How America Has Rebuilt After Its Worst Presidents

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How America Has Rebuilt After Its Worst Presidents

President-elect Ulysses S. Grant refused to ride to his inauguration in the same carriage as his predecessor Andrew Johnson. Widely regarded as the most divisively racist president in U.S. history, Johnson, who took office following Lincoln’s assassination, was the first president to be impeached after pardoning hundreds of Confederate enslavers, blocking Congress’s attempts to grant civil rights to Freedmen, and violating the Tenure of Office Act, coming one Senate vote shy of being removed from office. During Grant’s inauguration, Johnson pouted in the White House rather than attend the ceremony. It’s a scenario that may well repeat itself come January: disgraced racist throwing a tantrum while a large faction of the country celebrates finally being rid of him.

“You’re the worst president in American history,” Joe Biden mumbled as an aside during his first debate against President Donald Trump. And while political debates are usually a time for hyperbole, historians and political scientists generally agree that Donald Trump combines the individual worst qualities of America’s most terrible presidents—the racism of Johnson mixed with the disastrous crisis mismanagement of Hoover and the highly publicized scandal of Nixon—to create a perfect shitstorm of abysmal leadership that has left over 200,000 Americans dead of covid-19 and unemployment higher than the Great Recession and Great Depression combined, with no plans for relief in sight.

There really is not much of a bright side to the deadly disaster that has been the Trump presidency; even if Biden wins the election come Tuesday, he’ll inherit a mess of historic proportions. But one possible glimmer of hope lies in the fact that the story of American progress is at least partially the story of times the country has forged ahead following shitty leadership. Advancement often follows bad presidents: Lincoln after Buchanan, Reconstruction after Johnson, Roosevelt after Hoover, Obama after Bush, and the Watergate Babies, an influx of newly-elected Democrats, following Nixon’s public disgrace. The nation has pulled off the cleanup before—but there’s a window, and we’ll have to act fast.

Dr. Denver Brunsman, associate professor of history at George Washington University, explained that bad presidents are typically bad in specific ways. “The pantheon of bad presidents would include Andrew Johnson who was impeached and incredibly racist and attempted to sabotage Reconstruction after the Civil War, to Richard Nixon who had all his troubles with corruption,” Brunsman told Jezebel. “The unique thing about Trump is that if you look at the list of problems presidents have had in the past, they fall into a few different categories. One big one is mismanaging crises—Buchanan, Hoover, and Bush—then presidents like Johnson who sowed racial division in the country, and Nixon who had his own special problems with corruption. But Trump combines all three of these categories.”

Presidential history is one long chain of new presidents stepping in to try and repair the damage caused by the unqualified person who last held the job. Perhaps most memorable in that regard is the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the enslaver and Democrat who ran as Lincoln’s vice-president. Just six weeks into his vice-presidency, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson began to systematically dismantle any planned progress for newly emancipated Black Americans following the war. Instead, he mass-pardoned Confederate leaders and allowed them to slip back into positions of power, despite the protestations of Congress, which resulted in the mass murders of Black people, who still weren’t fully American citizens, across the South and the foundation of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

“Congress tried to grant the Freedman civil rights, and tried to grant the right to vote,” says Dr. Tyler Anbinder, who specializes in nineteenth-century American politics at George Washington University. “But then Johnson helped create the political conditions that made resisting those things seem reputable, rather than dishonorable treason.”

Impeached by Congress and just one vote shy of being removed from office, Johnson wasn’t nominated by either party for re-election and Ulysses S. Grant was elected president. Anger at Johnson’s determination to welcome Confederate defectors back into the union sparked a sense of unity in legislative branches of the government that paved the way for the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship to emancipated people and ensured their right to vote, despite the best efforts of Johnson. It’s possible that had Congress not been united in its opposition to Johnson, these amendments wouldn’t have received the support they got, according to Dr. Jefferson Cowie, James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt University: “Johnson was a horrible president, and a horrible human being,” Cowie told Jezebel. “But his horribleness united the radical Republicans to advance Reconstruction amendments, largely because Johnson played a galvanizing role in people thinking he’s a clear example of what we don’t want. So he brought people together inadvertently.”

But Reconstruction was ultimately a project left half-completed, and largely abandoned in the following decade. Government failures to fully protect the rights of Black Americans are directly responsible for Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, along with a horrific legacy of police-sanctioned, deadly racism. These failures have been highlighted by a summer of protests following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists, and his administration placing the blame on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for domestic terrorists’ plot to kidnap her.

One of the only bright spots in this time of white nationalist extremism overtly and covertly condoned by the president and his supporters are the spate of 2020 candidates, like Mike Espy and Jaime Harrison, now talking frankly in their Senate races about the need to address racism in government. Harrison, who has so far out-fundraised Trump confidante and incumbent Lindsey Graham in what looks to be a tight race for the South Carolina Senate, recently told voters at a drive-in speaking engagement that now is the time to make the state, first to succeed from the Union during the Civil War, home to another first—two sitting Black senators: “The very first state to secede from the union,” Harrison said, “will be the very first state in this great country of ours that has two African-American senators serving at the very same time—and you will make that happen.”

