In examining precedents set in the pre-modern office of the executive, one would be remiss to overlook three commanders in chief in particular: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Historians and political scientists may always debate the ordering of these three presidents in terms of greatness, yet none can deny the consequence each of their terms had on the office itself.
In The Presidency and the Political System, Michael Nelson cites Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., who propounds what impelled the legacies of the aforementioned and other presidential greats could be observed in their “[leaving] the executive branch stronger and more influential than [they] found it”. This seems to serve as a benchmark not only for greatness, however, but for lasting repercussions on the office of the presidency.
Moving forward, and in the interest of succinctly addressing the prompt to discuss three presidential precedents established in the pre-modern era that have persisted and continue to serve us well along with three from the era that plague us to this day, I thought it may be appropriate to exemplify both types of precedents in each of the presidencies assessed.
We begin with George Washington, who was distinctive in his possession of a sort of governmental carte blanche as well as the foresight to wield it sparingly. The eternal elitist, Washington wrote of his first term that “few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act. . . There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent”.
The precedents Washington initially set were those of decorum. He went to great lengths to play the role of the reluctant ruler of the people, even traipsing to his inauguration so as to avoid any perception of greed for power. Thereafter, he navigated precedents of comportment that toed the line between anti-kingliness and respectability. Therein, however, Washington established a somewhat laissez-faire administration dependent on popular advisors.
The first president did not convoke any formal meetings, and granted relatively equal audience to his cabinet and statesmen alike. The precedent set in the wake of this style of governance would eventually lead to the White House’s open door policy to the Jared Kushners and Stephen Millers of this godforsaken world.
Even after all that Washington did to disavow nepotism, the executive branch would eventually become infested with advisors and cabinet members who continue to have no business in any position of influence. This precedent was directly set by Washington in appointing Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison as his bellwethers of the Union.
Despite asserting early dominance over the executive branch, the first president’s relaxed, if not reluctant, leadership style relied heavily on the input of his popular advisors: outspoken, charismatic men who were beholden to the political parties Washington himself eschewed. This seeded the rapid and divisive expansion of the party authority and demagoguery that flourished under Jacksonian democracy.
Before Jackson, however, Washington did set another lasting precedent that only failed once, if, in fact, FDR’s presidency could be considered a failure in this respect. Of course, I am referring to the precedent set when the first commander in chief relinquished his title after only two terms.
Righteously cautious of dying in office and unintentionally laying the groundwork for life long appointments, Washington wanted to retire after his first term, but was persuaded toward a second. “…his most important act in office,” writes historian Gordon S. Wood in The Greatness of Washington, “was his giving up of the office”.
At the time, the tyrant King George III purportedly observed, “if he does that he will be the greatest man in the world”. More than anything, however, Washington was eager to side step limelight, and so he departed the executive office after only two terms, setting a precedent to which thirty of his successors adhered.
In 1947, the 22nd amendment to the Constitution made this precedent law after a contentious Republican Congress was afraid of another greatest-president-of-all-time situation after Roosevelt’s fourth elected term. This is a precedent that has served democracy well, and one that might have served our own democracy even better had it been mirrored in the judicial branch those many years ago.
Another precedent setter, for better or worse, was monster-human Andrew Jackson who, in 1829, became the first of a few political outsiders to make waves in the White House. Jackson largely achieved such waves with machismo and aggressive racism, as well as by opening the floodgate of the presidential veto.
Jackson was also keen to take advantage of the reformation of the party system nearing the end of his first term. Popular support was to become the cornerstone of a successful political campaign, as well as a powerful presidency, and Jackson was popular. So much so, in fact, that Historian Major L. Wilson notes it “gave him independent power and made the presidency rather than the Congress, the true organ of the nation’s will”.
Jackson was the nation’s first populist president, delineating a framework in his time that would later be employed by the likes of Ronald Reagan, who, after successfully manufacturing a neoliberal consent among millions of indoctrinated people, directly urged his constituents to harangue their representatives in Congress.
“To be sure”, presents Milkis et al in The American Presidency: Origins and Development, “the Jacksonian Democrat’s concern for expanding equality of opportunity was limited to white males, especially those previously barred from voting because they did not own enough property”.
This pseudo-populism remains the platform upon which the Republican party currently teeters. It is a dangerous political psychology, introduced into the executive office by Jackson, and is embodied today in the far right base of Donald Trump: people who laud terrorists with war weaponry storming state capitols while denouncing the peaceful protests of true egalitarians.
While some may argue that Jackson’s achievement of white male suffrage was a groundbreaking precedent that favored the evolution of the United States' liberal electoral democracy, I would argue that precedent has yet to be set.
