Donald Trump’s astounding incompetence in recent months — worsening the effects of the lethal COVID-19 pandemic, mishandling the ensuing economic disaster, and maliciously inflaming racial tensions — has affirmed that he is without question the worst president in American history. None of the other contenders for the dishonor, including James Buchanan and most recently George W. Bush, can match Trump’s record of bringing on or aggravating three devastating crises at the same time, any one of which might have ruined another president’s reputation. And two incidents amid the turmoil suggest that Trump, having made a career out of shafting justice, might finally pay the price.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, recorded on an anguished teenager’s cellphone, may prove the equivalent, for this generation, of the pictures from a half-century ago of police dogs attacking peaceful black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, or of the tear-gassing and beating of black voting-rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, two years later. Trump has skillfully exploited the bitterness and despair of the nation’s racial divide, thrilling his supporters with his undisguised invective, but after that grotesque incident went viral, public consciousness snapped. The nationwide demonstrations that followed, to say nothing of those abroad, have amounted to the largest such protest of American racial injustice ever, far surpassing the protest gatherings of the abolitionists before the Civil War or the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.
Then, a second event, the battle of Lafayette Square on June 1st, dramatized the authoritarian essence of Trump’s presidency, and may well be a turning point that leads to his downfall and repudiation. Besieged by the protests over Floyd’s killing, removed to his White House bunker, and publicly accused of cowardice, Trump would not permit his humiliation to stand. To “dominate,” as he put it, he assembled the press corps in the White House Rose Garden and threatened to unleash the entire U.S. military. Then, he and his entourage — Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (dressed in battle fatigues), and national security adviser Robert O’Brien — marched across the street to pose for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Ivanka Trump pulled a Bible out of her Max Mara handbag and gave the prop to her father, who awkwardly held it up for the cameras. After this performance, workers constructed tall fences around Lafayette Square and the White House. Trump finally had his wall — and Mexico still hadn’t paid for it.
The political calculation behind Trump’s latest reality-TV display had historical overtones, dating back to the white-backlash “law and order” demagogy that helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968. In the Rose Garden, Trump proclaimed, “I am your president of law and order,” at the very minute that police cleared the way for his arrival in Lafayette Square by attacking law-abiding demonstrators with tear gas and sting-ball grenades. Having appropriated Nixon’s tag line, Trump then tried to one-up him with his Bible-toting God-and-country theatrics. Politics receded back into pathology.
Trump badly misjudged the moment. Nixon proclaimed “law and order” in 1968 to challenge the beleaguered incumbent administration of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, and he was able to sustain himself in office as the law-and-order president until his own lawlessness in the Watergate scandal brought him down. Nixon also encased his rougher rhetoric in appeals to national unity, promising to end the divisions under his responsible leadership, distinguishing himself from the arch-segregationist third-party candidate, former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace. Trump, however, is himself the beleaguered incumbent president, trying, with spectacular viciousness, to distract the public from the colossal catastrophes of his own making. And Trump dispenses with themes of unity, content to intensify social hatreds for his own political benefit, and winds up sounding less like Nixon and more like Wallace.
Trump may wish — and many pundits suspect — that the politics of 2020 will repeat those of 1968, and that the president can channel Nixon, deploying fear and racial resentment in order to win re-election. In fact, though, the battle of Lafayette Square and the politics surrounding it evoke a very different time and a very different Republican president, not a winner: Herbert Hoover in 1932.
The early 1930s resembled the present moment in some striking ways. The nation’s economy was in free fall, connected to a global economic downturn, with no clear end in sight. Previous years of national prosperity had badly deepened economic inequality, making the crisis all the more severe for those left behind during the boom times. At home and abroad, authoritarian movements were on the march, demonizing ethnic and racial minorities and trashing liberal democratic values. Dissatisfaction was rampant, but it remained unclear who or what would replace the status quo.
As the summer of 1932 began, President Hoover, up for re-election in the fall, was obviously in deep political trouble. The Great Depression had dragged into its third year with no improvement in sight. In July, the soaring unemployment rate had hit nearly 25 percent, and the nation’s banking system was on the brink of collapse. Still, the Republican Party stuck with the president, despite some grumbling at its nominating convention in June. Two weeks later, a divided Democratic Party national convention wound up nominating New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a reformer dismissed by many influential commentators as a political lightweight. Despite everything, it seemed that Hoover might yet win a second term — until demonstrations in Washington by thousands of distressed veterans of World War I turned ugly.
