Why Donald Trump is more dangerous than Andrew Johnson
Sidney Milkis and Daniel Tichenor compare our first impeachment crisis with today's
President Trump has reacted to the House impeachment inquiry in predictable fashion, angrily denying any wrongdoing, spinning “witch hunt” conspiracies, and viciously attacking his accusers and political rivals, demanding, for example, that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” On Sunday, he even embraced the suggestion that removing him from office could prompt a “Civil War like fracture.”
His combative response inevitably brings to mind President Andrew Johnson, another famous impeachment target whose contemporaries viewed him as emotionally volatile, publicly coarse and recklessly hostile to presidential and constitutional norms. Despite the many personal and stylistic similarities between the two, the political fallout of a Trump impeachment would be far more dangerous than any before.
The reason lies in how the powers of modern administrative government have become joined to partisanship in a polarized nation. This fusion has turned the contemporary party system into a weapon for the promotion of the president’s agenda and fostered a visceral base of supporters who disdain the virtues of deliberation, compromise and pragmatic government. While Congress must hold Trump accountable as an individual, we also must address these broader systemic flaws that have enabled him to undertake such behavior with impunity in the first place.
The powers of modern administrative government have become joined to partisanship in a polarized nation.
Like Trump, Johnson was vicious under political duress. At staged rallies, he compared himself to Jesus, launched into ruthless personal attacks against “traitorous” Republican opponents and called for the lynching of political rivals like Thaddeus Stevens and Wendell Phillips. Johnson’s extemporaneous harangues also included conspiracy theories accusing the “Radical Congress” of nurturing black violence in the South and “poisoning the minds of the American people” against him. The Republican press declared Johnson “a vile, drunken demagogue disgracing the presidency,” and even his allies lamented that “he is a slave to his passions and resentments.” Disgusted voters responded by giving anti-Johnson Republicans supermajorities in both houses of Congress.
That set up the titanic clash between Johnson and Radical Republicans in Congress that played out in 1868 and raised important constitutional questions. After Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, the House issued 11 separate articles of impeachment against him. Revealing just how dangerous Johnson’s harangues against his political enemies were deemed to be in the 19th century, one of the articles condemned the president’s inflammatory speeches for attempting to bring Congress into “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach.”
Johnson’s Senate trial riveted the nation; newspapers covered each twist and turn with relish, and huge crowds packed the gallery (only after securing cherished admission tickets) to hear senators make their arguments. Johnson narrowly escaped conviction, but he was deeply isolated politically: A former Democrat who had joined Abraham Lincoln on the 1864 “national unity” ticket, he failed to unite a loose and fractious coalition of disgruntled Democrats, conservative Republicans and white Southerners. As a result, he failed to secure either party’s nomination in 1868 and limped off the political stage, a demagogue shorn of power.
[Johnson] failed to secure either party’s nomination in 1868 and limped off the political stage, a demagogue shorn of power.
And herein lies the difference between Johnson’s situation and Trump’s. Today, Trump is far from isolated or defanged. This is because two significant — and foreboding — developments have dramatically reshaped contemporary American politics: a deep partisan divide driven by movement activists, and an extraordinary concentration of unilateral administrative power in the hands of modern presidents.
On the left, activists pushed for civil rights, women’s rights and an antiwar agenda in the 1960s and 1970s, shifting power away from party bosses and elites. During the 1980s and 1990s, conservative evangelicals and other right-wing activists inspired by the Reagan Revolution transformed the GOP into a movement party with fervent commitment to traditional values and new election strategies that emphasized not reaching out to the mythical median voter, but mobilizing the party’s most fervent base supporters. In the years since, both liberal and conservative movement activists have pulled the parties away from the center, energizing grass-roots bases, shattering areas of postwar consensus and fueling ideological polarization and legislative stalemate.
In this context, political moderation and compromise win few, if any, rewards. Each party’s standard-bearers need not even evince the personal qualities valued by activists to win their devotion; the true test is whether they deliver the partisan political goods. As Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. put it in explaining broad Christian-right support for Trump during the 2016 campaign: “We’re not electing a pastor-in-chief.”