisans combined cowardice and cynicism with what could turn out to be a major strategic blunder. The Faustian bargain had created habits of self-abasement, cynicism and raw self-interest that proved too difficult to shatter.
Tending victims of the 1873 Colfax (La.) Massacre
We often learn most from people who don’t share our worldviews. German Carl Schmitt, a reactionary critic of democracy, provides uncanny insight into the uncivil war of opinion after the 2020 election. Constitutional democracies, Schmitt argues, seek a foundation in legality, that is rule by law, but belief in a state’s legitimacy depends on a sense of tradition embodied in myths and symbols.
On January 6 insurrectionists convinced by the lie of voter fraud legitimated breaking the law because they felt that they were, like the liberty-loving Minutemen of Concord and Lexington, protecting the country. The same invocation of the spirit of 1776 animated the Confederacy, which claimed to protect “liberty” while in fact legitimating slavery. After the Union victory, paramilitary white supremacists imagined themselves as Minutemen redeeming the South from a threat to its way of life.
The response of those rightly horrified by the events of January 6 is more complicated. Understanding the threat to democracy by a lawless attack on the symbolic citadel of “the people,” they mistakenly conflate rule by law with democracy and rely on myths about the nation’s founding after the Revolutionary War and its second founding after the Civil War. For instance, historian Jon Meacham, a frequent media commentator, claims that “the framers intended America’s to be a popular, not a legislative, government. The voters acting through the electoral process, not lawmakers in a parliamentary setting, were to determine the occupancy of the presidency.” In fact, nowhere does the Constitution mention a role for votes by the people. Art II, sec 1, 2 of the Constitution leaves it up to each state to decide how to determine electors. “Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature, thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.”
And yet cries of “un-American” arise when the Arizona state legislature undemocratically proposes a law allowing it to ignore people’s votes and appoint electors in a manner perfectly consistent with the Constitution. Similarly, pundits equate unlawful acts of the insurrectionists on January 6 with ones by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, although their challenges to state certifications followed procedures created by an 1887 law still in force. Rather than chauvinistic piety about rule by law, we need to address undemocratic actions enabled by our Constitution and our legal system.
133 years ago constitutional scholar John Burgess criticized the 1887 law for making our flawed system of electing a president worse and therefore producing “a congestion of the body politic until nothing but blood-letting can relieve it.” [See more here.] Burgess was prophetic. But he also points to the nation’s contradictory past. Like many in the North, as well as the South, he denounced African American suffrage. Nonetheless, he did not have to worry about the Fifteenth Amendment, because it proved ineffectual in protecting Black voters. It is prohibitive, not affirmative. In forbidding states from denying suffrage on the basis of race, it allows other means for suppressing African American and immigrant voters. [See more here.] Unfortunately, partial accounts about the revolutionary change brought about by the constitutional amendments during the nation’s second founding distract from the country’s need to have an amendment that eliminates legal forms of suppression by affirmatively conferring the right to vote on all citizens eighteen years and older.
The major beneficiary of those partial accounts has been Ulysses S. Grant. Like President Biden, Grant faced the almost insurmountable task of reuniting the country while guaranteeing racial justice. Indeed, commentators, politicians, and media historians, urge Biden to combat domestic terrorists as “Ulysses the Silent” attacked the Ku Klux Klan. Introducing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general, Biden himself praised the Grant administration for creating the Justice Department in 1870 in order to destroy the Klan. What actually happened is a warning, not a model.
Grant did invoke the April 20, 1871, KKK Act to break the back of the Klan temporarily in South Carolina, where his attorney general tried those arrested in federal courts. But success was limited. White supremacists thrived in other states. In South Carolina, most of the Klan’s leaders escaped before trial. Furthermore, in the middle of the trials Grant fired his attorney general, most likely pressured by railroad tycoons upset with actions against monopolies. The new attorney general eventually stopped the trials. When ringleaders of the bloody racist massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873 appealed to the Supreme Court, they were acquitted in a ruling that paved the way for undermining federal legislation against domestic terrorism. That decision was written by a Chief Justice appointed by Grant and joined by his other appointees. Even worse, in a gesture of national unity, Grant pardoned all Klansmen still in federal prison. [See more here.]
