Consequences of a Failed Coup

If President Trump pulls off a win in 2020, there is going to be a great deal of soul searching, not to mention wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many will ask how, how could someone so disliked win another term?  I am not saying he is going to win. I have no idea. But, if he does, I am suggesting that history can give us a clue as to the event that helped him win. 

I recently wrote an article looking at the ideological ancestry of Progressives and one of the men I mentioned was Huey Long. As important as Long was in the 1930s, he is a character largely forgotten to time. Even with the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men and the subsequent two movies of the same name (1949 and 2006) being loosely based on Long, he is lost to history.  Yet for some time, Long was the loudest voice of protest against President Roosevelt, and one of the most influential men in America.  His “Share Our Wealth” program hoped to do more to eliminate poverty than anything the New Deal considered.  Yet, before Long could become the champion of the people, first he had to endure government attacks and impeachment attempts. 

Long grew up poor in rural Louisiana but had well-educated parents for that time and place.  He was described as having a photographic memory and excelled in school, but not so much getting along with others, including teachers.  After being expelled, he later took some classes from Oklahoma Baptist University, as well as the University of Oklahoma. He did not finish either, but he did end up attending Tulane Law School for one year before passing the bar.  

Long worked as a lawyer for a few years, as he worked his way up through Louisiana state politics, until he ran for governor in 1928.  He was able to beat a powerful political machine by consolidating the rural poor vote with the minorities and Catholic votes.  He ran a Bernie-Sanders-small-donation type of campaign that he called “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.”  He promised public works projects, free textbooks, and higher taxes on the wealthy.  Once in office, he lived up to his promises; he was the New Deal before there was such a thing. 

As Governor, Long ran Louisiana like a dictator.  He pushed all his opponents out of offices and replaced them with loyalists.  He took on big business, especially Standard Oil, and was able to impose his will over the legislature.  Because he had a demagogue-like hold over the people of his state, he also used shady finances and physical force to build his power. 

When Long tried to raise the tax rate on oil companies, they fought back.  Supported by the oil companies, the conservatives tried to impeach him for everything from blasphemy and corruption to attempted murder.   One opposition leader supposedly said that you can impeach for anything. Impeachment is political.  These may be the truest words ever said.  Long felt as if he was not being fairly treated in the press, who were connected and backed by big government.  He did not have Twitter, but in the 1920s, he did the next best thing.  To get his own message across to the public, he started his own paper and mounted speakers to a car to deliver his thoughts.  Most importantly, he utilized a new technology, 1920s social media, the radio.  A medium his future opponent, FDR, would also use to perfection.

In the end, the people rallied to Long’s side and he pulled in enough senators to pledge not to vote for any charges.  Long walked away stronger than before; he became the “Kingfish” and ruled his state with an iron fist.  He said something along the lines that he used to ask please of the government, but now he used dynamite.  Having survived impeachment, he gained complete control over Louisiana, and then turned his sights to the national stage.

As a democratic senator, Long championed the democratic candidate, FDR, in the 1932 election.  Long took credit for FDR’s wins in several states and felt he earned an unofficial advisor position to the new president.  Roosevelt saw things differently, saying, “He really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country.”  When Long began to speak for the administration and proposed his plan to limit income, FDR distanced himself from the Kingfish.  There is too much to write about here, but the two men quickly came to odds, leading Long to use his significant public influence to attack the New Deal.  The administration counterattack was in the form of the Treasury Department launching an investigation into Long’s tax returns (some things never go out of style), as well as a special senate investigation into election fraud in Louisiana.  Finally, with a possible weakening of the Kingfish, his Louisiana enemies saw the chance to take back the state and attempted to oust the Long-controlled state government. 

When Long was finally brought to a hearing, the evidence against him was flimsy and unimportant.  It looked as if prosecutors were working out personal grudges.  It did not take long for the hearings to fall apart and the people to lose interest.  In the end, those who had attacked Long suffered greater than Long ever did.  Once again Long emerged stronger than before.  If was after the government attacks that Long proposed the “Share Our Wealth” program to redistribute wealth. He also began to prepare to take on FDR in the next election.  Before he could challenge the President, however, he was shot down by an assassin.  I am not saying that he could have defeated FDR, but his power and popularity had grown even more since being attacked by the Government and he was emerging victorious.  

