JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES
Mark Twain liked to say that ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often does rhyme’. Every hundred and fifty years, I suppose, history has to start to rhyme in the United States. In 1865, a popular President was succeeded by a President who had no clear mandate, who was blustery and not a part of the then Establishment. Sounds a bit like today.
The President was Andrew Johnson, who was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President in Lincoln’s second term. He did not win the Presidency himself, but was Lincoln’s choice of successor if he could not finish his 1865-69 term of office. Shortly after being inaugurated for his second term, Lincoln was killed by an assassin and Johnson took over.
Johnson was a Tennessee Unionist who refused to resign his US Senate seat when that State seceded from the Union. Lincoln had supposed that Johnson would help in the reconciliation of North and South. The Congress elected in 1864 did not contain any Representatives from the Confederacy, for obvious reasons. Instead, it was dominated by the so-called ‘Radical Republicans’, who were committed to controlling the defeated South and to making sure that the former slave population was given its rights as citizens under the Constitution. It wanted to ‘reconstruct’ the South along its chosen lines.
While Johnson was a Unionist, he was not a radical Republican. He was not only not a Republican at all, but a Democrat, to boot. The Congressional leadership did not care for him and it did not take long for Johnson to reciprocate the feeling. He quickly wanted to re-establish State governments in the South, but the Congress wanted to wait until the ex-slaves could be organized by Northern political advisors. Johnson had no use for such people, black or white, and used Presidential Orders to enforce his decisions instead. Eventually, the Congress became so alienated that Johnson became the first President to be impeached. He was not convicted, when the vote fell one short of what was required.
Today, there is this rhyming thing going on. This time the problem person was elected in his own right, but in what has to be in historically a most ambiguous fashion, winning the Electoral College, but losing the popular vote badly. The only other time when a candidate lost the popular vote by any decent margin (not counting Bush’s victory by very few Florida votes in 2000, with a lot of non-recounted votes tossed out that may have sent the election the other way) came in 1876, and, not surprisingly, the close vote then threw the Electoral college into a tie that then threw the Election into the House of Representatives.
So the new President today comes into office with a tarnished victory and facing a Congress full of people who have shown they have little or no regard for him. They acknowledge his win and, as long as he gets along with the Congressional agenda and sticks to the ‘Bully Pulpit’ that he enjoys so much, they will largely leave him alone.
Somehow, I don’t think this is going to work out this way. The new President is not really a Republican at heart, first of all coming from New York City, a place where even Republicans are left-wing on a lot of issues. He plays the nationalist song, but it is not one favored by Congress, which knows this is anathema to the American multinationals, whose interests may or may not include those of Americans when it comes to exploiting business opportunities. He has little to offer the cultural right wing; his non-attendance at any church is something that was not discussed in the election campaign. His defense of Putin and the Russians in the hacking of American campaign bodies has to give a well-disguised frisson to any politician, left or right, who wants to keep his or her country on top of the heap. After all, if the Russians can get away with it, who’s to say the Indians, or Saudis, or whomever, won’t get the idea that American politics are now ‘free-range,’ and not just confined to the Washington lobbyists hired by foreign powers.
No, this is not going to work out well. At some point, the new President is going to, either unwittingly or not, step on a trip wire laid on the ground and set off a confrontation between himself and the Republican Congress. These are people with an agenda that is a combination of evangelicals, old-line fiscal conservatives, neo-con foreign policy people (who don’t like Russians), Breitbart-style nationalists, progressives, and libertarians, and I doubt God could avoid hurting some of these factions’ feelings. Like the Radical Republicans of the late 1860s, these guys are out to change America, and, if the leadup to the Republican nominating convention is any indicator, their ‘Great-Again America’ doesn’t look too much like the President’s.
Add to this the new President’s reluctance to shed almost any version of conflicts of interest in his business affairs, and the probability that some aspect of these affairs will get him entangled in a scandal or two. Like its predecessor of 150 years ago, the Congress will have to do something. Also keep in mind that incoming Vice-President Mike Pence is ‘one of them’, not one of the President’s long-time associates. All he has to do is stay loyal while keeping his nose clean, and the big prize might be handed to him.
Finally, within a couple of years from now, the Democrats should have finished whatever post-election bloodletting is necessary. They will be on the prowl for power. It only took two years after Obama was swept to power for the Democrats to lose the Congress. It may not take any longer for the obverse to happen if there is too much Congressional overreach and embarrassing Presidential silliness.
Not a repeat, but a rhyme…
Copyright Jim McNiven 2017
Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America
Who is a Yankee and where did the term come from? Though shrouded in myth and routinely used as a substitute for American, the achievements of the Yankees have influenced nearly every facet of our modern way of life.
Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing an old transcontinental highway reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific — US 20, which he nicknames “The Yankee Road.”
James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.
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