Presidential pardons are part of the Constitution, which also does not forbid a president from pressuring his attorney general. Grant replaced his last of numerous attorney generals the final year of his term during a shuffle in the cabinet when Secretary of War William Belknap was caught selling lucrative positions at Indian trading posts for a profit. Warned of his impending impeachment, Belknap ran to the White House where his friend Grant, without questions, accepted his resignation. The Senate tried Belknap anyway, but he was acquitted because 23 senators, who deemed him guilty, claimed the Senate had no jurisdiction over a private citizen. When, as a citizen, Belknap was indicted in the District of Columbia, Grant intervened and instructed his new attorney general to drop charges, which he did.
Myths about the founders and President Grant cannot restore legitimacy to a democracy in the wake of a second presidential impeachment and acquittal and facing competing demands to unify the country, rebuild the economy, address racial injustice, restore confidence in the presidency and Justice Department, deal with a conservative Supreme Court, and manage a pandemic.
An English country doctor?
Many are familiar with the unassuming English Country doctor whose insights and daring human experiment inscribed the first sentence in the story of vaccination we recognize today. Edward Jenner’s discovery of cow-pox vaccination in 1798 became the source for an ever-widening stream of endeavor which came to encircle the globe, culminating 180 years later in the complete eradication of the most feared contagion of all–smallpox.
Jenner did not enjoy a golden career in medicine. His qualifications weren’t recognized by Oxford and Cambridge, and the Royal College of Physicians in London would never admit him because he wasn’t qualified in Latin. ‘In my youth,’ he protested, ‘I went through the ordinary course of classical education, but the greater part of it has long since transmigrated into heads better suited for its cultivation.’ He eventually earned his MD, at the age of 43, from the Scottish University of St Andrews. Jenner preferred natural history and was the first to discover the parasitic behaviour of the cuckoo. In 1806 he at last achieved greater recognition. On receiving a Chinese pamphlet describing Jennerian vaccination he wrote to a confidant, ‘Little did I think, my friend, that Heaven had in store for me such abundant happiness.’ But Jenner was not the originator of immunization. And the true beginnings of inoculation, which lead directly to the vaccines of today, have nothing to do with the Age of Enlightenment or the birth of Western science. So where did this uniquely powerful weapon come from?
A princess and a lady?
The year 2021 – the year of the vaccine - is a significant anniversary. It marks three hundred years since the first well-documented study of immunization to prevent disease in the Western World. On August 9, 1721, as the sun rose over London’s Newgate Prison, the Royal Experiment got underway. The sample size was small: just six subjects were assembled to receive the inoculation. But the team of observers was large and illustrious. At least 25 members of the College of Physicians and fellows of the Royal Society were privileged to witness the moment. Six prisoners, condemned to die on the gallows, received injections of partially dried material from the skin of a patient with smallpox. The trial was a great success: all six recovered quickly after a localised rash. The trial participants were pardoned, released, and protected forever from the dread disease.
The Royal Experiment had been commissioned by King George the 1st’s daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline, following the death of her son from smallpox. Caroline, an intellectual with a lively interest in science, was aware of the Turkish practice of inoculation through Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, explorer, writer and pioneer feminist. Mary introduced the practice to the London aristocracy after observing it in Constantinople.
But this historic, well-documented trial does not reveal the original source of immunisation, and we must look still deeper into the past.
An Emperor and a Slave?
In the same year as the London experiment, Boston in New England suffered a serious outbreak of smallpox, and the influential preacher Cotton Mather initiated a trial of the practice. The immunizations were undertaken by Dr Zabdiel Boylston, who successfully protected 242 subjects. But where did Mather learn about inoculation?