False populism is more dangerous now than it has ever been, especially taking into consideration the ubiquitous threat of white supremacy, the voting suppression efforts of the ruling political party, and a racist electoral college that gravely underserve and misrepresents the majority of people in this country. This insidious plague of political populism was brought to us by none other than Andrew Jackson.
Yet, for all Jackson’s brutality, he continues to skirt the top ten contenders in the notable lists ranking presidents by greatness. And perhaps this is because of his ability to dig a bully pulpit out of the office of the presidency, rather than in spite of it. Moreover, FDR’s legacy that was in part secured by his 635 vetoes while he was in office were arguably grounded in Jackson’s expansion of the veto power in the mid-nineteenth century.
To be fair, nearly half of the legislation on which FDR put the kibosh was via pocket veto. Nevertheless, he flaunted this executive power not only to the chagrin of an antagonistic Congress, but to the expansion of his authority. Through these vetoes, exploiting war time permissions, and implementations of the New Deal, Roosevelt was able to become one of the greatest presidents of all time.
For better or worse, as with most of his presidency, Andrew Jackson set many precedents. As citizens of the United States, we continue to experience the effects of these precedents by way of New Deal programs or Trump’s inexplicably beguiling brand of populism. Either way, the paradigm Jackson shifted is undeniable.
Finally, we take a look at two precedents set by Abraham Lincoln, whose usurpation of Congress and the Supreme Court during the Civil War laid some terrific preliminary work in more ways than one.
“The early stages of the Civil War marked the clearest instance of a chief executive taking the law into his own hands”, write Milkis et al. In order to preserve the state of the Union, Lincoln took brazen measures of questionable legality, forever emboldening the wartime president in crisis.
Sacrificing certain liberties and constitutionalities for the greater good, Lincoln raised armies, established martial law, and suspended habeas corpus - all with the support of a Supreme Court he largely appointed and the presumed absolution of Congress.
“These measures, whether strictly legal or not,” Lincoln wrote, “were ventured upon under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity, trusting then as now, that Congress would readily ratify them. It is believed that nothing has been done beyond the constitutional competency of Congress.”
These efforts that fortified the commander in chief’s authority led to some similar breaches of jurisdiction in FDR’s presidency. Unfortunately, they also bolstered the administration of George W. Bush, whose nebulous ‘War on Terror’ allowed for a coup in Iraq by disinterested and oblivious agents. For unspeakable reasons, this pronounced global war would eventually lead to the death of over half a million people throughout West Asia.
Moreover, Lincoln’s dangerous blurring of the line between the executive and judicial branches of government during the civil war can be observed in the Trump administration today as it inimically politicizes the courts in an effort oppress BIPOC and the working class.
All things considered, Lincoln’s most important precedent has to be that of emancipation and the expansion of suffrage with the Fifteenth Amendment. There was a long road ahead of the women’s suffrage movement before Theodore Roosevelt’s support in 1912, followed by the eventual ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
And while Lincoln’s undercooked notion of all people being created equal is one the right wing of the United States continues to renounce, his bold actions to ensure emancipation and Black male suffrage will surely be cited by the president who eventually abolishes the electoral college or federal prisons. In the mean time, we are able contextualize the actions of modern presidents through the exceptional actions of their predecessors.
“I take full responsibility. It's not my fault that it came here, it's China's fault.”
- President Donald J. Trump
There are countless ways in which to approach the question of how Donald Trump’s performances in the presidential debates may have effected his chance of reelection. Surely, these endeavors of analysis would be best served by the assumption of good faith on behalf of all journalists, media outlets, and voters. They may also be well served by dismissing the oft sensational and reductive nature of polls and punditry.
Yet, within our scope of the final bastions of democracy crumbling all around us, we see two rich, old white men yelling over each other about which false populism the unwashed masses deserve. Consider it salt in the wound, then, that the apolitical institutions of our society meant to keep these people in check actually serve in a directly antithetical capacity.
If there are but a handful of conglomerates who control all media in the United States, which there infuriatingly are, a monopoly based free market would beget a financial agenda before anything else. From the ludicrous conspiracy theories of Fox News to the neoliberal drivel of MSNBC, a singular master by the name of capital is served at the end of the day.
Even so, a slight difference can be observed in the moralistic and journalistic approaches of major news outlets. Liberal media tends to adhere to a standard of facts, while the leading cable news company in the United States, Fox News, cares neither for consistency nor truth. Again, the manipulation and exploitation of the average viewer is essentially the same regardless of network, although the immediate message is different.
