Been There Done That
When, in some circles, there is talk of The Donald’s unfitness for office, Andrew Johnson’s name may be mentioned. That’s because he was impeached, and, had there been one more vote for conviction in the Senate, President Johnson would have been removed from office (1868). But those who, for this reason, link Johnson and Trump would be surprised to learn how much both presidents had in common.
Not that there’s a perfect match. Johnson was born in a log cabin and into rural poverty, lacked formal education and started out as a humble tailor. But then he rose (thanks to real estate investments) went into politics, became a Tennessee State Legislator, Governor, Congressman, U.S. Senator and, as a Democrat, was placed on a Union slate as Vice Presidential candidate by Lincoln in 1864. Trump, we know, traveled a different route.
But, now, observe the parallels:
• Johnson, like Trump, regarded himself as an outsider. Contemporaries were highly critical, viewed him as unpleasant, rigid, isolated and stubborn. “Very vindictive and perverse in his temper and conduct.” – Such was the verdict of President James Polk. Narcissistic? In a speech (he was regarded as a most effective public speaker) lasting an hour, he referred to himself 210 times, and in another, compared himself to Christ.
• Johnson claimed to speak for the little guy, more specifically, the working classes of the South, exploited, he insisted, by the region’s planter elite. Trump’s anti-establishment common man rhetoric closely echoes those sentiments.
• Johnson detested black slaves. Like Trump’s illegal immigrants, slaves competed unfairly against white workers in the South, and they were, he insisted, the real victims of slavery, deprived “of a fair participation in the labor and production of the rich land of the country.”
• Johnson was an avowed racist. He had, according to his private secretary, “a deep-rooted morbid distress and feeling against the negroes” and opposed allowing the recently emancipated blacks in the South to vote. With regard to Frederick Douglass (who Trump apparently believed has “done an amazing job”), Johnson, a contemporary of Douglass, had harsh words: “I know that damned Douglass,” he railed. “He’s just like any nigger and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” When former Confederates killed scores of blacks in places like Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana, Johnson blamed not those vengeful Southerners for the bloodshed, but those who attempted to defend the victims. Trump’s Charlottesville comments are but a slight variation on such purposeful distortion.
• Trump pledged to drain the swamp, but then proceeded to appoint Wall Street executives, influential lobbyists and other insiders to key posts. Johnson vowed to punish traitorous Southern Confederates but instead pardoned most of them and watched as they assumed high office in one Southern state after another.
• It was Johnson’s firing of Secretary of War Edward Stanton that led to the president’s impeachment, an effort that ultimately failed by a single vote in the Senate. Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey provoked enormous controversy. Will it lead the nation down that same politically explosive path?
Two presidents separated by a century and a half yet in many respects distressingly similar. Whether Trump ever heard of Andrew Johnson is doubtful. And he’d likely dismiss as “fake news” the assertion that his performance played badly the first time. But, in fact, the public back then (he was not nominated for a second term) and historians ever since have judged it most harshly.