Senator Grassley says the New Deal didn’t work; historians have other ideas
Republished from HistoryChecked with permission of Allen Mikaelian
Sen. Charles Grassley: “The New Deal in the 1930s didn’t work. It didn’t get us out of the Great Depression”
I would like to make a point about the so-called Green New Deal. It is very obvious it is a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The implication is that what the New Deal did for the Depression should be a model for the environment. There is just one great big problem: The New Deal in the 1930s didn’t work. It didn’t get us out of the Great Depression. The Depression didn’t end until we entered World War II. Just like the original, the Green New Deal sounds like really bold action, but it is really a jumble of half-cocked policies that will dampen economic growth and will hurt jobs.
—Sen. Charles Grassley, The Green New Deal, Senate Floor, March 5, 2019
Once the Democrats decided to reference FDR’s New Deal in their latest attempt to combat global warming, it was only a matter of time before their opponents resurfaced the charge that the wide-ranging response to the Great Depression didn’t work. As Robert S. McElvaine points out in The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, the Great Depression has become akin to the Holy Grail among economists. The need to claim or disclaim the unprecedented set of policies that comprise the New Deal is similarly urgent among politicians for obvious reasons: If it worked, maybe we should think big about public programs. If it didn’t, maybe the government should stay far away from the economy.
Senator Grassley’s statement about the New Deal is stark and definitive. Quite simply, in his mind, it did not work. The historians who responded to our request for input disagreed strongly, as a glance at their ratings will show, but they were not hesitant to discuss how the New Deal occasionally fell short.
We received responses from six historians and ratings from four of them. Their full responses appear below the summary. We’ve also included below two additional comments from Senator Grassley regarding the New Deal in order to reveal more of his argument and his thinking.
Browse and download sources recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.
Steel Industry by Howard Cook, fresco, 1936, Pittsburgh US Post Office and Courthouse
There’s a history to this history. The New Deal has long been a battleground and the source of broad, ahistorical thinking. Robert McElvaine quotes Senator Mitch McConnell in 2009, who held forth on how he was “reading history” and learning that “for sure” the “big spending programs” of the 1930s “did not work.” Eric Rauchway details the history of the debate in “New Deal Denialism,” published in 2010. The idea that the New Deal was a failure is one of the most pervasive and persistent historical beliefs on the political right.
But instead of arguing directly from the data or focusing on particular failures, many critics of the New Deal very strangely pivot to the assertion that the depression ended because of the war, not because of FDR’s economic, monetary, and social policies. In other words, massive government spending didn’t end the depression; it was really, really, really massive government spending that did it. This is baffling in its self-defeating logic. Several historians who responded took this up.
Robert McElvaine: “What the fact that the Depression did not end until World War II shows is the exact opposite of what McConnell and Grassley argue.… It wasn’t that the policies of the New Deal didn’t work; it was that they were not taken far enough.”
Eric Rauchway: “An argument that war mobilization ended the Depression is an argument that the New Deal was an effective policy, and could have worked better only by being as big as mobilization for war. Senator Grassley is thus arguing for a much bigger New Deal, not for no New Deal. If he followed his own logic, he should wholeheartedly support an enormous investment in a Green New Deal.”
(Also suggestive of the idea that the New Deal didn’t spend enough is the recession-within-the-depression of 1937. Katheryn Olmsted notes that this followed a drawdown in spending by FDR that year: “The recession of 1937 proved that the New Deal policies worked, and the president quickly returned to them.”)
Senator Grassley’s reference to the war ending the depression is a remarkable self-own. The only reason I can imagine for the pervasiveness of this idea among New Deal critics is that they often see military spending as appropriate federal spending, while spending to fix unemployment and provide relief is not. Maybe that’s the conversation they really want to have, but this is an odd way of getting there.
The historians who replied also brought the numbers. David M. Kennedy reminds us that this was not your average downturn, but “the greatest economic shock in modern history.” Nevertheless, during FDR’s administration the unemployment rate went from 25 percent to 14-15 percent. Still high, but trend lines pointed to a full recovery even if there had been no war. Meanwhile, as Rauchway and Olmsted point out, annual GDP growth was consistently around 8 or 9 percent (1937-1938 being an exception). Trump is ecstatic these days when he sees quarters with 3 percent growth (and of course he takes full credit while his colleagues in the Senate would deny such credit to Roosevelt). Despite these numbers there’s still room for criticism; not every part of the New Deal was a rousing success, or even well-considered. Robert F. Himmelberg points out that the National Recovery Administration of 1933-1935 was “to a great extent … a license to form cartels.” But the fundamental indicators were all moving in the right direction, or had made up almost all lost ground, by the time the United States went on a war footing.
But show such numbers to a critic like Grassley or McConnell and they will likely reply that things would have gone much faster if they’d been left to the market’s invisible hand. Such counterfactuals are hard to prove or disprove, but economist Christina Romer has developed models that suggest the New Deal’s intervention was decisive. Given the decimated financial sector and the lack of markets for goods, its hard to imagine laissez faire outperforming what actually took place. Especially when we have the example of 1929-1933, years in which the free and unfettered market continually failed to save the economy.