The information had come to him years earlier, and the source of this singular wisdom was a North African man transported as a slave. Soon after Mather acquired him, the enslaved African told Mather of the operation he’d undergone, which had given him “something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it,” as was customary among his people. Mather named his slave Onesimus. Onesimus eventually succeeded in purchasing his freedom, but the real name of the African who carried the wisdom of inoculation to the New World in 1706 will always remain a mystery.
Yet smallpox inoculation was not exclusively an African tradition. When Chinese Emperor Fulin died of smallpox in 1661, his third son, K’ang-hsi, succeeded him, chosen because he’d survived smallpox. K’ang-hsi was a passionate advocate of inoculation and in the late 1600s, he wrote a letter to his children: “The method of inoculation having been brought to light during my reign, I had it used upon you, my sons and daughters … and you all passed through the smallpox in the happiest possible manner… The courage which I summoned up to insist on its practice has saved the lives and health of millions of men. This is an extremely important thing, of which I am very proud.”
But Emperor K’ang-hsi was not the first to champion inoculation.
Centuries of wisdom in African and Eastern Civilizations?
Although inoculation was widespread in African and Eastern cultures by the early Eighteenth century, scholars remain uncertain about when the practice first began. Most point to two specific accounts, one in a Chinese text, the other an Indian, written around 1550. Traditional beliefs in the Ottoman Empire held that inoculation was originated by Arabs sometime before 1550, and spread along trade routes through Africa and the Middle East to India. Inoculation may be more ancient than this, but we can never know for sure.
Today, communities of color are hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic but are much less likely to receive protective vaccination. As ethnic minorities are targeted by falsehoods about the contents of vaccines and the motivation behind vaccination policy, it’s good to know the truth about the origins of immunisation, the most successful medical measure to save lives and prevent disease.
If President Trump had handled the coronavirus pandemic with even moderate competence, he probably would have been reelected. Fact: In the 2020 election half of our 50 states favored Trump, and if he had won just four more (Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona), each of which he lost by less than 1 percent of the vote, he would have been reelected. Fact: 74 million of our fellow citizens, 47 percent of those who voted, wanted Trump to continue in office for another four years. He received nearly ten million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.
Consider this: If just men had voted, the winner would have been Trump. The same goes for all these other groups: whites, Christians, married people or those over age 45, those living in small towns and rural areas or in the South and Midwest, people making over $100,000 per year or those who thought they were better off financially than in 2016, and those for whom the economy was their most important issue (see various exit polls, e.g., here and here).
What if Trump had won? How could so many people have supported a man who made tens of thousands of false statements during his presidency, who had been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women? Under whom our physical climate and respect for democracy eroded. What did such a high level of Trumpian support say about our country? Has the moment of greatest danger passed?
Sweeping generalizations are always dangerous, and historians are trained to avoid them. For example, among the groups mentioned above that gave majority support to Trump, such as men, a significant portion (even though a minority) did not. So we cannot say all men, or all whites, or all Christians supported Trump.
So what can we say? What generalizations can we make about Trump voters in 2020? What follows are some that we feel a high percentage of confidence in making, realizing that when we say “Trump voters” we do not mean all of his supporters, just a significant number of them.
1) Trump voters are uncomfortable with America’s changing demographics. Overwhelmingly white, male and Christian, they look like the old America. This may be as good a clue as any as to why they voted the way they did. Time and again Trump played on his voters’ tribal identity as an aggrieved group who had come to see themselves as strangers in their own land. While his slogan — “make America great again” — can be read in multiple ways, it’s clear that it mainly played on his voters’ anger as a seemingly eclipsed group whose social status is in decline. In reality, white male Christians retain privileges minorities can only dream about. But as the social scientist Thomas Gilovich has shown human beings under-appreciate the tailwinds at their back. What is salient are the headwinds.
