The Road to the Trump Presidency

by Stephen Knott, author of The Lost Soul of the American Presidency; The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal / Opinions expressed here are entirely his own.

Donald Trump is everything critics of a populist presidency, particularly Alexander Hamilton, warned about—a demagogue who practices the “little arts of popularity” for purposes of firing up his base, a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a purveyor of conspiracy theories, and a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds.

Yet Hamilton’s fear of a demagogic, populist presidency, was realized long before the election of Donald Trump. In fact, the seeds were first planted by Thomas Jefferson in his “Revolution of 1800.” The Sage of Monticello launched the presidency on a populist course that, in the long run, undermined the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. While many members of the founding generation were worried that a demagogue manipulating public passions would destroy the republic, Jefferson argued that public opinion served as the “best criterion of what is best,” and that enlisting and engaging that opinion would “give strength to the government.” As the nation’s only nationally elected figure, Jefferson’s executive was rooted in popular support and thus uniquely situated to serve as a spokesman for and implementer of the majority’s wishes.

Jefferson turned his rival Alexander Hamilton’s arguments on their head, arguing that popular opinion conferred constitutional legitimacy. Jefferson made this abundantly clear in a letter he wrote to James Madison in 1787: “after all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail.” In essence, the majority would govern, not the Constitution.

The “Revolution of 1800” paved the way for the populist presidency of Andrew Jackson who held that the fundamental principle of the American government was majority rule. While the American framers believed in government by consent, they did not believe in government by the majority, believing instead in a system of representation and other “filtering” elements including judicial review, indirect election of Senators, and the Electoral College. Jackson believed that checks on majority rule, including the Electoral College, represented a perversion of the principle that “as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will.”

As all demagogues are inclined to do, Andrew Jackson played upon fears to mobilize his base. No one understood this better than John Quincy Adams, a target of Jackson’s wrath and a champion of the rights of other frequent targets of those resentments, including abolitionists, free Blacks, and Native Americans. Unpopular minorities bear the brunt of the populist presidency, and Adams was one of the last of a dying breed who understood the threat this presented to the American body politic. According to Adams, Jackson was “a man governed by passion rather than reason, a demagogue.”

With Jackson’s election to the presidency, and with the wider success of his movement at the state and local level, the American republic moved from a system designed to check majority tyranny to one where an unfettered majority governed, using its power at the state level to disenfranchise an unpopular minority (free blacks) and to press for the expansion of slavery, and leveraging its powers at the state and the federal levels to remove a different but equally unpopular minority from its midst, Native Americans.

The coalition Jackson assembled was, at bottom, a cauldron of boiling partisan, racial, and class resentments, and in Jackson’s case, all of those elements, plus decades of personal resentments thrown into the mix. Thirty years later, Jackson’s fellow Tennessean, Andrew Johnson, who considered Jackson his beau ideal of a president, stirred the same populist pot on his path to power, rising to prominence as the nineteenth century’s version of Donald Trump.

The refounded presidency of Jefferson and Jackson was embraced by many twentieth century progressives. While Jefferson and Jackson did not believe in an activist federal government, these progressives did. But having unmoored the presidency from the Constitution and grounded it in public opinion, it was a small step for Jefferson’s and Jackson’s heirs to claim that the president spoke for the majority and was uniquely situated to view the whole, and that the people demanded a federal government that could be as big as it wanted to be, led by a president who was as big a man as he wanted to be.

Progressive politicians, Franklin Roosevelt in particular, along with historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Steele Commager, considered Andrew Jackson to be a precursor to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The age of Jackson and the age of Roosevelt may have been a century apart, but both men fought the elites of their day and considered themselves the tribune of the people. As with Jackson, FDR was a genius at firing up his base by labeling his opponents as un-American evil doers.

Sadly, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of those who sought a more responsive, unrestrained presidency, rooted in public opinion. This refounded presidency placed the office on a dangerous and unsustainable path, a path of heightened expectations that encourages a contemptuous view of checks and balances. It also diminished the important unifying role the president was expected to play as head of state, forcing him to become a party leader and policy formulator—in short, a perpetual partisan lightning rod. All of this has contributed to an erosion of respect for the office.

The United States would be well served to return to the constitutional presidency envisioned by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They designed a presidency of “sober expectations,” one that did not pander to or manipulate the public, one that was averse to the notion that it was the president’s job to provide “visionary leadership,” and one that was less inclined to implement the majority will at the expense of political, racial, and economic minorities.

The prospects for a renewal of the office are slim, but not impossible. A recovery of the constitutional presidency, one respectful of the rule of law and appreciative of the role of the president as head of state, rather than full-time rabble rouser, is within our reach. It would require, however, a renewed appreciation for the limits of the office and the limits of politics, along with an understanding that history is littered with examples of leaders who, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “overturned the liberties of republics.” These demagogues began their careers “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Stephen F. Knott (@publius57) is professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His many books include Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, both from Kansas, and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency.

Who’s Intolerant? Hamilton, Trump, and a Klan Essay Contest

By Kelly J. Baker

On Friday, November 18th, vice-president elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton, the immensely popular and award-winning Broadway play, which might have been unremarkable if not for the fact that the Hamilton cast took the opportunity to speak directly to Pence at the end of the show. The New York Times reports that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays vice-president Aaron Burr, read a “statement emphasizing the need for the new administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, a Republican, to work on behalf of all Americans.”

