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January 11, 2021


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Joshua Kastenberg

A thought on historians who rate history and columnists who reach out to the past.
Donald Trump is now being compared to James Buchanan for the “rock bottom” slot of deplorable leaders. Buchanan became president in 1856 having received a plurality of the vote against a Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore, and the first Republican candidate John C. Fremont. Unlike Trump, Buchanan promised continuity and stability, and also unlike Trump, Buchanan had a long career in government having served in Congress, as minister to Russia and the United Kingdom, and as secretary of state. He also fought in the War of 1812 in defense of Maryland (no bone spurs).
Buchanan was one of the worst presidents, for many reasons, notably: like Franklin Pierce he too was an immoral “dough-face; : and, his failures in regard to the southern states on the eve of his departure. There is a difference between inaction to calls to action. Buchanan's inaction, however, at least became tepid action. To be sure, he staffed his cabinet, with Senate approval, full of southerners who joined the confederacy. He thought he could reason with them, because he had been able to do so for much of his career. Trump stands alone in that he acted to cause an event, rather than failed to exercise his authority to stop it. If, his staff and cabinet tried to reason with him (and this is a point which needs deep investigation), it seems to be the inverse of Buchanan.
I authored an admittedly barely read book titled “Law in War, War as Law: Brigadier General Joseph Holt and the Judge Advocate General's Department in the Civil War and Early Reconstruction, 1861-1865,” that discusses Holt’s efforts to try to prevent secession through the threat of force in the lame-duck period, when Holt served as Secretary of War.
I have been dismayed and saddened at the use of presidential comparisons since his began, particularly to justify his behavior: Newt Gingrich compared trump to Andrew Jackson. I suspect that Jackson would have remained a military man who sought combat with bone-spurs, callouses, and a lack of limbs if given the chance. No such courage from the current occupant. And even this observation is superficial, because there are considerable substantive differences between the two men.
If there is a comparison to be made, it is a cross between Huey Long and Benjamin Ryan Tillman, two presidential aspirants who lied a lot and in the second case, who sought to subjugate people to the maximum degree based on the color of their skin. I think that in our two party-system, there has been a long-standing game of “Russian Roulette,” in that it has been able to suppress third-party demagogues (George Wallace, Strom Thurmond…. Etc ) for a long time. But trump’s ascension through the Republican Party was an essentially an overtaking by an anti-conservative third party that possessed a few conservative values and a lot immorality. I believe it is still too early to dissect what occurred over the last five years, but in terms of character comparisons I suggest we leave out past presidents, even the bad ones. It will end up justifying Trump's conduct to too many people. Put another way, no president has tried to emulate Mussolini’s march on Rome… until now (you know, the small army of blackshirts that banked on the idea the Italian government was both incompetent and accepting of the event)

J. Bogart

+1 for Kastenberg

A non

"But trump’s ascension through the Republican Party was an essentially an overtaking by an anti-conservative third party that possessed a few conservative values and a lot immorality."

Far from being anti-conservative, Trump's ascension was the recapture of presidential candidacy (and not the rest of the party, unfortunately, due to the stupidity of the average Republican voter) by paleoconservatism. This is an "ideology" with a clear set of economic and foreign policy preferences. Trump's views are traceable from Ross Perot through the other Buchanan and the Reform Party. (Trump himself dabbled in that party). Paleoconservativism is protectionist, skeptical of free trade agreements, anti-immigrant (for economic and social reasons), and supportive of workers' rights. These folks lost power within the Republican party in the late 1970s and 80s, being ousted by the neocons and Friedmanites. (The extent to which Reaganism is thus in CONFLICT with Trumpism is lost on most on the right...).

The left's advancing of a "demagogue" narrative was nonetheless essential to trying to preserve its own credibility. This, because Trump had moved to the left of Clinton on economic issues, if not also the military industrial complex. (Trump did things that any principled Democrat till 1992 would have done). So, he had to be painted as bearing an incoherent position, one explained in terms of empty rhetoric and "charismatic" authority. The right-winger couldn't, by definition, really give a damn about the working class, right???

It was also necessary from the NeverTrumper right to try to paint Trump thus, to try to reassert control over the party. However, their "ideology" is no longer credible to the average conservative or independent voter; not only on the merits, but insofar as the voters can see that GOP Congressmen have zero interest in really implementing their advertised policies anyway. This was evidenced, for example, in 2016-18, their filibuster-proof period, by defunding Obamacare rather than eradicating it outright, by doing nothing about illegal immigration, etc.

