BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | JUL 26, 2017
“The election of this man as President filled him with ‘smoldering dread.’ He believed that the worst said about this man was all too true. He had not only lied but had been caught in that lie, and the great majority of voters didn’t care.”
President Donald Trump? No. It is an excerpt from a new book describing how Henry Clay felt about the election of President Andrew Jackson, 190 years ago. The book by David and Jeanne Heidler is a vivid look back at the life of one of America’s greatest political figures.
Clay was the Great Compromiser, elected in his first term the youngest House Speaker in history, a US Senator, and candidate for President, several times. Clay feared for the Republic’s survival under Jackson: “‘No greater calamity…has fallen to our lot since we were a free people,’ he said with great sadness.’ Something beyond politics, beyond elections, beyond speeches, and policies was terribly wrong with the country.”’
Jackson’s election in 1828 was considered then as now one of the most vicious and vile campaigns in American history. It made Donald Trump in 2016 milquetoast.
This kind of historic parallel gives the modern era some perspective and some relief from our collective hysteria. History is a unique classroom and the best laboratory for political education. Historical figures such as Clay can be the most inspiring teachers.
It is tough to overestimate the value of historical perspective, yet it is sadly unappreciated. In a system of governance where public knowledge serves as the most impenetrable armament against despotism, we spend too much time at recess. The quality of history education in secondary and higher education is appalling. Some universities offer hollow degrees in history and teach Game of Thrones trivia over constitutional separation of powers.
American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) studies have found that 83 percent of colleges and universities do not require a basic course in US history, and that 81 percent of seniors from top colleges and universities failed a high school level history exam. “It is possible that a student can major in history at George Washington University without taking a survey course in United States history,” ACTA observed.
The same affliction is evident throughout society among all ages. A recent survey found that about 30 percent of the American public believes we won our independence from Mexico. There are young Americans who think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. You have to wonder how many Americans know the Continental Congress actually adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 2, not July 4?
History can help us understand that no matter how extraordinary or bizarre the current political circumstances are, we have most likely been there before. The past is, indeed, prologue…study the past.
That point was brought home in an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal by political pro Karl Rove.
Many do not understand, he wrote, why the world’s most powerful man—that would be President Trump—acts on “childish impulses or why the world’s oldest political party has twisted itself into a posture of ‘mindless’ resistance. America has appeared broken in the past yet recovered its vigor, creativity, prosperity, and leadership,” he observed.
As evidence, Rove recounted the state of affairs more than a century ago as our government was still reeling from the civil war, fighting off recessionary economies, political corruption, and partisan gridlock in Congress.
Still, he wrote, “maybe this time is different. Maybe America is really fading like the Roman Empire. Maybe social media is so corrosive that the damage it does cannot be repaired. Maybe democracy is dying. Maybe the US government is crippled by the “deep state” and fake news. And maybe the lack of trust in Washington, Congress, and the presidency cannot be reversed.
“Don’t bet on it,” he concluded. “America specializes in comebacks.”
Americans are, indeed, a durable, determined, and motivated people with impressive survival instincts.
But Rove asks the right questions.
Is our version of democracy dying? “Remember, democracy never lasts long,” John Adams surmised. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.“ If Adams were here today, he would no doubt scratch his head in utter bewilderment and wonder why we seem bent on self-destruction. “Posterity,” he once admonished us, “You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Are we screwing up? Are we wasting our democracy? Are we exhausting its resources? Are we plundering the treasures the founders left for us? Or is it just Trump who’s screwing up. Is he the villain and we the victims?
We may never know until it’s too late, but there is plenty of reason to wonder and worry.
There is a cancer eating away at the American body politic, and maybe society as a whole. It’s been there for decades, sometimes dormant, sometimes in remission, but its been there, before the amazing business genius in the Oval Office skidded through his first bankruptcy.