2) Trump voters are attracted to hateful appeals rooted in sexism, xenophobia, and racism, among others. Most significantly, they are delighted that in Trump’s America it was perfectly acceptable to publicly confess that you don’t like women who are powerful, immigrants who look different than you do, and black and brown people who take pride in their race.
3) Trump voters are angry. While the news media reflexively describe them as fearful, social scientists have found that anger is the predominant emotion. Trump voters are angry a woman ran for the presidency in 2016 and the vice presidency in 2020. They are angry the country is filling up with immigrants with brown skin. They are angry manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico and China. And, of course, they are angry the world seems to have left them behind. The significance of this is that anger amplifies voters’ outrage and stymies them from reconsidering their views in the face of evidence contrary to their assumptions. Angry voters generally are disinclined to compromise and are intolerant of those who do. Their anger is not incidental to their politics. Rather, it sometimes seems to be the main point. This often makes them seem paranoid, which puts them in the same camp as earlier generations of right-wingers studied by historians like Richard Hofstadter.
When anger is married to tribalism, as it is in Trump voters, it is unsurprising that they often behave like members of a cult impervious to facts. Like those in the infamous 1950s UFO cult who refused to admit they were wrong when their prophesy of the end of the world failed to materialize, Trump voters adamantly refuse to acknowledge that their belief in numerous conspiracies involving the “deep state,” elections officials, and Democrats might be unfounded.
To the consternation of liberals, Trump voters often go to great and ridiculous lengths to justify themselves. But it may be that their crazy conspiracy theories are less a reflection of their actual beliefs than a measure of their partisan commitments. As social scientists have noted, groups often ask members to demonstrate their fealty by requiring them to adhere to strange beliefs, a practice known as costly signaling. This, rather than obtuseness, may explain why some 70 percent of Republicans claim to believe that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. A side benefit is that the insistence that Trump won is yet another way to “own the libs.”
4) What draws voters to Trump is both his populist appeal and its simple-minded dichotomies. His voters revel in Trump’s us-versus-themism, loudly cheering when the president singles out the media as the enemy of the people. Trump loyalists relish the belief that he stands with them, the little guy, against a corrupt elite. The feeling underlying this simplistic populism supercharges their belief in their own virtue.
5) Finally, Trump voters exhibit a profound indifference to the problems facing the country as a whole. What energizes them is their list of grievances. The Republican Party’s decision not to even draft a party platform in 2020 speaks volumes. Issues like climate change did not even make it into the top ten of Trump voters’ concerns. The evidence that their criteria for selecting a president was much narrower than any consideration of our country’s overall good is overwhelming.
Given the above traits characteristic of Trump voters it is not difficult to understand why the country is as polarized at it is. But distinctions are in order. The 74 million people who voted for Trump do not constitute an undifferentiated mass. Most importantly, millions of them voted for Trump solely because he had an R next to his name. The pool of deadenders is undoubtedly much smaller than his astonishing vote tally would suggest at first glance. They probably number less than a quarter of the whole group. Our evidence: during Trump’s first impeachment trial only 24 percent of Republicans said that nothing could get them to change their minds.
Looking at the present state of our country, at the continuing polarization, it is natural to ask whether now, with Trump’s defeat, we are over the worst of it. To begin with, however, we should acknowledge that the seeds of Trumpism were not some foreign import but sprouted from American soil.
One of us has written books indicating how ill informed American voters were in 2008 and how in 2016 truth was less important to voters than their own biases. The other author of this essay has written on how the anti-intellectualism, selfish individualism, racism, crass materialism, and machoism that characterizes Trump was nourished by elements present in U. S. culture for centuries.
But Trump accentuated these traits and many Republicans are now still gorging on blatantly biased media like Fox News and hyper-polarization has become the norm. Add in social media like Twitter and Facebook, whose algorithms reward extremist posts, and you get the warped, dysfunctional politics characteristic of our age. But as Ezra Klein has recently argued, it’s not polarization per se that gave us Donald Trump. It’s the system itself. Absent the Electoral College we most likely would be entering the second term of President Hillary Clinton. Were voter suppression not rampant Democrats would no doubt have increased substantially their hold on the House of Representatives. The Senate is the bloody mess it is because of the filibuster.
