(The audio version of this essay can be found here.)
Dan Carlin is one of the best podcasters in the business. While it takes him six months to put together just a single episode of the Hardcore History podcast, it is always worth the wait. He tells the story of what happened in history like few others can. In addition to Hardcore History, he has another podcast called Common Sense where he discusses current events within the context of history, sort of like the one published here. He presents himself as a centrist, which works well for teaching history, but listening to Common Sense makes it clear that he has a left-wing worldview. On a recent episode, Carlin was talking about why he thought President Trump was different than his predecessors, pointing out his Twitter account, exaggerated rhetoric, and executive orders as things that were not normal for the office of the Chief Executive. His point seemed to be that the unprecedented resistance to President Trump – from news media, both the Democratic and Republican party establishments, and even from within the federal government itself – was fomented, even justified, by Trump’s apparent perversion of normal politics.
With respect and trepidation, I must disagree with Mr. Carlin. I suggest that it was Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, that broke presidential politics.
Let us go back to the beginning. The peaceful transfer of power is one of the defining characteristics of American governance. Throughout world history, succession has always been a flash point for conflict. Medieval societies codified the rules of monarchy and primogeniture precisely to avoid a civil war every time the old ruler died. You can see that kind of chaos in 3rd century Rome, where a new emperor rose every couple of years in the midst of nearly constant conflict. Even with these rules, conflict still arose at the margins. When King Henry I of England died, he had no sons (his son and heir Henry the Young King had died in a shipwreck.) He had named his daughter Matilda as his heir, but a woman succeeding to the throne was not one of the commonly agreed upon rules, so conflict followed. The lords of England supported a cousin of the royal family, Stephen, and this led to decades of conflict called the Anarchy. This is also why King Henry VIII was so obsessed with producing a son: his dynasty would fall into chaos if he did not ensure the succession.
In 1788, George Washington won a unanimous vote of the electors to become the first President of the United States. He was reelected in 1792 but chose not to run for a third term in 1796. This is important: had he run, he would have easily won again, and likely would have died in office. This would have established the precedent that the presidency was a life term, and future presidents would also have stayed in office until they died. Instead, Washington stepped down, establishing the precedent that presidents should not seek more than two terms in office. His successor was his Vice President, John Adams. When Adams ran for reelection in 1800, something remarkable happened: he lost. Adams was challenged by his Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a one-time friend who was now a fierce rival. In many nations throughout history, even to this day, when an incumbent leader loses an election he does not go quietly into retirement, but instead uses his remaining power to invalidate the election and remain in office. Sometimes he uses the military to arrest his opponent. Yet Adams did none of these things. Though stung by the rejection of his country and the ascendance of his rival, he did not throw a national tantrum but instead simply packed his things and went home to his farm in Massachusetts.
This too established a precedent. Every four years, the American people had an opportunity to replace their leader with someone else. In 1824, when no candidate received a majority of electors, the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that General Andrew Jackson had received the most popular votes. Rather than raising an army and marching on Washington, as a jilted Roman general might have done, Jackson instead traveled the country speaking out against what he called the corrupt bargain made between President Adams and Congress. Four years later, Jackson was overwhelmingly elected to the presidency, and continued his populist campaign for two terms.
Even the election 1860 was not a departure from the doctrine of a peaceful transfer of power. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the southern states who feared his abolitionist aims did not raise their militias and set out to stop him from occupying the White House. Instead, they voted to leave the union. While northerners considered this an act of insurrection, it was not violent – they simply chose to leave rather than trying to work with a leader that they detested. It was Lincoln who raised troops and invaded the South.
Franklin Roosevelt was the first to break the two-term precedent. He was first elected in 1932, taking power early the following year. Little did the American people know that they had just elected a president-for-life. By 1940, the Depression was nearly over, but war loomed on the horizon. Hitler had invaded Poland in September 1939 and was threatening France and Britain. President Roosevelt was committed to supporting the Allies, but isolationist sentiment in the United States prevented him from too much outright support. As the election of 1940 approached, Roosevelt decided that he himself was the indispensable man in America, and that nobody else could possibly have the knowledge and experience to handle the coming crisis. Note that this is the same rationale used by every dictator throughout history.
