As we look forward to the possible — I’d say probable — impeachment of Donald J. Trump, it’s natural to look back at precedents from the last century: the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon (who resigned facing certain impeachment and likely conviction) and Bill Clinton (who was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate).
But in some ways these examples are unsatisfying. When they had their impeachment crises, both Nixon and Clinton had recently been reelected to second terms by very comfortable margins. They were fairly conventional politicians whose behavior in most respects was also fairly conventional (even the famously paranoid and self-isolated Nixon had been a party stalwart and well-known elected official for 28 years when his Watergate cover-up and related misdeeds struck him down). Clinton famously “compartmentalized” his investigation, impeachment, and trial, and no one seriously argued his continuation in the presidency threatened the safety of the Republic. And Nixon didn’t become noticeably erratic until near the end of his failed efforts to escape the noose he had clumsily created for himself.
To find any situation like Trump’s, you really have to go back to the first presidential impeachment (there was an earlier effort to impeach John Tyler after he ascended to the presidency via the death of William Henry Harrison and proceeded to veto nearly all his party’s legislation, but it failed in the House). Like Tyler, Andrew Johnson was an accidental president (Lincoln’s assassination made him POTUS), and, like Tyler, he had once belonged to the party opposing the one that placed him on a national ticket. But unlike Tyler and much like Trump, 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. He had first attracted the support of Republicans as Lincoln’s 1864 running mate thanks to his frequent and intense denunciations of his fellow Southern secessionists as traitors who deserved to be strung up, if not killed in combat. But once Johnson committed himself to the restoration of white supremacy in the South after the Civil War, he unloosed his tongue on his former allies, as Tim Murphy of Mother Jones recalls:
“In 1866, he decided to go on the offensive, embarking on a national tour to shore up his support. It was called the ‘Swing Around the Circle,’ and it was insane. The closest I can come to describing is, maybe, what if George Wallace spoke at Altamont? It’s tough to find a true analogue. Presidents just don’t really talk like Johnson did on that tour, no matter what lurks in their hearts.”
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. Jamelle Bouie quotes a contemporary evaluation of Johnson’s events that sounds very familiar:
“His low cunning conspired with his devouring egoism to make him throw off all the restraints of official decorum, in the expectation that he would find duplicates of himself in the crowds he addressed and that mob diffused would heartily sympathize with Mob impersonated. Never was a blustering demagogue led by a distempered sense of self-importance into a more fatal error.”
Both before and during this campaign, Johnson struck a variety of observers as having a mind obsessed with resentment of what would later be called “elites,” and incapable of admitting error. But it was the context of his angry fight with Congress that led to his impeachment, and provides the most important link to Trump. Gripped by a determination to let the South reenter the Union with only the barest Reconstruction, Johnson was a law unto himself, and defied every effort to enact and then to enforce the most basic protections for ex-slaves, as Yoni Applebaum explained earlier this year:
“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 Tennessee, where Johnson had until the year before served as military governor, a white mob opposed to black equality rampaged through the streets of Memphis in May, slaughtering dozens of people as it went. July brought a second massacre, this one in New Orleans, where efforts to enfranchise black voters sparked a riot. A mob filled with police, firemen, armed youths, and Confederate veterans shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and mutilated dozens, many of them black veterans of the Union Army. Johnson chose not to suppress the violence, using fear of disorder to build a constituency more loyal to him than to either party.”
And that wasn’t all. As Johnson prevented federal intervention, white ex-slaveholders enacted so-called Black Codes throughout the South aimed at, in the words of one advocate, keeping freedmen “as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as is practicable.” In the eyes of most Republicans at the time, Johnson wanted to squander the horrendous sacrifices of the Civil War and restore the South’s immense prewar power.
In this, Johnson anticipated Trump’s relentless fight against any accountability, any boundaries for his power, and any institutions or norms that might restrain his sovereignty as president.
It was hard, in the end, for congressional Republicans to figure out articles of impeachment that comprehended Johnson’s threat to the country. As Murphy notes, that too represents a parallel to today’s congressional Democrats in coming to grips with Trump’s lawlessness:
“[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.”
In the end, the centerpiece of the articles of impeachment against Johnson (and the sole grounds on which he was tried in the Senate) involved his willful defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, a law restricting his ability to fire Cabinet members without congressional approval, which was subsequently held unconstitutional. It was arguably an illustrative and more than definitive ground for impeachment: 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, it represented 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.
Johnson, of course, was acquitted by the Senate, though by a much narrower margin than the one which will likely acquit Trump no matter what the impeachment inquiry uncovers. In the end, Johnson was vindicated not by his acquittal, but by the gradual abandonment of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow across the South. The fate of Trump’s reckless stand against equality, diversity, the rule of law, and those norms of decency that he contemptuously dismisses as “political correctness” may eventually rest in the hands of voters, if Trump’s party lets them be cast and counted. But don’t for a moment pretend he hasn’t invited impeachment just as Andrew Johnson did.