Polls, too, are untrustworthy barometers of public opinion for any of myriad reasons. Foremost, polls are often employed as tools of result based research for corporations whose product is sensationalism. The intricately intertwined facets of semantics and personal paradigms within polling become tangled in varied levels of comprehension as well.
Everything I have discussed so far may seem to have little to do with the president’s performances in the debates and how they may effect his chance of reelection. My intention, however, was to present a reality in which polls and pundits are poorly equipped to be the foundation on which any election predictions or observations are made.
Nothing objective or even substantive can be gained through divining polls or evaluating the takes of pundits. Not even NPR can be trusted with anything less innocuous than a human interest piece. The most accurate and detailed news a person could listen to today predominantly amounts to leftist propaganda, which is also unhelpful in this context.
All this having been said, and having likely arisen from a place of deeply embittered election burnout, I will henceforth refer to the speculation of leftist journalists whom I trust for the sake of this assignment. Rather than polls, I may refer to the lived experiences of which the demographic in question is comprised, and why that demographic may be inclined to vote against its own interests.
“A very strange place to be” is how Michael Shure, a veteran political journalist, described the press room in Cleveland after the first presidential debate. He goes on to reminisce of four years earlier, when there was a sense of camaraderie that filled the room with a boisterous laughter at the absurd antics of Donald Trump. This year, however, a silent disbelief stagnated the air when the president finally ceased fire.
As an integral component of democratic procedure, debate is meant not only to inform and persuade public opinion, but to facilitate a discussion that engenders effective and appropriate policy. The first presidential debate was not that.
It began when Donald Trump unleashed an incessant barrage of offensive lies the moment he opened his mouth to offer, “I will tell you very simply, we won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House, and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all. Top, top academic. Good in every way. Good in every way. . .”
Trump continues in this familiar cadence parallel to that of a toddler who is too devoid of the vocabulary and imagination to even shepherd a decent lie to fruition. Arguably, he did not win the election in 2016, he lost the popular vote by millions and was bolstered enough by a corrupt party and system to solicit the necessary electoral votes to steal the presidency.
Moreover, anything any Republican has to say regarding Amy Coney Barrett is worthless. Any reasonable person understands that Republicanism, as it relates to the political party and ideology in this country today, has forever lost all credibility and legitimacy. These debates merely highlighted that Trump is the complacent captain of a sinking ship.
Still, if you ask of a conservative who won the debate, they will doubtless and mechanically give you the answer you would expect. Liberals are commanded by a similar mechanism with the distinction of entertaining the views of the other side, which happen to racist and fascistic to their core.
This acquiescence of liberals and Democrats to the political, and general, bullies of our nation was embodied in Joe Biden during the first debate. Save the occasional, folksy, “come on, man” with all the vigor a disaffected relic could muster, Biden allowed Trump to steamroll the entire event with dangerous lies. He was Democratic infirmity personified.
In fact, what made Biden’s measly, “will you shut up, man” comment resonate so much was how out of place it seemed against an endless pelting of lies and conspiracy theories from the president. Fox News and other bad faith political commentators were quick to clutch their pearls at the comment, discarding any context, as they are wont to do.
This brings me back to the uselessness of pundits and polls in this climate. While bipartisanship might have meant something thirty or forty years ago, that is clearly no longer the case. Even the most respectable poll is only reflective of partisan opinions under precarious variables.
No one paying attention to this election is an undecided voter. That is as much an unquestionable fact as any on cable news right now. Certain people with certain agendas will always attempt the mental contortions necessary for reality to fit the narrative they like. Every time some horrible thing slops out of Donald Trump’s repulsive face, he emboldens his base and repels most everyone else.
His pathetic bemoaning and constant self victimization will indefatigably be considered masculine to those who, for whatever reason, want to see him in power. For the people actually deciding the election, this reason more likely has to do with financial incentive than the bigotry and fragile heteronormative masculinity that impels the herd for whom all ruling elites share contempt.
Either way, and for all his bluster and deceit, Trump’s performance in the first debate is unlikely to help or hurt his cause. John Iadarola expands on this sentiment in his take on the first debate for The Young Turks by mentioning, “every horrifying authoritarian thing he could have said, he did say”, underlining the disconnect between the platitudes of false populism and reality that occurs in the common mind of the conservative voter.
Even after all of Trump’s stunts surrounding the second debate and his contraction of COVID-19, he came back more arrogant than ever to spew more lies for his Town Hall on October 15. Viewers may recall the most memorable moments of this Town Hall having nothing to do with the same hundred lies we’ve all heard from the president ad nauseam.