Roosevelt won a third term in convincing fashion, partly by campaigning as an opponent of American involvement in the escalating war. Pearl Harbor changed that, and Roosevelt led America into World War II. With the war going well and Roosevelt’s popularity sky-high in 1944, Roosevelt saw no reason to step down, easily winning a fourth term. Party insiders were well aware of the president’s ill health, but rather than admitting this to the American people, they instead made sure that Vice President Henry Wallace was replaced on the ticket by their preferred man, Senator Harry Truman of Missouri. Roosevelt would die just weeks after being sworn in for his fourth term, and Harry Truman would be forced to deal with the ramifications of the war, including having to make the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan.
In his hubris, Franklin Roosevelt had given in to the temptation that George Washington had wisely resisted. George Washington was called “the American Cincinattus” for following in the footsteps of the famous Roman dictator who laid down his power when the crisis was over. Roosevelt, on the other hand, could rightly be called the American Caesar. Many dictators throughout history start off as democratically elected leaders, only to consolidate their power and remain in office until they are deposed or die in office. Adolf Hitler, in fact, became Chancellor of Germany the same year that Roosevelt became President, and died just a few weeks after Roosevelt did. There will always some new crisis or problem that necessitates the suspension of the normal precedents and rules. Roosevelt cited the ongoing Depression and the outbreak of war in Europe as reasons to abandon the old norms. Hitler had used the Reichstag fire as an excuse to grant himself emergency powers. Just this year we have had governors and mayors using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to exercise invasive powers at every level of society, while the civil unrest of the past few weeks will surely lead to ever more expanded government powers. It is the same playbook every time.
After the death of President Roosevelt, things mostly returned to normal in the White House. American voters, concerned about the another FDR coming along someday, gave the Republicans a large majority in both the House and the Senate who proceeded to pass the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited future presidents from serving more than two terms. While President Truman decried this as an unconstitutional constraint upon the will of the voters, he retired in 1952, his prosecution of the Korean War leaving him deeply unpopular. Every president thereafter left office and entered a quiet retirement. Rather than continuing to fight political battles, former presidents instead worked on cementing their legacy, building their libraries, and engaging in non-partisan work for various charities. In the latter half of the 20th century, former presidents rarely criticized their successors. We resumed the tradition of the peaceful transfer of power. For example, after a contentious election in 1960, the losing candidate Vice President Richard Nixon dutifully attended the inauguration of the incoming President John Kennedy. In 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated President Gerald Ford, yet Ford graciously attended Carter’s inauguration as well. It is important for the American people to see their leaders, who might have viciously attacked each other on the campaign trail, come together and engage in the same rituals that have accompanied our presidential transitions ever since the time of George Washington.
The contested presidential election of 2000 was the last great stress test of our political system. When the ballots were counted, Governor George W. Bush of Texas had defeated Vice President Al Gore by a few hundred votes in Florida, giving Bush just enough electoral votes to win the presidency. A general recount in Florida confirmed this victory. The Gore campaign sued in order to keep counting past the deadline, as well as to do extra hand recounts in pro-Democratic counties. The Supreme Court voted 7-2 that recounting only blue counties violated the equal protection clause, and 5-4 that Florida could not continue counting past the deadline. George W. Bush was duly inaugurated president on January 20, 2001. To his credit, Al Gore did not raise an army and march on Washington, though some of his supporters surely wished he had. The Democrats complained and stewed for the next four years, but they allowed the system to work. I am not so sure that this same situation would have had the same outcome if it occurred in the contentious time we live in today.
When Donald Trump was inaugurated president in January of 2017, President Barack Obama sat nearby, as is tradition. What appeared to be the usual peaceful transfer of power was actually cover for a secret coup that had already been set in motion. Nobody knew at the time that Obama had been secretly working with the FBI and the Justice Department to spy on the campaign and transition team of President-Elect Trump. Nobody knew that Obama, Susan Rice, Sally Yates, James Comey, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and even Vice President Joe Biden were all involved in a plot to wiretap the Trump campaign and to fabricate evidence that they were somehow colluding with the Russian government to steal the 2016 election and subvert American democracy. This conspiracy makes President Nixon’s coverup of the Watergate burglary look petty by comparison. While not quite on the level of using the military to prevent an opposing leader from coming to power, this was darned close. A president who abuses his authority over the law-enforcement and counter-espionage entities within his government to covertly attack his successor has absolutely no precedent in American history.
