While I’d probably argue that Andrew Jackson might be the most analogous comparison to Trump, certainly Andrew Johnson is a comparison many have usefully made and it’s probably more relevant given that both were backlashes to advancements in black rights. The excellent historian Manisha Sinha has an op-ed on this comparison in the Times.
Much more than impeachment connects the presidencies of Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump. No one expected either man to enter the White House. Both presidencies began with a whiff of illegitimacy hanging over them: Johnson’s because he became president when Lincoln was assassinated, Mr. Trump’s because he won the Electoral College despite having nearly three million fewer popular votes than his opponent, the largest losing margin of any president who actually won the election. The size of the gap did not bode well for American democracy.
Historical parallelism rarely works in a simplistic manner. But it does work when historians discern broad similarities and patterns that link our present moment to the past. Many fallible men have inhabited the office of the presidency. Only a handful have been so oblivious to the oath they took that they have met the constitutional standard for impeachment.
Both Johnson and Mr. Trump amply displayed their unfitness for the presidency before getting the job. Johnson so fortified himself with whiskey on taking his oath of office for the vice presidency that his rambling, drunken speech mortified all who were present. Lincoln, who gave his memorable Second Inaugural Address the same day, noted, “This Johnson is a queer man.” Mr. Trump is a teetotaler but ran a presidential campaign full of grotesque insults, ridicule, lies and vulgarity. His crude and cruel pronouncements after his ascent to the presidency are too many to recount. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a Trump pick, in his testimony at the impeachment hearings in the House, uses the term “TrumpSpeak”: profanity-laced language that guided a personal political agenda and undermined United States foreign policy and national security. Both Johnson and Mr. Trump, neither blessed with literary or oratorical skills, succeeded two of the most gifted presidential wordsmiths.
But most significantly, both men made an undisguised championship of white supremacy — the lodestar of their presidencies — and played on the politics of racial division. For Johnson, it was his obdurate opposition to Reconstruction, the project to establish an interracial democracy in the United States after the destruction of slavery. He wanted to prevent, as he put it, the “Africanization” of the country. Under the guise of strict constructionism, states’ rights and opposition to big government, previously deployed by Southern slaveholders to defend slavery, Johnson vetoed all federal laws intended to protect former slaves from racial terror and the Black Codes passed in the old Confederate states, which reduced African-Americans to a state of semi-servitude. Johnson peddled the racist myth that Southern whites were victimized by black emancipation and citizenship, which became an article of faith among Lost Cause proponents in the postwar South.
It is a myth that Mr. Trump seems to have fully bought into, given his defense of “beautiful” Confederate statues and monuments. Like Johnson, he uses derogatory language for people of color and he has expressed his preference for Nordic immigrants. Mr. Trump’s handpicked man in charge of immigration policy, the brain behind the separation of families in immigration detention camps, is Stephen Miller, who has recently been publicly revealed to be a white nationalist. The abolitionist feminist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper called Johnson an “incarnation of meanness,” words that are still applicable today.
Both Johnson’s and Mr. Trump’s concept of American nationalism is narrow, parochial and authoritarian. Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, that guarantees equality before the law to all persons and citizenship to all born in the United States. Mr. Trump has threatened both to revoke its constitutional guarantee of national birthright citizenship and have the entire amendment overturned. Johnson’s highhanded actions and disregard of Congress led to Thomas Nast’s famous “King Andy” cartoon in Harper’s Weekly. Today Mr. Trump’s unaccountable style of governing reflects his Attorney General William Barr’s doctrine of unitary executive power, oblivious to the checks and balances and separation of powers in the Constitution.
The American republic was founded on the repudiation of the divine right of kings to rule. That is the reason that the impeachment clause of the Constitution holds elected officials, including the president, accountable for bribery and criminal wrongdoing.
Johnson and Mr. Trump not only managed to diminish their office but also engaged in actions that have dangerous repercussions for American democracy. Their crimes are not just specific impeachable acts but also the systematic undermining of the rule of law, democratic governance, human rights and the national interest. Johnson pardoned nearly all high-ranking Confederates who had taken up arms against the United States government. In one case, he also pardoned a white Virginian who murdered a black man in broad daylight and looked the other way at reports of massacres of freed people and harassment of Southern white unionists. Mr. Trump, against the advice of the Defense Department and the Navy, has just pardoned a Navy SEAL, Edward Gallagher, who violated the military’s rules of conduct. He has even hinted that he wants the disgraced Chief Gallagher at his rallies.
What Mr. Trump and his enablers call the “deep state” is nothing but the rules and norms of democratic government. It has become clear from the testimony of upstanding national security and foreign service officials like Ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and William R. Taylor, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill and David Holmes that he undermined the very fabric of the United States government in seeking to profit personally from the conduct of foreign policy, by withholding aid from a democratically elected anti-corruption Ukrainian government unless its officials investigated his domestic political rivals, the Bidens. Over 150 years ago, the testimony before Congress of ordinary patriotic Americans, former slaves, Southern unionists, Northern travelers to the post war South, Union Army officers and federal officials completely discredited Johnson’s racist policies.
Mr. Trump openly invites and, now we know, privately demands foreign interference in our elections, a scenario that the men who founded the American Republic and wrote its Constitution repeatedly warned against. He attacks his opponents and even supporters who do not agree with him on Twitter. Johnson, too, loved to vilify his opponents, like Frederick Douglass and Radical Republican congressmen. Both presidents precipitated a constitutional crisis that could be solved only through an impeachment process. The author Brenda Wineapple has written that Johnson was “the chief architect” of his own impeachment. The same is true of Mr. Trump.
Good times in America.