The last five years was a war waged by and against Trump and his allies by/against GOP neoliberalism and neoconservativism, the Left and the "liberal" center-left. His failure was entirely predictable: Mr Smith cannot succeed in Washington because he poses an existential threat to the established interests of the political and bureaucratic classes. (Again, think of Weber here). To the extent that Trump was meant to be an Andrew Jackson, he couldn't be, lacking as he did, governmental and bureaucratic supporters from the outset - even within most of the executive branch. (Weasel GOP congressmen in 2018 pretending to be his supporters notwithstanding).

Still, Trump exposed to a sizeable portion of the populace how deeply undemocratic, and evil, many of the country's institutional and media actors truly are. It will also be hard for Trump supporters to swallow the "fascist" label, not only because they themselves think a "deep state" wields too much power (and so can't believe that MORE government, let alone one man with more power, is the solution - see above on the demagogue charge. See also the same trope advanced in The Authoritarian Mind) but also because they correctly see the totalitarianism of Robespierre, Kurt Eisner, and Stalin on the other side.

Howard Wasserman

There are a lot of these GOP/Whigs takes going around. Prior to January 6, former GOP political consultant Steve Schmidt argued that just as the Whigs came apart when their pro-slavery/free-soil factions could not co-exist, so will the GOP come apart when its authoritarian/pro-democracy factions cannot co-exist. The problem, clearer since January 6, is that the former dwarfs the latter in size.

I considered Schmidt's argument here:

Steve L.

Thanks, Howard. The Whig/GOP comparison makes sense, given that the Whigs were the most recent major U.S. political party to dissolve -- and the Whig demise was largely over a political schism. But that does not mean there is a one-to-one correspondence as Milbank struggles to describe.

It is interesting that nobody, as far as I know, has made a Federalists/GOP compaparison. Of course, that would be reaching back a long way, and the Federalists sort of faded away rather than imploding. On the other hand, there could be one extremely strong parallel. The Federalists continued to control the Supreme Court, with John Marshall as Chief Justice, long after the party was gone from the political scene. That could also happen for the GOP, with Trump-appointed SCOTUS justices remaining on the Court for decades, whether or not the Republicans themselves split into factions.

U.S. political parties, however, are actually pretty resilient. The Democrats survived the Civil War, despite their identification with the Confederacy, either as compromisers or actual traitors. The Republicans survived Watergate and were back in the White House after only a single term in the wilderness.


Senate: 50/50
House: D majority: 222D/211R (D lost seats in 2020)
Pres: Biden won battlegrounds by the following margins:
Georgia, 0.24%
Arizona, 0.31%
Wisconsin, 0.63%
(These three states carried the election)
Trump won men, 53 to 45, and those over 50, 52 to 47 and those who earn $100,000–199,999, 58 to 41.
In the state senates, 1,084 seats R, D 874.
In the state houses, 2,784 seats R, D 2,565.
Govs: R 27, D 23.
Gallup, 12/20/20: "Americans are most likely to name President Donald Trump and Michelle Obama as most admired man and woman in 2020. Trump tied former President Barack Obama for the honor last year but edged out his predecessor this year. Trump's first-place finish ends a 12-year run as most admired man for Obama ...."
I can see the reason that you are all discussing so seriously the demise of the R party. The Ds are winning every election, by landslides, landslides I tell you.


It is stated above: "the GOP come apart when its authoritarian/pro-democracy factions cannot co-exist."

Honestly, the notion that the Rs are the authoritarian party in current US political life defies common sense.

Which party is teaming up with big business (the hallmark of fascism) to stifle dissent?

Which party is advocating for stricter "lock downs" with generous exceptions for politicians and favored persons?

Which party wants to pack the Supreme Court, abolish the filibuster, add states to bolster votes in the Senate, do away with the Electoral College (a means to protect smaller states, i.e., numerical minorities)?

Which party has been expressly forgiving of riots, looting and general violence in the streets - including literally forcing random citizens to bow down and beg forgiveness -- if this violence is seen to advance its political agenda? Which party claims this violence to be a necessary component of "reform"?

Which party has been, for the last several years, defending and glorifying the security state and its abuses, because those tools were turned against its enemies?

Which party seeks to control discourse among the people, specifying an ever changing permissible lexicon and labeling anyone who doesn't use the latest variation a racist or worse?

What party is opening advocating for enemies lists, with bans on employment and use of the publicly available means of commerce and communication by its enemies?

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