The purpose of this investigation was to prevent President Trump from having authority over the Justice Department, to winnow away his supporters from political positions, and to eventually oust the president himself, whether through impeachment or by forcing him to resign. Trump had appointed General Michael Flynn, a thirty-year veteran of military intelligence, to the post of National Security Advisor, which would have had authority over the very investigation that the Obama Administration was secretly conducting. Rather than allow this to happen, the conspirators fabricated a charge of lying against General Flynn which forced him to leave office and spend the next three years fighting bogus charges. With Flynn out of the way, the conspiracy was allowed to continue unchecked, leading to the Mueller investigation, the so-called whistleblower report about the Ukraine phone call, and more. This is exactly the sort of behavior you expect from a banana republic, not the Executive Branch of the United States of America.
Anyone who paid attention to President Obama’s tenure in office should not be surprised that he would engage in such deceitful actions. People like Dan Carlin, well-meaning but invariably left leaning, do not see the many ways in which Obama broke presidential norms because they generally agree with the outcomes. When a president is pushing an agenda that you believe in, you are less likely to call out the ways in which he is bending the rules, cutting corners, taking advantage of loopholes, or ignoring precedent. You are just happy to see “progress”. Nevertheless, Barack Obama was unprecedented in many ways. Let me be clear, however, that his skin color has absolutely nothing to do with any of the following points.
Unlike every previous president, Obama grew up outside of traditional American culture. I am not a birther – I believe he was born in Hawaii – but he was raised in a much more international manner than our previous chief executives. The Bushes and the Kennedys were born into American wealth. Bill Clinton grew up in a poor family in Arkansas. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer in Georgia. Yet Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a globe-trotting mother who had studied at the East-West Center in Honolulu. His father was a Kenyan nationalist that he would barely know. His mother moved to Indonesia and married Lolo Soetero, an Indonesian Muslim who worked for the government. Obama’s childhood then was somewhat chaotic, being spent in Hawaii, Indonesia, and sometimes with his grandmother in Kansas. He did his undergraduate studies at Occidental College before moving on to Columbia and Harvard. While in college he alternated between portraying himself as a regular American named Barry and an exotic foreigner named Barack. He entered politics in the Illinois legislature, but his first attempt to attain higher office was thwarted by longtime Democrat powerbroker Bobby Rush. When Obama challenged him for his House seat in 2000, Congressman Rush accused Obama of not truly representing the African American community. This accusation was undoubtedly true: Obama was not descended from slaves, and he was born just as Jim Crow was ending. Neither he nor his family had the same experiences as the African American families that had come out of the south to cities such as Chicago.
Steve Sailer suggests that Obama was raised and groomed to be a diplomat or State Department bureaucrat, someone who could bridge the divide between the United States and other cultures. After all, his mother was educated at the East-West Center in Hawaii, which was explicitly created to find common ground between the United States and Asia. This is what brought Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, into contact with foreign men such as Barack Obama Senior and Lolo Soetero. Yet something strange happened. Rather than shuffling off to an unremarkable career in bureaucracy, Obama rocketed to the White House with breakneck speed. How? Why?
Obama’s rise to power was in part due to his skin color. While conventional wisdom about the United States suggests that we are biased against non-white people, the very fact that Obama was half black meant that he could step into the role of “first black president”. A white Barry Dunham who followed the same career path would probably never have made it to the US Senate, much less the White House. As the first serious black presidential candidate (Jesse Jackson’s 1988 primary run notwithstanding), Obama was a blank slate upon which all of America could paint their aspirations of achieving the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. The fact that he had very little political experience, and absolutely no executive experience, actually helped him here, as he could become whatever people wanted to see.
Barack Obama has never been shy about playing underhanded if it helps him win. In 1996, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners invalidated the signature submissions of every other Democratic candidate except for Obama, who then won the primary unopposed. In the 2004 Senate race, his cronies got a court to unseal divorce records for his Republican opponent Jack Ryan, which caused him to withdraw, allowing Obama to win once again essentially unopposed. (The GOP flew in Alan Keyes to run in Ryan’s place, but that carpetbagging attempt failed spectacularly.) Before he had even won his Senate race, Obama gave a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that had media figures tingling. He was immediately anointed as a future president, despite having nearly zero real accomplishments to his name.