The protesters, dubbed Bonus Marchers, had been demonstrating in the capital for weeks. In 1924, Congress had approved a bonus outlay to war veterans of up to $500 each to cover the income they had sacrificed during their military service, with full payment scheduled for 1945. After the Depression hit, the out-of-work ex-soldiers began demanding that the government pay them their bonuses immediately; and in May 1932, untold thousands of them from around the country, some accompanied by their wives and children, began descending on Washington, led by an unemployed cannery worker named Walter Waters. Upwards of 15,000 protesters settled into a makeshift shantytown known as a “Hooverville,” on a muddy expanse across the Anacostia River on the outskirts of official Washington. The rest camped out in vacant federal buildings.
The protest leaders were emphatic about their peaceful and patriotic intentions: There would be “no panhandling, no drinking, no radicalism,” Waters declared. Local officials at first responded in kind, and the D.C. police worked with the marchers to ensure their safety and maintain order. On June 15th, defying Hoover’s vow to veto any modification, the House of Representatives passed by a wide margin a bill moving up the date for dispensing the bonus. The crowd of marchers that had crammed into the House gallery erupted in elation, but their joy was short-lived: Two days later, while masses of marchers occupied the grounds surrounding the Capitol building, the Senate rejected the bill by a similar wide margin. Many of the protesters gave up at that point and returned home, but a large contingent decided to stick it out, their presence a continuing rebuke to the callous inaction of the federal government.
The situation gradually deteriorated. On July 28th, Hoover ordered the encampments removed. Violent skirmishes broke out when police attempted to evict protesters from federal buildings slated for demolition. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, convinced that the protests had become a Communist uprising, assembled a massive show of force. Supported by cavalry, tanks, and tear gas, MacArthur’s troops overwhelmed the protesters and torched the shantytown, “amidst scenes reminiscent of the mopping up of a town in the World War,” The New York Times reported. In the day’s melee, two Army veterans were shot and killed, and the infant child of another vet reportedly died from the effects of the tear gas.
Hoover, although dismayed, raised no objection, and in time came to echo the storyline about Communist subversion. Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Roosevelt greeted reports of the bedlam by remarking to his adviser and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “Well, Felix, this elects me.”
Donald Trump bears little resemblance to the learned, self-made President Herbert Hoover. Honored as the Great Engineer, Hoover was best known prior to his presidency for his humanitarian work, first in support of starving Europeans and Russians during and after World War I, and later, as secretary of commerce under presidents Harding and Coolidge. A reformer of sorts, Hoover’s downfall was his unwavering devotion to policies rooted in the old Republican dogmas of rugged individualism and limited government that sputtered in the face of the Great Depression.
The attack on the Bonus Marchers in Anacostia Flats differed in obvious ways from the assault in Lafayette Square. Although Hoover was retrograde at best on race and civil-rights — his campaign for the presidency in 1928, for example, deployed an early version of what would become known, with Nixon, as the Republicans’ Southern Strategy — the Bonus March did not spring from racial injustice. Hoover was never one to grandstand or revel in the armed suppression of his foes; nor had he inflamed the issues at stake with the Bonus March as Trump has inflamed racial divisions for many years, dating back decades before his presidency. (The big grandstander in 1932 was not Hoover but MacArthur, whose role as repressive right-wing fearmonger and tactician has been inherited by Attorney General Barr.) So far, no tanks have rumbled down Pennsylvania Avenue, at least not yet, only low-hovering helicopters.
Still, there are remarkable similarities between 1932 and 2020. Like the Hoover White House, the Trump administration showed scant sympathy for the protesters’ grievances. Like the Hoover White House, the Trump administration raised the specter of dangerous radicals — the president named “professional anarchists” and Antifa as instigators of the violence. Above all, in a tense election year, unfolding amid unprecedented social and economic dislocation, Trump, like Hoover, chose to deal with his adversaries with resistance and then repression, dramatized by a display of disproportionate force.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s blistering attack on Trump the day after the St. John’s Church escapade, in his strongest speech yet of the 2020 campaign, showed that he grasps the sudden awakening of the public’s conscience, and that Trump’s militaristic swagger, his desecrating self-sanctification, may just have marked the beginning of the end. Of course, people have said this about Trump before, and the demagogue, with the assistance of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and his other GOP sycophants, has always bounced back. But this time seems different. It certainly does not feel like 1968, when conservative backlash became the order of the day. It feels more like the time has come to finally beat back the backlash that began with Nixon, which Trump is trying to re-create and exploit for his “domination.”