I don’t know what the final outcome of the Mueller report will be and I am not here to weigh in on Trump’s impeachment chances.  But historically speaking, if after two years of investigating Trump and nothing comes from it and if Democrats continue to investigate, it starts to look like an abuse of power from the Democrats. As with Long, the constant attacks only strengthen his base and even draw in others.  If after the 2020 election, Trump is still in power and the left is scrambling again to figure out why, their answer may likely be the very investigation they started. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Replacing a Sitting President

With the next presidential election only a short nineteen months away (ugh!), we are already seeing a crowded field of Democrats lining up to challenge, whom they see as a very beatable, Donald Trump. Yet, to my surprise, Republicans are not seeing the same blood in the water and pouncing on an opportunity to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination. As I have said before, I do not believe Trump ever intended to win the presidency, and I have questioned if he would run for reelection. My opinion is that the main reason for Trump’s re-election bid is because of the almost unprecedented criticism from the media and his prideful desire to prove them wrong. My assumption has been that, even if Trump did run for reelection, someone within the GOP would challenge him for the spot.

Challenging a sitting president is difficult, so difficult that only five men have ever succeeded in doing so and only one in the twentieth century. In some ways, I am surprised we do not ask for challengers each election. Giving the party the chance to reaffirm their candidate seems the more democratic option. If the party is happy, they can keep their candidate; but if there is a division in the party, then they can have a voice. The problem is the president tends to control the party and going into an election divided can hurt results. So why have five been able to challenge a sitting president? We will look quickly at the first four, but you will see what they all have in common. It is the fifth who will shed light on our next election. 

The first was in 1844, when John Tyler was not considered for a second term for the Whig Party. The problem for Tyler was that he was not really a Whig. When war hero William Henry Harrison was nominated for the presidency in 1840 instead of Henry Clay, the Clay faction was allowed to choose the VP. They chose Tyler, partly because he was a southerner and partly because as an ex-Democrat he would round out the ticket and bring in fence-sitters. The problem was Harrison died a month into his office and when Tyler took over he proved to be more a Democrat than a Whig. The party corrected their mistake in 1844.

In the next election, 1848, the Whigs ran the biggest hero from the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, and won. The party continued their run of bad luck when Taylor died in office and Millard Fillmore took over. Fillmore did not do anything particularly wrong, but in 1852, the party decided to follow their winning strategy as before and ran another Mexican War hero: Winfield Scott.

 When the Whig Party died in the 1850s, most of the northern Whigs joined the Republican Party and brought their bad luck with them. In 1864, Lincoln ran for a second term and the party chose Andrew Johnson for his VP. This is a similar story, as Johnson was an ex-Democrat who was put on the ticket to balance it out and try to get votes. As everyone knows, Lincoln was assassinated in his second term and Johnson, who was never supposed to reach the highest office, ascended to the position. Johnson proved to still be a Democrat and fought with the Republican Party over reconstruction issues. Republicans followed suit in the next election and ran the war hero, Ulysses Grant. The Whigs/Republicans proved they were nothing if not predictable. 

Finally, in 1880, the Republicans ran, you guessed it, war hero James Garfield. His VP was Chester Arthur from New York, who was chosen to get the Empire State’s vote. When Garfield became the second assassinated president, Arthur moved into his position. Arthur had always been a Republican but fought with the party over the patronage system, rewarding supporters with government jobs, and was replaced in the 1884 election with someone more willing to play ball. 

From the first four examples, we learn that being a Whig/Republican president is dangerous and that if you replace a fallen president your chance of re-nomination is slim. The fifth example is similar in that the candidate replaced an assassinated president, but is different in that he was a Democrat and had already won an election outright. 

In 1960, the Democrats ran John F. Kennedy and, to balance the ticket and keep the south happy, put Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson on the ticket. With the death of JFK, Johnson took over as Commander-in-Chief. As opposed to the earlier examples, in 1964 Johnson won his party’s nomination and the presidency. In 1968, Johnson was poised to run one more time. The 22nd Amendment stipulates that no one can serve as president more than ten years. JFK died in November of 1963 and so LBJ would not have served over the limit if he had won in 1968. 

Term limits were not LBJ’s issue. That was the Vietnam War. Much of the nation had turned against the war by 1968 and Johnson was being accused of escalating the war and lying about it to the American people. Young people especially had turned on the war and Johnson. When another Democrat decided to challenge the president for the nomination and denounced the war, the students threw their support behind Eugene McCarthy.

With the unpopularity of Johnson, many hoped that Bobby Kennedy would join the race and take on the president. Kennedy had announced that he would not run if LBJ was in the race. The last thing a party wants is a division in the party going into the national election. We have seen Republicans challenge the president today. Several joined the Democrats lately against Trump’s decision to fund the border wall with a national emergency. Other Republicans and social media have accused those who opposed Trump as traitors.  Kennedy was hoping to avoid the same situation.