During his long campaign for the presidency, Obama always portrayed himself as a uniter, someone who could bridge the divide between blue states and red states, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives. Once in office, however, his tone changed drastically. He used his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to pass Obamacare, making promises he could not keep to moderate Democratic Senators in exchange for their support, and then ramming the bill through reconciliation without regard for congressional rules. This naked partisanship resulted in a huge Republican victory in the 2010 midterms, regaining the House of Representatives only four years after losing it in the Democratic landslide of 2006. When President Clinton faced this same situation in 1994, he engaged in political triangulation – moving to the right on some issues in order to compromise with the new Republican majority. Obama, however, chose the opposite tactic. He simply ignored the Republican House, proclaiming that he had a pen and a phone, and did not need to work with Congress to enact his agenda. And enact it he did. Just after the 2012 election, he issued an executive order to cease prosecution of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens.
Despite campaigning as a uniter, Obama was most definitely a partisan fighter. He told a crowd of Hispanic activists that they could punish their enemies by voting for him. His first Attorney General, Eric Holder, proclaimed himself “the president’s wingman” and promised to use his position to help “our people,” meaning African Americans, not Americans in general. While media today would have you believe that President Trump is controlled by Putin, it was Obama in 2012 who was secretly working with the Russians. At a conference with Putin’s right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev, Obama was caught unawares by a hot microphone saying,
On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space. This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
Imagine such a hot-mic moment like this for President Trump.
The fact that Obama used his authority to spy on the Trump campaign should not have been a surprise. This is the same President Obama that weaponized the IRS to attack conservative non-profit organizations, while lavishly distributing federal grant money to progressive organizations. This is the same President Obama that surreptitiously wiretapped reporter Sheryl Atkinson’s computers because she was working on stories that the administration did not like. Like third-world dictators, Obama was never shy about using his powers to elevate his friends while attacking his enemies. Only in the west is that behavior universally condemned. In many cultures, the entire point of political power is to reward your friends and attack your enemies.
Obama has not followed the traditional path of a former president either. Rather than sitting back and tending to his legacy and finding charitable projects, Obama has led the charge in criticizing President Trump and his Administration. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Obama set up a new office in Washington DC where he could continue to coordinate resistance against the new president. Again, this is not like American politics as usual; this is like a banana republic.
My point with all of this is to say that it was really Barack Obama who changed things. President Trump is the natural Hegelian antithesis to the excessive partisanship of the Obama Administration. If Obama had governed from the left-center like Bill Clinton, or had stayed above the fray like George Bush, then the Republicans would probably have gotten away with nominating another milquetoast establishment figure like Marco Rubio or Mitt Romney. Instead, we saw the naked will to power on the part of the left in general and Obama in particular, and voted in someone who promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of America against the deep state bureaucracy that had taken over our government. Trump is not the outlier; he is the natural follow-up to a man like Obama.
I believe that the 2008 election will go down in history as the last time America saw a peaceful transfer of power. Obama beat the feckless John McCain fair and square, and not a single Republican took to the streets, rioted, or tried to undo the results of the election. Even in 2012, after four years of recession and embarrassment, Obama was reelected, and again not a single Republican threw stones or tried to burn down buildings. Yet when Trump won in 2016, the left was unleashed. They rioted in the streets. They demanded recount after recount. They tried to pressure electors to change their votes. They used the last few moments of power in the Obama Administration to begin a bogus investigation that sought to hamstring and eventually oust the new president. They used impeachment. Now they have military leaders writing editorials denouncing the president, with some on the left demanding a military coup. Imagine what November of 2020 will look like. Imagine 2024, and 2028.
If President Trump wins reelection this year, all hell will break loose. The Democrats did not accept the results of the 2016 election, and they surely will not accept them in 2020. The street fights and political battles will make the last four years look calm in comparison. On the other hand, if Trump loses, then few on the right will believe it was done without rampant fraud. Many states have already switched to mail-in ballots, using the pandemic as an excuse. We know Democrats cheat at the polls, and mail-in ballots only make their job easier. If the Democrats do win, however, they will immediately set to work making sure that they never lose again. Say goodbye to the electoral college. Say goodbye to the Supreme Court. Say goodbye to the separation of powers. Say goodbye to the integrity of our elections.
No matter what happens this year, hindsight will show that American democracy ended a long time ago. Our political process has been irrevocably broken; we just do not realize it yet. In their lust for power, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party set us on a course for chaos, and there are no brakes on this train.