The People vs. Presidents
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
The men and women who founded the United States designed a government for a nation that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, four score and seven years later ‘shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.’
In the years since the Declaration of Independence, celebrated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, ascendance to Presidential office has wrung disbelieving fits of fear from concerned Americans. Jefferson supposedly said in 1825, ‘One might as well make a sailor of a cock, or a soldier of a goose, as a President of Andrew Jackson.’
Mark Hanna, political king maker behind President William McKinley, said of McKinley’s Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the White House?’ Historian Arthur Schlesinger said of Richard Nixon’s White House, ‘Pirates have boarded the ship of state.’
George McClellan, Lincoln’s commanding general, called Lincoln ‘an idiot’ and ‘the original gorilla’. Gore Vidal called Harry Truman, widely disliked at the time he left office, ‘a failed farmer, haberdasher, and Machine Politician from Missouri’. Many historians consider each of these derided politicians among the most influential Presidents.
Struggle between the people and their President has persisted enough that humorist Daniel O’Brien, reviewing the impositions and exasperations of every dead President, managed to write the 2014 book How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country. O’Brien might see sales jump with Trump’s inauguration.
Trump! Whether this reality TV perfectionist, entertainment politics master, perfect insulter smashed through political convention or discovered/revealed contemporary political bankruptcy (or some combination), his march to The White House reshuffled American politics. Trump’s campaign exposed a vast (50 to 70%) number of Americans feeling homeless in the orthodox partisan structure.
How this sassy Trumpian adventure turns out depends in part, if not primarily, on how the politically wandering American electorate reacts to its badass President. A Transpartisan moment looms. Trump’s parade opens the door to the end of politics usual. Strange bedfellow alliances of left, right and other have room to grow.