President Biden has attempted to reduce polarization, but Trumpian thinking (and non-thinking) remains dominant among those still considering themselves Republicans, and we should not forget how perilously close we came in November 2020 to almost inflicting irreparable harm on our American democracy (a shift of under 50,000 votes in three states would have forced the election into the House of Representatives where Trump likely would have prevailed). Whether Biden can succeed in reducing the tempests of the Trump presidential years or whether they will continue to rage on remains an open question.
TO: Joseph R. Biden
FROM: G. Washington
RE: Hard-won Lessons
In more than two centuries since I left the presidency, I have struggled many times to hold my tongue concerning the course of my successors. It remains a sore trial merely to hear the names of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
Cognizant as I am that advice is rarely welcomed, even when delivered from beyond the grave, I cannot remain silent at this pivotal moment for our republic, the success of which was the pre-eminent object of my life. You have just taken office as president and face domestic and natural crises as threatening as any armed conflict. I offer these modest precepts as evidence of my warm hopes for the restoration of our experiment in self-government.
Integrity Matters – Corruption, self-dealing, and greed have always been with us. My Deputy Secretary of the Treasury was caught fiddling with public securities. He was promptly dismissed. My second Secretary of State entered into compromising conversations with the French ambassador. He, too, was soon gone. The president and senior officials must never serve their own interests at the expense of the people.
Presidential Norms Matter – We did not have this term, but well knew its substance. A president without dignity wounds the dignity of the presidency. You must accord to Congress, judges, and state officials the respect that their offices warrant, even if their behavior disappoints you. The president must never use the powers of office to persecute adversaries or protect friends. Foreign powers must be held at arm’s length; they will ever pursue their own interests, never those of the United States.
Do Not Lose Your Temper in Public – Known for having a high temper, I well understand the urge to unburden one’s mind to those who misapprehend the public good. Doing so, however, forfeits the stature of your office. Also, you now have something called “tweets”? Forbear from tweeting.
Do Not Dwell on Who Gets the Credit – Your responsibility is to preserve and strengthen this much-blessed nation. If you succeed, it will be noticed. If you fail, that too will be noticed. Chasing after praise will change neither outcome. In my first term, we struck a bargain to heal the country’s finances while placing our seat of government on the banks of the Potomac. Historians credit the deal to Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson. I have oft been tempted to point out who was then president, and that the president alone was gratified by both halves of that bargain. It remains a great temptation. (see Robert P. Watson redeeming Washington’s role in siting the capital city here—ed.)
You Cannot Fix Everything – Address what is most important. Perfection is not possible. In my years as president, we made a viable constitutional republic and avoided foreign wars. The nation enjoyed prosperity after a crushing economic depression. Those were my highest goals. When I went home, much remained to do: the French terrorized our shipping; white settlers stole Indian lands; slavery prevailed widely; we had neither a national university nor a serious military establishment. And yet I finish very well in those presidential rankings your historians persist in creating.
Draw the Nation Together – Factionalism and internal strife were great dangers in my time, and are again. As a Virginian, I was mistrusted by the commercial and laboring people of New England. In my first journey as president, I traveled through the northeast to meet its people and demonstrate my good will. You would be wise to tread a similar path.
Consider What History Will Think – You confront daunting decisions. Concerns of the moment should not control your choices. Consider, rather, what will seem right in years and decades to come. You will not go wrong.
There Are Worse Things Than a One-Term President – I am remembered for setting the precedent of serving only two terms in office. What is forgotten is how I longed to leave office after one term, but my friends insisted I must serve another. A second term affords greater opportunity to annoy the people as errors accumulate and achievements become more elusive. Four years are sufficient. That Lincoln fellow, you know, served only one term. He is remembered rather well.
Good luck, and Godspeed.