Likewise, Espy, looking to unseat Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, lover of Confederate flag memorabilia and lynching, recently gave his supporters a similar message: “She is someone who believes in going back to the old days,” Espy said. “We need a Mississippi that’s more inclusive, that’s more diverse, more welcoming.”

Unfortunately, partial change followed by years of apathy, gross mismanagement, public outrage, and a bit more incremental change seems to be the arduous but typical course of most American progress. The rising tide of dissatisfaction over the way the government handled Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and ultimately the Watergate scandal also resulted in a sea change of young, idealistic new Democrats flooding the House of Representatives less than three months after President Nixon’s resignation. These new Congress members were quickly dubbed the Watergate Babies, elected in the wake of Watergate, President Ford’s unpopular decision to pardon Nixon for his role in the break-in and its cover-up, and soaring unemployment rates combined with skyrocketing inflation leading to the sharpest decline in disposable income per capita since 1946. In the 1974 elections, Democrats unseated 49 Republicans in congressional races, marking the first time since 1958, during another recession, that the president’s party lost so many seats in the House.

“We were a conquering army,” declared 29-year-old George Miller, one of 76 Democratic Watergate Babies elected to Congress in 1974. “We came here to take the Bastille.”

These Democrats represented a new era of American liberalism, running largely on platforms rooted in social issues, like civil rights and the environment. And they quickly realized that in order to change policy, they’d need to first change how Congress itself operated by quickly uniting to challenge tradition in the House of Representatives, which favored seniority, giving an outsized amount of power to longtime representatives, often “conservatives from single-party districts,” according to Politico. The Watergate Babies ran on issues of social importance, supported desegregation and Roe v. Wade, and championed the environment. But to make any headway for these causes, they first had to bust through the roadblocks by removing their more senior, often George Wallace-era Democrats, colleagues from their traditional roles as gatekeepers of legislation.

Those changes have been criticized and blamed for everything from the adversarial nature of politics today to the shittiness of Republican social policies and the deregulation that gave giant corporations like Walmart free reign to underpay workers and dick over small towns. But they were also the architects of greater governmental transparency and an important group for evolving Democrats from the party of segregation to the imperfect but markedly more inclusive party it is today.

Likewise, Democrats have already begun building their own post-Trump cohort. During the 2018 elections, Democrats claimed 41 seats in the House of Representatives amid the highest voter turnout in midterm elections since 1914 and gave us, at the very least, The Squad: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Those gains, coupled with the Republicans party’s deadly mishandling of the pandemic and Trump’s own impeachment, have even dyed-in-the-wool Republican villains like Ted Cruz predicting a “bloodbath” similar to 1974 on November 3.

Dr. Martin Cohen, professor of political science at James Madison University, says that Democrats are likely figuring out ways to make that potential bloodbath count. “The Democrats and the House are already trying to come up with ways to limit the president and the president’s ability to rule in such a way that is unfettered by congressional oversight. Of course, if Biden is elected would first limit him, but it would need to be something of a long-term fix.”

The first step of this long-term fix could very well come from the Protecting Our Democracy Act, recently announced on the Senate floor. The act focuses on preventing presidential abuses of power by suspending statutes of limitations on federal offenses for sitting presidents and vice-presidents and limiting the ability of the president to declare national emergencies, which Donald Trump has used in the past at America’s southern borders in order to direct Department of Defense funding for his border wall. It would also require the Attorney General to keep a log of communications with the White House and report inappropriate communications.

Anne Tindall, former assistant general counsel for litigation and oversight at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and counsel for Protect Our Democracy, told Jezebel the fact that the Protecting Our Democracy Act is ready to go would make change possible from day one of a Democrat-controlled Senate and House:

“The fact that the act has already been introduced is really encouraging,” Tindall told Jezebel. “Especially in the event that President Biden is in place, this sort of legislation could happen very quickly. That’s important because executive overreach is not just a Trump problem. We’re more likely to get laws reigning in executive power early in a Biden administration.”

And the Trump administration’s championship of regression has also forced white Democrats, like Joe Biden, to become more progressive. Biden, who is one year shy of being a Watergate Baby, was long considered the moderate Democratic choice for president, but with November 3 bearing down on him, he’s put together a platform that two-time Democratic Socialist presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has said would make him the “the most progressive president since FDR.”

But if Biden truly intends to make good on those progressive promises, he doesn’t have long, come election day. Cowie says that in times of rapid political turnover following shitty leadership, there’s a brief window of opportunity for change. For example, in 1980, when Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide, the Watergate Babies lost 33 of their House seats and the Senate became Republican-controlled for the first time since 1954. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also recently stressed the importance of expediency for change in event of a Biden presidency during an interview with Vanity Fair. “If… people’s lives don’t actually feel different,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “we’re done. You know how many Trumps there are in waiting?”

The hatred and division stoked by presidents like Johnson and Trump may get beaten back by a change in leadership, but that only means whoever fills the empty space has to act quickly, while the opposition plans their comeback. “Biden only has probably two or three years to get anything done before things begin to turn back around,” Cowie says. “The stuff that gave rise to Trump didn’t go away. There is a brief window for transformation after a crisis, but there isn’t long before it closes.”

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