To the extent that the events of 2020 relate to those of 1968, they feel like a completion, an ending, a bookend, more than they do like a repetition. As the violence and anguish of 1968 brought the end of a long era of New Deal and Great Society reform that began in 1932, so 2020 could be bringing the end of the long succeeding era of Nixon-Reagan-Gingrich-Cheney reaction that prepared the way for Donald Trump. In 1968, a toxic combination of racial disorder and rising protest against the war in Vietnam fed Nixon’s creation of a new national Republican majority, linking the traditional pro-business GOP to the formerly segregationist white South and resentful white Northerners. By sounding just enough like Wallace, Nixon stole some of his thunder, and in time he would turn Wallace’s backers into Republicans. That new majority faltered following the exposure of Nixon’s Watergate crimes, only to be revived by Ronald Reagan in 1980 with a more rigid right-wing ideological cast and with culture-war incitements to white evangelical Christians. While the Reaganite GOP pursued as far as it could the evisceration of American liberalism, it preserved the cornerstone of the Southern Strategy, abandoning what remained of federal civil-rights enforcement while stocking the federal courts with right-wing ideologues.
When no conservative in Reagan’s mold successfully claimed his mantle, leadership of the GOP fell to those elements of the traditional party that had accommodated themselves to the Reagan revolution, personified by George H.W. Bush, the Connecticut Yankee reborn as a Texas conservative. Bush well understood that to win the presidency, he would need to claim and then agitate the Reagan base; and as his campaign manager Lee Atwater, steeped in the wiles of South Carolina politics, understood just as well, this meant stirring racist fears, an evil art at which Atwater excelled. When, as president, Bush ran afoul of supply-side dogma, old faces like the reactionary Pat Buchanan and new faces like the firebrand Georgian Newt Gingrich challenged his leadership of the party.
From that point forward, a radicalizing dynamic overtook Republican national politics. Constituencies that the traditional GOP had tried to absorb to build its post-1960s majority — conservative white Southerners, including, more broadly, white evangelical Christians — became the party’s heart and soul. Establishment Republican leaders vying for the presidency — Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney — had to appease an ever-hardening right-wing base, centered in what has become the solidly Republican white South. When those leaders lost — as they did twice to Bill Clinton and twice to Barack Obama — the base despaired of anything resembling conventional conservative politics. The one GOP victor, George W. Bush, did win over the party base, thanks in part to his Svengali, Karl Rove, and in part to the patriotic surge that followed the attacks of 9/11. But Bush disastrously invaded Iraq, and he ended his presidency with the start of the Great Recession and the birth of the radical Tea Party, which went on to hound President Obama at every turn.
By 2016, after eight years of Obama, the Republican Party amounted to an assembly of distinct political interests, each claiming a sliver of the Reaganite legacy. And down the escalator of Trump Tower rode Donald Trump, who for all of his obvious vices was cunning enough to comprehend how the most active Republican voters had come to despise normal politicians who called themselves conservatives. Better than anyone, the many-times-bankrupt New York real-estate tycoon and outsider showman knew how to exploit that alienation, not by tempering the party’s base but inflaming it, with appeals that not only sounded racist and violent, but actually were racist and violent — not to mention misogynist, nativist, and anti-Semitic. After more than 50 years of Republicans soothing the ego of their right-wing white base with code words and dog whistles, Trump unleashed its id — an easy enough task, as it was his id as well.
After three years of unrelieved chaos, in which disregard for the rule of law finally led to his impeachment after an attempt to coerce a foreign power into a political dirt-for-cash deal, Trump’s incompetence as well as his meanness has brought the nation to the worst crisis in its history since the Civil War — a disastrous trifecta of killer contagion, economic collapse, and threats of unleashing martial law or worse on the citizenry, with intimations of race war. Trump’s popularity was sagging at least as badly as Herbert Hoover’s in the summer of 1932 — and that was before Trump’s disastrous moment in Lafayette Square.
Of course, Trump has resources that Hoover couldn’t have imagined, not least the immense propaganda conglomerate of Fox News, talk radio, and right-wing social media. Hoover couldn’t count on the Russians running a Facebook campaign of bots to target voters, combined with a voting system that looks more vulnerable in the wake of COVID-19. Nor was Hoover ever reckless in his regard for the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law, raising fears that he might employ any means, including disrupting or suspending the election, to hold on to power. Yet as Trump’s poll figures plummet, it’s uncertain that even Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham can save him.
It remains to be seen how much economic wreckage the nation will suffer along with the rest of the world as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, but the administration’s resort to erroneous employment figures to stem bad news suggests the wreckage will be severe. Hoover wishfully promised America that prosperity was just around the corner, which helped ensure his doom. Trump not only tries to wish away both the killer contagion as well as the economic crisis, but urges people to drink Clorox to clean it all out. It is certainly safe to say that, should Biden win the presidency, he will have to grapple with national emergencies on a scale similar to those that Franklin Roosevelt faced when he took office.
The year 2020 will thus resemble 1932 in another way, with an election demanding an effort at national renewal every bit as great as the New Deal, repairing the damage of not just the past four years but also the accumulated damage of the past half-century. As Trump comes more and more to resemble Hoover, it becomes all the more urgent that Biden muster the imagination as well as the will to resemble FDR.