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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson

The Vice President of the United States penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that motivated some acerbic commentary from me at New York:

[Pence’s] basic thrust is to call on Senate Democrats to defect from the party line to vindicate the unfairly persecuted Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, the way Edmond Ross broke with his fellow Republicans in 1868 to cast the crucial vote to acquit the equally persecuted Andrew Johnson. Very likely, what led him to this argument is the fact that Ross got a chapter in then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which gives Pence’s case a bipartisan veneer, however anachronistic. And so the veep tries to use this analogy to divert attention from the pressure on Republican senators today to break party ranks and allow a real impeachment trial:

“Then as now, a political faction has forced a partisan impeachment through the House in the heat of an argument over a difference in policy. Then as now, this faction has cheapened the impeachment process, which the Founders believed should be reserved for only the most grave abuses of the public trust.

“But despite the focus on what a handful of Republican senators may do, the true profile in courage, as Kennedy understood it, would be a Senate Democrat willing to stand up and reject a partisan impeachment passed by the Democrat-controlled House.”

As it happens, I agree with Pence that Trump is a lot like Andrew Johnson, and the case for impeaching both men has striking similarities. But neither of these crude, self-centered leaders with racist tendencies should be understood as any kind of martyr, as I noted when impeachment proceedings against Trump began:

“Johnson entered office as something of a figure of scandal, having delivered an inaugural address inside the Capitol in a very apparent state of inebriation (‘Do not let Johnson speak outside,’ Lincoln reportedly said before the public inaugural address that many consider his own greatest speech).

“Johnson also anticipated Trump in the violent abusiveness of his rhetoric toward political enemies….Among other things, Johnson called for ‘hanging’ his chief congressional Republican critic, Thaddeus Stevens, and abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips. According to prevailing standards of the day, Johnson held the functional equivalent of MAGA rallies.”

The most important similarity, though, is that Johnson systematically sought to “make America great again” by undermining congressional efforts to vindicate the sacrifices of the Civil War by extending the franchise to ex-slaves. So total were Johnson’s efforts to restore (to use the great Democratic slogan of that day) “the Union as it was and the Constitution as it is” that his erstwhile congressional colleagues struggled to find specific grounds to impeach a president engaged in the most dramatic counterrevolution in U.S. history, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum recently observed:

“The question facing Congress, and the public, was this: What do you do with a president whose every utterance and act seems to undermine the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? At first, Republicans pursued the standard mix of legislative remedies — holding hearings and passing bills designed to strip the president of certain powers. Many members of Johnson’s Cabinet worked with their congressional counterparts to constrain the president. Johnson began to see conspiracies around every corner. He moved to purge the bureaucracy of his opponents, denouncing the “blood-suckers and cormorants” who frustrated his desires.

“It was the campaign of white-nationalist terror that raged through the spring and summer of 1866 that persuaded many Republicans they could not allow Johnson to remain in office.”

In Pence’s account, Johnson was properly acquitted on contrived charges that he violated a statute subsequently deemed unconstitutional, the Tenure of Office Act. That’s only partially true at best. The 11th article of impeachment, the one against which Ross first voted in his “profile in courage,” also cited Johnson’s defiance of congressional Reconstruction generally, and of properly enacted laws regarding the military chain of command in the South that Johnson circumvented. Beyond that, in the context of the time the Tenure of Office Act was an important restraint on Johnson’s efforts to restore white supremacy in the former rebel states, as I noted early in the current impeachment saga:

“Because it was triggered by his effort to get rid of Edward Stanton just as the Secretary of War was deploying military force to halt ex-Confederate terrorism, [the Tenure of Office Act reflected] Johnson’s determination to fight for white supremacy. In that sense, it was similar to the apparent inclination of today’s House Democrats to impeach Trump for doing something equally illustrative of his overall pattern of lawlessness: using presidential powers to encourage a foreign government to drop a hammer on a domestic political threat.”

As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy maintains, the real basis for removing Johnson from office was clear:

“[T]here was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different — the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement — they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.”

If Andrew Johnson was no persecuted defender of the Constitution, nor was Edmond Ross a courageous man of principle. As David Greenberg explained during the Clinton trial when people were touting Ross’s example, he was far more interested in patronage graft than in resisting legislative abrogation of executive powers:

“Ross’ vote wasn’t the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed — a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn’t square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

“Ross wasted no time exploiting Johnson’s debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket.”

There is one aspect of Pence’s argument that rings true: He is advancing a view of Johnson and Ross, and of the Reconstruction issues underlying the impeachment effort, that was common in 1956, when Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage (or more accurately, co-wrote with his famous ghostwriter Ted Sorenson). It’s the great myth that Johnson and white southerners were equally victims of a corrupt and extremist Radical Republican regime centered in Congress that sought to put carpetbaggers and ignorant ex-slaves in power over a supine region powerless to resist (though resist they did, through the enactment of violently discriminatory Black Codes and the white terror of the Ku Klux Klan). It’s the myth — best expressed in the racist classic Birth of a Nation — that justified the eventual disenfranchisement of black voters and the imposition of Jim Crow.

Jim Crow, of course, was still in place in 1956 when JFK and Sorenson wrote their misguided tribute to Ross. Whole generations of historians have debunked the myth that Pence now embraces. He may yet regret drawing parallels between the 17th and 45th presidents, and not just because there were aspects of Johnson’s defense that Team Trump wouldn’t for a moment emulate, like agreements to hear 41 witnesses. Johnson deserved removal from office for one of the greatest “high crimes and misdemeanors” in U.S. history, the betrayal of ex-slaves and the cause of equality under the law embodied by the first great Civil Rights Act of 1866, which he vetoed on grounds that equality discriminated against white people.

There is in fact only one relevant difference between Johnson and Trump: The former was a spent force by the time he was acquitted, soon unsuccessfully seeking a second-term nomination by Democrats who met under the slogan, “This is a white man’s party; let a white man rule.” Trump’s renomination is assured. So far, few in his party have had the courage to speak out against him — and certainly not Mike Pence.

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