Dixon said: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Pence remained to listen to the whole statement and made no comment.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, president-elect Trump took to Twitter to complain that Pence “was harassed last night…by the cast of Hamilton.” It’s a hard task to make the cast’s respectful statement to Pence appear as harassment, but Trump attempted to while further demanding an apology from the cast. According to Trump, the cast of Hamilton is “rude” and protesters  of the election are “unfair.” And yet, his Twitter stream shows no mention of the sharp increase of hate crimes since the presidential election, which constitutes real harassment and endangerment. The president-elect would like to claim that he, and white America, are under siege. That white Americans are under threat from multicultural America. That white Americans are the real victims, not those so most recently victimized by hate.

Trump’s rhetoric, and his attempt to shift blame, has reminded me of the 1920s Klan, which I study, since I learned there was a chance he would run for president. His campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” was remarkably similar to the 1920s Klan’s appeals to white Protestants.

9780700624478When most people imagine the Klan, they imagine obvious and heavy-handed racism like the Klan of the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1920s order was more mainstream in their white supremacy. Their attempts to win the hearts and minds of white men and women were bolstered by the commonness of racist thought and action. And their rhetoric, emphasizing white Protestant nationalism, transformed them into victims of the changing demographics of the nation. The Klan claimed that Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and African Americans proved dangerous to a nation that the order believed was created by white Protestants for white Protestants. The Klan attempted to demonstrate they were threatened and harassed by non-white and non-Protestant people rather than being themselves threatening harassers.

One way that the Klan tried to accomplish this was relying on the language of tolerance to promote racism and religious hatred.

In 1929, the Ku Klux Klan’s national newspaper, The Kourier Magazine, hosted an essay contest, “What is Intolerance?” The editor explained, “We have always been accused of INTOLERANCE. We know we are not guilty, and this contest should make clear our position and justify it.” The Kourier offered a $50 reward to the best essay, though the newspaper never announced the winner.

For a contest explicitly about intolerance, the guidelines focused, instead, on defining tolerance. The editor urged contributors to write about whether they should tolerate people who disagree with them and when tolerance is no longer a feasible option. The essays interrogated the concept of tolerance as a method to defend the Klan’s intolerance.

In total, the Kourier published eleven essays, including “No Tolerance for Intolerance,” “The Intolerance of Christ,” and “Toleration of Cess-Pools.” The essay writers, both white men and women, attempted to define tolerance and intolerance as separate terms, but the terms emerged more often as synonyms rather than opposites.

For most of the writers, one thing was abundantly clear: Tolerance had limits. Threats to personal identity, religious faith, and nation were unbearable, and the enemies of the Klan were cast as the truly intolerant. The essayists emphasized the long history of Catholic intolerance towards Protestants while another Kourier article in the issue declared that President Lincoln was against racial equality for African Americans. One writer even argued that God was intolerant, so Klan members could be too.

The essays demonstrated that Klan members found tolerance to be an unbearable compromise that proved dangerous to their vision of white Protestant America. Tolerance allowed all kinds of social degradation. A Klanswoman argued that prejudice could be just if it was used to protect the nation’s interests, so intolerance was often righteous choice. For the Klan, particular people, Catholics and African Americans, were never tolerable because they threatened social stability. Tolerance might lead to radical changes in American society in politics, religion, and cultural norms that would displace white Christian dominance. If the 1920s Klan tolerated Catholics or granted equality to African Americans, then Klan members feared that America would decay under the assault of “foreign” peoples, ideas, and religions.

By defining tolerance as problematic compromise, intolerance became the Klan’s preferred method of engaging the world. In “The Tolerance of Protestants,” the essayist noted: “Tolerance ceases to become a virtue when it is used too extremely; when we place too much faith in our fellowmen such tolerance cannot be accepted.”

The danger the Klan feared was too much faith in fellow human beings. Suspicion of others is easier than trust. Intolerance is easier than tolerance. The Klan could claim the mantle of tolerance as long as its members did not have to practice it. Essay by essay, intolerance became a virtue and tolerance was a threat too great to chance.

To put it more starkly, the Klan could be tolerant until some idea, religion, or person questioned the order’s vaunted vision of the white, Protestant nation. When one’s values were threatened, one could no longer be tolerant.

The Klan’s rhetoric of tolerance and intolerance is much more complicated than simple admonitions of prejudice and easy labelings of victims and victimizers. In Regulating Aversion, political theorist Wendy Brown reminds us that tolerance is never an innocent virtue but rather it is a discourse of both power and de-politicization. Tolerance functions often as a supplement to equality rather than as the method to achieve civil rights for the tolerated. Thus, it should not be surprising that the “intolerant” would employ this language to secure political power, media attention, or legitimacy.

And so it is neither surprising that the president-elect, who ran a campaign emphasizing intolerance for people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups of people, would fill spots in his administration with those who profess intolerance and actively work against the civil rights of particular groups of American citizens. Like the Klan, the president-elect wants to claim that he and the vice-president-elect and their supporters are the targets of harassment from “diverse America.” Those of us who understand our diverse America and imagine a more inclusive nation, know who is actually intolerant and where the threat lies.

Kelly J. Baker is the author of Gospel According to the Klan. She is currently the editor of Women in Higher Education and a freelance writer.