However, when McCarthy almost beat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy realized the President was prime for a defeat and entered the race. With Kennedy now in the running, Johnson saw the writing on the wall and pulled his nomination. With Johnson out, his VP, Hubert Humphrey, joined the race and ran on a pro-Vietnam platform. He eventually won the Democratic nomination only to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.

We cannot know what would have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated, but what we do see is that it is possible to challenge a sitting president. In the end, the LBJ wing of the party still won the nomination. In our current case, it seems like asking the Republican Party to reaffirm their candidate would not be a bad idea. If the party still wants President Trump, it would only make his national campaign stronger. If the party goes in a different direction, it could bring back those disillusioned with the president. The problem with going in a different direction is losing those who are passionate about Trump. However, in a democracy, it seems opening up nominations even with a sitting president is not a bad idea and should be embraced. Yet it is understandable that the Republicans do not want to kick out their current candidate. In the five times in history when that happened, that party lost every time.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.  Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Midterm Election

With the midterms approaching, it is finally time for the American people to voice their opinion of the Trump presidency, or so we are being told.  Since Trump’s victory, with every special election we are bombarded with how this one election is the touchstone of America’s approval of the president.  I have two statement about the midterm elections.  First, I predict the Republicans will lose seats.  Secondly, all the chatter is wrong.  This election will not predict the future of Trump in the 2020 election.  How do I know this?  Because I study history.

To understand my statements, we have to go back, and Franklin Roosevelt seems as good a place to start as any.  1932 was a historical election.  Up to that point, Republicans had dominated the White House since Lincoln, but 1932 ushered in Roosevelt and a Democratic dominance to 1968.  The year was also in the heart of the Great Depression and quickly FDR became beloved with his New Deal policies to relieve the nation’s pain.  It should be no surprise that in the 1934 midterm elections the Democrats picked up nine seats in the House and nine in the Senate.  Based off that election, FDR cruised to an easy win in the 1936 election, 523-8 in the Electoral College.

What may be more surprising is that was the last midterm election win for the Democrats for some time, even though FDR retained his popularity.  In 1938, the Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, yet FDR won the 1940 election 449 to 82.  In 1942, the Democrats lost 45 seats in the House and eight in the senate, with FDR winning the 1944 election 432 to 99. 

For the rest of the story, because of size restraints, we will only look at midterm elections before a successful reelection of a president.  The next full two-term president was Eisenhower.  During his first midterms, his party lost two seats in the Senate and 18 in the House, yet he won reelection in 1956, 457 to 73.  Both Kennedy and Johnson were one-term presidents.  Nixon became president in 1968 and for his first midterm election, his party did pick up two Senate seats, but lost 12 in the House.  People today forget how popular Nixon was before Watergate, as seen by his 520-17 victory in 1972.

Ford and Carter were both one-term presidents, with the next two-termer being Ronald Reagan.  Reagan was extremely popular in the 1980s, but during his first midterm election, he lost 27 seats in the House but picked up one in the Senate.  Yet even with the House losses, he crushed his opponent in 1984, 525 to 13.  George H.W. Bush was a one-termer, followed by the very popular two-term President Bill Clinton.  No matter how popular he was, in his first midterm election his party lost a staggering 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.  Even with this blow, he still won his reelection in 1996, 379-159.

George W. Bush was the exception to all of his fellow two-term presidents.  In his first midterm election, he picked up two seats in the Senate and eight in the House.  He went on to win reelection in 2004, 286 to 251.  This brings us to Obama.  In his first midterms, he lost six seats in both the Senate and the House, yet his party’s defeat did not stop him from winning in 2012, 332 to 206.

What we learn from history is that the party controlling the White House loses seats in the midterm.  If this election follows suit, Republicans can expect the same.  Secondly, every president who won reelection since 1936 has lost party seats in their midterm, except for W.  Does this mean that when Republicans lose seats this November that Trump will win reelection?  Of course not.  Yet it also means that midterm elections hold no bearing on presidential reelections.  National issues are important in midterms and Trump will have some influence on these elections, but it also means that local and state issues carry weight. 

So consider the issues, examine the candidates, and please vote.  It is an important election because all elections are.  However, after the elections are over, just turn off your TVs and Internet feeds when you start to hear about what this will mean for Trump’s reelection.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.