In fact, the most memorable moment from that entire fiasco, it seemed, was when Savannah Guthrie accurately likened Trump’s incoherent conspiracy ramblings to the behavior of someone’s “crazy uncle”. Did this hurt Trump? No. Did it enrage his base? Sure.
Another memorable instance from his Town Hall was when an apparent lunatic prefaced her question by informing the president of how handsome she finds him when he smiles. She was later identified as an “undecided” Florida voter.
Finally, we can briefly turn to the last presidential debate, where, for the first time, the The Commission on Presidential Debates muted the candidates’ microphones, and for good reason. Not only was Trump completely uncontrollable in the first debate, he continued to try to speak over Joe Biden on a cold mic.
When his mic was hot, as anyone could have predicted, Trump rolled out his greatest hits including lies about ballots, vaccines, his response to COVID-19, ICE, immigration, health care, his own conflicts of interest, the Bidens, et cetera. This is where Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks becomes exasperated with Democrats.
These treacherous and desperate lies don’t stick to Trump because of how little pushback he receives from the most flaccid opposition party under which the people have ever suffered. Despite no concern whatsoever for consistency or accuracy, conservative Republicans in this country have been winning the messaging war with manufactured consent and divisive rhetoric at least since Nixon took office.
Democrats like Joe Biden, then, are cautious to point out the greed and corruption mirrored in their own party. This is exactly how Donald Trump was able to successfully attack Joe Biden not only as Joe Biden, but as Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders all at once. At this point in the debates, the voters had already made up their minds, and Donald Trump’s voters, in particular, are far from discerning. Polls may indicate a decline in support for the president after his performances in these debates, but the fact remains that there will alway be a strong base of white nationalism in this country.
This is not to say that white supremacists are a majority, despite the president’s refusal to disavow them. Conservative media outlets have tried to sweep this under the rug a few different ways, with some especially ghoulish actors even sighting the political savvy of the president in not alienate his base.
The fact of the matter remains that a significant fringe has dominated our culture and society since its inception. Forty percent of adults in the United States believe in creationism. Not critical thinkers or even most people, but a notable fraction nonetheless due to a prevailing manipulation. I can’t imagine therein wouldn’t be found some overlap amongst the relative percentage of flat Earthers and Trump voters.
To speak once again to Ana Kasparian’s frustrations, this tremendous disservice to underfunded, rural areas stems from a weak Democratic Party. The Democrats spend very little time on outreach in these areas due to accepted gerrymandering, and tend to focus instead on donors rather than actual constituencies with needs.
Donald Trump’s approval among his devotees was not effected when he bragged about robbing the American taxpayer blind. It did not dip after he boasted of his ability to get away with murder in broad daylight, nor did it falter when he openly admitted to being a sexual predator. New York conservatives lauded him for his horrific public defamation of the Central Park Five even after they were found innocent.
Donald Trump’s entire life has been nothing but a succession of racist, elitist, ignorant failures for which he has always, and will always be, rewarded. The question at hand, then, isn’t one of how his actions as an individual effect consequences for him. The question becomes: how effectively can Donald Trump wield the co-optative force of his specific brand of counterfeit populism? Looking at three key voters - specifically white women, undecided voters, and voters in swing states - we can begin formulating a hypothesis.
I once heard at a campaign training hosted by the Victory Institute that the people who vote are the people who vote are the people who vote. This does not bode well for progressivism currently, as the people who vote are old white people, and especially old white women. This demographic generally lives comfortably outside the boundaries of those most imperiled by Donald Trump, and is likely more swayed by race based fear mongering and financial interests than, say, equality.
Still, the Trump campaign is undeniably hemorrhaging this demographic, as evinced by his now constant and pathetic admonishments of white women who dislike him. As far as his performance in the debates is concerned, his audience of white women may have sloughed a bit in his inevitable decline, but the people who vote are the people who vote, and the people who vote for Trump are old white women.
The undecided voter I believe I have already correctly dismissed as a myth, which leaves us with swing state voters. Here, again, we should be looking at the effect of the consent Trump and his party have manufactured through neoliberal brainwashing rather than the ostensible effects of any specific performance.
Trump’s performance in important swing states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida will be the culmination of tangible policy effects, individual state political cultures, and a pandemic that was mismanaged to the tune of over 300,000 deaths in the United States. In the end, each of these deaths served as a nail in Trump’s own coffin as he continues to petulantly deny the gravity of the situation.
In all, I believe there is nothing Donald Trump could have said or done differently in the debates that would have swayed any person to change their vote. What does tend to sway underserved voters is the divisive social manipulation of which he is an inexplicable master. This is why I believe that the people who are going to vote for Trump are the same people that always have and always will vote for someone like Trump, regardless of his gross ineptitude.