Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied with their choices in the U.S. presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton evokes scorn in most Republicans, and merely tepid enthusiasm among Democrats who aren’t feeling the Bern. Many Republicans who can’t stand the idea of another President Clinton are horrified that Donald Trump is their nominee.
Faced with a choice between Clinton and Trump, voters feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. They wonder if this is really the best the country has to offer, and pine for a more statuesque candidate who might one day be placed on Mount Rushmore. A great writer like Thomas Jefferson. A great orator like Abraham Lincoln. A noble patrician like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
These people are looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses. The presidential options on offer today aren’t much worse than those of the past. Social media and 24/7 news coverage amplify their flaws and increase polarization, but the main reason Clinton and Trump seem so awful is because they’re competing against the myth of the noble U.S. statesman.
It’s nostalgia for someone who never really existed, and it needs a reality check against some of the “great” American presidents of the past, starting with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Revolutionary war hero Washington is greatly admired for overthrowing British tyranny and then voluntarily relinquishing power after eight years, setting a precedent that would last until FDR, who clung to the presidency until death made him let go.
Jefferson is lionized for writing the American creed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. Some will argue that the standards of the day were different, but numerous other founding fathers – most notably Benjamin Franklin – strongly opposed slavery. Apologists for these two paragons of liberty contend they went along with it reluctantly because they didn’t have the political clout needed to abolish it.
Perhaps, but at the very least they could have freed their own slaves. But Washington and Jefferson were hardly unique in this regard – five of the first seven U.S. presidents owned human beings.
Ok, but at least these early presidential figures, unlike today’s gutter-sniping wannabes, were sober-minded intellectuals who dignified the democratic process with civilized debate. Well, actually, no. In 1804, Jefferson faced John Adams in a presidential election. It got pretty ugly. Jefferson’s campaign claimed that Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” This is arguably even worse than Marco Rubio questioning the size of Donald Trump’s manhood during an early Republican debate, because Jefferson’s insult included a gratuitous shot at the transgendered.
Not to be outdone, supporters of Adams called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” By this standard, Donald Trump’s “racism” seems pretty restrained.
Abraham Lincoln routinely appears at or near the top of academic and popular surveys ranking America’s “greatest” presidents. Most Americans, certainly those north of the Mason-Dixon line, believe he fought the Civil War to end slavery. But for Lincoln, slavery was a secondary issue. His primary concern was keeping the United States united. He succeeded, at the cost of 600,000 lives. His famous emancipation proclamation only freed slaves in the states that were in rebellion. That left a million slaves in states that sided with the union. True, he could not free all of America’s slaves without a constitutional amendment, which he passed after the war ended – in a congressional vote that was bought with bribes and patronage.
Lincoln’s warts are barely visible a century and a half later. The Civil War is seen as a noble war, its victims the price of American unity, and its leader a champion of human rights. If Donald Trump wins the 2016 election and proceeds to wall off America from Muslim and Mexican migrants and Chinese manufacturers, who can say how history will judge him in 2166?
But still, you say, Trump is a know-nothing at best and a liar at worst. America needs presidential candidates who can address the substance of their opponents’ positions. What it needs is an intellectual and a statesman – a leader like Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson was the first American president with a PhD. Not only was he a professor, he was the president of Princeton University for almost a decade. He presided over the dawn of the American Century – helping win the First World War and leading the push to create the League of Nations. A college at Princeton and a respected think tank bear his name.
But Wilson was at least as isolationist as Trump when he was fighting to keep the U.S. out of the war. And lots of his contemporaries thought he got duped by smarter European leaders during the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. John Maynard Keynes, the gloried guru of modern economic interventionist governments everywhere, called Wilson “slow and unadaptable”, and said there “can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent…”
Wilson wasn’t terribly enlightened on race issues either. He re-segregated the civil service, helping ensure the racial tensions of the Civil War era did not fade away. When a delegation of African Americans objected to his policy of segregating the army, he told them “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Wilson obviously thought he knew what was best for Americans, but in this regard he was not a patch on Franklin Roosevelt. He was the first President elected to a third term and went one further to seek, and win, a fourth. But Roosevelt’s legacy is tarnished by more than his apparently unquenchable thirst for power.
During the Second World War he ordered the internment of over a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese ancestry. His action deprived these mostly U.S. citizens of their liberty, livelihood, and possessions while feeding into anti-Japanese sentiment across America.
Roosevelt’s paternalistic and autocratic approach was most evident in his Depression-era “New Deal”, which fundamentally altered and enlarged the role of government in the life of ordinary citizens. While readers may differ over the desirability of welfare state social programs, this much should be uncontroversial – Roosevelt greatly increased the power of the president and the U.S. government by running roughshod over the Constitution. When the Supreme Court seemed poised to block his agenda, the President threatened to pack the court with sympathetic justices unless his changes were allowed to pass. Roosevelt’s legacy to generations of presidents that came after him – and to either Clinton or Trump – is a great deal more power concentrated in the Oval Office than was ever envisioned by the authors of the Constitution.
Keen readers may notice a commonality among the presidents discussed in this article. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt were all men associated with significant wars.
In a 2012 study titled War and Presidential Greatness, American economists David R. Henderson and Zachary Gochenour found a correlation between the popularity of American presidents and the number of war-related deaths during their time in office. The presidents ranked first and third in historical greatness (Lincoln and FDR) by historians occupied the top two places in military deaths per capita during their time in office. They found that war deaths were an even stronger predictor of presidential greatness than growth in GDP.
We shouldn’t be surprised that warmongers, racists, statists, and vulgar blowhards run for public office, and win. F.A. Hayek, the Nobel Laureate who wrote extensively on economics and politics, explained why the worst rise to the top in his classic book The Road to Serfdom. Simply put, politics attracts people who want to rule over others. Those of more humble, compassionate and pacific character likely won’t be inclined to seek the job. Justin Trudeau’s victory over Stephen Harper is the exception that breaks the rule, you say? Maybe so, but Harper’s not the one who is angling to rig the electoral system so his party rules for eternity.
In one of the finest pieces of political satire currently on the internet, fake candidate for the U.S. Senate Clint Webb admits that most people would be crushed by the immense pressure of making decisions that will impact the lives of millions of people. Fortunately, Webb tells viewers, he possesses just the right degree of “sociopathic narcissism” to feel comfortable making decisions that will govern the lives of people he will never meet.
It’s funny because it rings true of Clinton, Trump and just about everyone who competes for power at the highest levels. The public, though, only sees sociopathy in politicians they hate, and are blind to it in those they love. So it is with the two current contenders for the presidency of the United States. In their character, judgement and competence, perhaps they are a little worse than the average of their predecessors, or perhaps a little better. But each appears a messiah to their supporters, and a demon to their opponents.
The truth is that neither one will change the course of history as much as their supporters and opponents hope and fear they will. This is not to suggest that who wins doesn’t matter; on the contrary who becomes the next U.S. president matters a lot to Americans, Canadians and the world. But we should never forget that they are mere mortals, their impact on most people’s lives will be minimal, and history will ultimately judge whether they were heroes or villains.
Matt Bufton is Executive Director of the Institute for Liberal Studies, an educational non-profit based in Ottawa that helps students and teachers learn about the ideas of liberty.