It has been eating away at the institutions on which representative democracy relies–the institutions of governance and politics, public and private education, organized religions, civic activism, and maybe most importantly, American journalism; may it rest in peace. These institutions have helped shape the American character and kept the citizenry moored to a basic set of values and basic standards of behavior, tradition, and belief. In some respects they have been the keeper of our public conscience.
Not so much anymore. Institutional erosion has been occurring like a California mudslide, and the erosion may help explain why we are so angry, so hurtful and hateful, so disillusioned and divided, so distrusting and fearful of the future. Instead of calming fears, tempering emotions, and filling the knowledge-gap, many of these institutions feed on them.
The broader implications of our political condition should be given more attention and thought. President Trump isn’t the cancer, he is but one tumor, only a symptom of the problem. Use any analogy you like. He is only one pothole on a crumbling bridge, a broken window in a burning house, a drunken sailor on a sinking ship.
Donald Trump isn’t smart enough or dumb enough to have gotten us to this juncture in our political life on his own in just six months or a year and six months. And he alone cannot destroy what was once the greatest nation on earth, even with the help of Steve Bannon or the new performer in the center ring, Anthony, ‘the mooch’ Scaramucci, who former broadcaster Mary Garofalo observed, looks an awful lot like John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character Tony Mereno. The Mooch seems intent upon out-Trumping Trump.
Institutional decline can be see most vividly in the Federal Government and the political process that shapes it. Our politics have been getting uglier and more destructive for decades, at least since those two tectonic plates, former Speakers Newt Gingrich and Jim Wright, brought to the surface the molten partisan lava already stirring beneath the surface. Gerrymandered congressional districts, too much money in politics, partisan extremism, ideological rigidity, and a growing sense of citizen alienation from government existed long before Trump discovered reality TV, the fake entertainment that gave him such insight into fake news.
The way we govern, the actual process, hasn’t been reformed and modernized in at least a quarter of a century, so it is no wonder legislating has become even more difficult. Newer members of Congress have precious little experience with the regular order of how laws are made because they’ve never done it. Former state legislators who come to Congress think they have but soon realize state legislatures and the national Congress are little alike. Those who have come from small business who believe they can apply their business acumen to government soon learn government is not a business, nor should it be. Leaders in both parties and both houses of Congress keep tight reign over the decision-making, dismiss and denigrate regular order, and forget that majority rule is a bipartisan term that demands more from both majority and minority parties. Overbearing leadership is troubling. A senior staff person for Speaker Paul Ryan rudely declared to some visitors from the Midwest that “You don’t live in the real world, I live in the real world. Really?
The American media are worse, performing more badly and more irresponsibly than government. There are times when it is hard to distinguish between Trump tweets and pundit bloviating.
Despite the erosion of our institutions and the concern we should have for them, national media attention is focused only on the President and his tweets. He is a moneymaker, so they have their audiences overdosing on his antics, overreacting to his taunts, and creating crises where there aren’t even problems yet. It is tearing us farther apart, corrupting our values, and distracting us from real issues. Social Security is headed toward bankruptcy, automatic vehicles are less than a decade away. Our national infrastructure, from the electric grid to crumbling highways, has been badly neglected. People do not believe any more that their children will be better off than them. Violent crime, drug addiction…no need to continue.
The ultimate cure and the restoration of political and social institutions lie in the American character. But character cannot be exercised or projected in anger, in distrust, in cynicism, and self-indulgent political isolation and extremism practiced at both ends of the political spectrum, from Washington to Walla Walla.
Americans need to get a grip. If they do, those who are supposed to be serving them will, too. It is tragic how the President has decided to shape the persona of his Presidency, but–hard to believe–this country has bigger problems than Trump, problems that were here before him and problems that will be bigger when he leaves the stage. If the country doesn’t address those problems with a clear head and detachment from political hysteria, the atmospherics that spawned Hurricane Donald will spawn another and another.
The great irony is that if we quit jumping out of bed at 2 in the morning to see what Mr. Trump is tweeting, he would probably be a better President and we could get some sleep.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.