But Grassley has shown how logic doesn’t really figure into many of the political attacks on the New Deal. He might not even be swayed by the opinion of conservative economist and New Deal critic Milton Friedman. As quoted by Rauchway, Friedman, for all his extreme views, was not as extreme as today’s critics when he said, “Providing relief for the unemployed, providing jobs for the unemployed, and motivating the economy to expand … an expansive monetary policy. Those parts of the New Deal I did support.”
Those aspects are among the longest-lasting, and bring us to one other common thread among these historians. The New Deal should be measured not just on its gains against the depression. It had a much longer run, and created a much longer-term success:
“The system of business regulation, such as that under the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the system of security benefits that emerged from the New Deal, after all, was the environment in which the American economy thrived for nearly twenty years after World War II” (Robert Himmelberg)
“The policies implemented then, in particular those legislated by the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, profoundly reshaped the American economy and U.S. society by creating federally-funded programs to provide essential aid to the young, the elderly, and the disabled as well as by establishing groundbreaking workplace regulations, including a federal prohibition on child labor and a national minimum wage.” (Anya Jabour)
“The longest and deepest legacy of the New Deal was not its record of anti-Depression initiatives, but its transformation of the social, economic, and political landscape—creating lasting institutions that have served the American people very well, including Social Security, the SEC, FHA, and enormous reclamation projects in the South and throughout the West.” (David M. Kennedy)
“Leaders of both parties understood that Keynesian economics worked; that’s why the Republican establishment adopted Keynesian economics after the war.” (Katheryn Olmsted)
These points I’ve quoted at length to underscore something else about this history: It helps to ask historians. We must listen to the economists, as do all the scholars quoted here, but in evaluating past policies historians are the ones who can help us see the greater legacies and wider impact. We should hope our policymakers would be interested in that broader view.
Robert F. Himmelberg, Professor of History, Emeritus, Fordham University
Senator Grassley wants to deflate the proponents of the “Green New Deal” who take advantage of the popular idea that the New Deal was a bold and effective counter to a grave national emergency. Both are generalizing too much, for the New deal was neither a complete failure or a roaring success.
The Senator is correct in saying heavy unemployment lingered until the war came, but neglects to note that GNP had returned to the 1929 level by early 1937. It is true that unemployment remained very high even at this peak and climbed again as a recession set in later that year and still lingered even as the country went to war late in 1941. But it is also clear that some New Deal steps probably promoted recovery, for example FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard, (which some economists think changed expectations from deflationary to inflationary thereby, some say, promoting a propensity to spend rather than protect money).
Other steps may well however have retarded recovery, like the National Recovery Administration, of 1933-35, which to a great extent was a license to form cartels, and subsequent programs that limited competition in key industries such as trucking.
Above all such negative effects the greatest, if one accepts the rudiments of Keynesian ideas, was the New Deal’s failure, despite all the efforts like the WPA to create work, to spend enough money. Still others may have retarded or had a neutral effect on recovery during the 1930’s but, whether entirely through intention or not, had long term positive effects on economic growth and stability, such as the enhanced power of the Federal Reserve, or unemployment and retirement insurance. The system of business regulation, such as that under the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the system of security benefits that emerged from the New Deal, after all, was the environment in which the American economy thrived for nearly twenty years after World War II, until extravagant and misguided policies in the later sixties and challenging changes in world market conditions led to the disastrously inflationary era of the seventies.
Senator Grassley is right in saying, as he implies, that the New Deal did not achieve full recovery, and in implying that some of its policies were “half-baked.” It is also true that we do not know how long it would have taken the economy to recover full employment and achieve a steady growth rate unless the war had jump-started it. But it is clear that it is perilous to evaluate the New Deal in narrow terms. It is, however, equally misguided to fly a new political program’s name under the New Deal’s flag. The New Deal’s success was too ambivalent.
Anya Jabour, Regents Professor History, University of Montana, author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019)
The problem with Senator Grassley’s comment is that his view is short-sighted. While it is admittedly difficult to credit the New Deal with “ending” the Great Depression, it is equally undeniable that the policies implemented then, in particular those legislated by the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, profoundly reshaped the American economy and U.S. society by creating federally-funded programs to provide essential aid to the young, the elderly, and the disabled as well as by establishing groundbreaking workplace regulations, including a federal prohibition on child labor and a national minimum wage.
Muncy, Robyn. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. CITE
Storrs, Landon R. Y. Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’ League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era
. Gender & American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. CITE
Ware, Susan. Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal
. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981. CITE
David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University
- The FDR administration managed to knock the unemployment rate down from 25% in 1932 to about 14% in 1936—a pretty impressive counter-punch to the greatest economic shock in modern history.
- Counter-cyclical policy was poorly understood in the 1930s; the New Deal faced the task of inventing policy tools to cope with what history still regards as an unprecedentedly huge “Black Swan,” the sources and dynamics of which were and still are something of a mystery.
- The longest and deepest legacy of the New Deal was not its record of anti-Depression initiatives, but its transformation of the social, economic, and political landscape—creating lasting institutions that have served the American people very well, including Social Security, the SEC, FHA, and enormous reclamation projects in the South and throughout the West.
Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
. The Oxford History of the United States, v. 9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. CITE
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941
. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Broadway Books, 2010. CITE
Robert S. McElvaine, Professor of History, Millsaps College, author or editor of five books on the era of the Great Depression and New Deal
Senator Grassley’s statement is of a piece with other Republican distortions on the New Deal and its lessons for policy. When he says the New Deal “didn’t get us out of the Great Depression. The Depression didn’t end until we entered World War II,” he is echoing what Sen. Mitch McConnell said shortly after President Obama took office in 2009: “But one of the good things about reading history is you learn a good deal. And, we know for sure that the big spending programs of the New Deal did not work. In 1940, unemployment was still 15 percent. And, it’s widely agreed among economists, that what got us out of the doldrums that we were in during the Depression was the beginning of World War II.”
This, like Sen. Grassley’s comment, is a gross misreading of history. What the fact that the Depression did not end until World War II shows is the exact opposite of what McConnell and Grassley argue: It proved that big spending does work, but FDR was unwilling to spend enough, until forced to do so by the war, to stimulate the economy sufficiently to end the Depression. It wasn’t that the policies of the New Deal didn’t work; it was that they were not taken far enough. New Deal policies did not dampen economic growth or hurt jobs. Trickle-down economics does that.
The introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of my book “The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941” addresses McConnell’s distortion and provides a graph tracing GDP, federal spending, tax rates, and unemployment during the Great Depression and World War II that should be very helpful to policy makers in understanding the actual relationship among them.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941
. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Broadway Books, 2010. CITE
Kathryn Olmsted, University of California, Davis, author of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism
The economic growth rates during the New Deal were phenomenal: about 9 percent a year, with the one exception of 1937. The reason 1937 is an exception is that Roosevelt cut back on spending that year. In other words, the recession of 1937 proved that the New Deal policies worked, and the president quickly returned to them. It’s true that unemployment rates did not return to pre-Depression levels until the war. But that’s only because the economy had shrunk so much under President Hoover. As a result, it took a long time, even with fantastic growth rates, to climb out of the hole. Leaders of both parties understood that Keynesian economics worked; that’s why the Republican establishment adopted Keynesian economics after the war.
Eric Rauchway, Professor of History, University of California, Davis; author of Winter War: Hoover, Rosevelt, and the First Clash over the New Deal (Basic Books, 2018)
This statement combines one near-truth (while there’s no official way of marking an end to the Depression, unemployment did not return to pre-1929 lows until the U.S. entered World War II) with a number of major untruths.
The New Deal did work; economic recovery was rapid and effective by the measures we ordinarily use. During Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in office (excluding the recession of 1937-1938) GDP growth averaged around 8 or 9 percent per year, rates that are (the economist Christina Romer says) “spectacular, even for an economy pulling out of a severe depression.” Unemployment dropped from around 23.5 percent at the time Roosevelt took office to around 9.5 percent.
The best recovery policies of the New Deal were probably bank stabilization, monetary expansion, and public works. To quote the economist Milton Friedman, “providing relief for the unemployed, providing jobs for the unemployed, and motivating the economy to expand … an expansive monetary policy. Those parts of the New Deal I did support.”
I gave a rating on the true/untrue scale, but I do so with hesitation because completely aside from its component untruths, the senator’s basic argument has no relationship to the truth, either supportive or antagonistic. To be specific: the argument here is that the war ended the depression while the New Deal did not. The only reason that could be true is that in readying for the fight, Washington provided massive stimulus to the economy by hiring Americans to produce war materiel. If that is true, then it is also true that Washington could have provided similarly massive stimulus to the economy before the war, hiring Americans to produce public works: dams, bridges, roads, schools, and so forth.
In other words, an argument that war mobilization ended the Depression is an argument that the New Deal was an effective policy, and could have worked better only by being as big as mobilization for war. Senator Grassley is thus arguing for a much bigger New Deal, not for no New Deal. If he followed his own logic, he should wholeheartedly support an enormous investment in a Green New Deal.
Eggertsson, Gauti B. “Was the New Deal Contractionary?” American Economic Review
102, no. 1 (2012): 524–55. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41408783
Hannsgen, Greg, and Dimitri Papadimitriou. “Did the New Deal Prolong or Worsen the Great Depression?” Challenge
53, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 63–86. https://doi.org/10.2753/0577-5132530103
Rauchway, Eric. “New Deal Denialism.” Dissent
, Winter 2010. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/new-deal-denialism
Romer, Christina D. “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History
52, no. 4 (1992): 757–84. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2123226
Sen. Charles Grassley: The National Recovery Administration of the 1930s shows “when big business and big government get together to write regulations, hard-working Americans suffer”
The New Deal of the 1930s is not something that we ought to be emulating. The National Recovery Administration of the 1930s was a key feature of that New Deal. It was designed to eliminate competition, with industry, government, and labor all working together. The National Recovery Administration turned out hundreds of codes, regulating every aspect of business. Small businesses struggled to comply, job creation stalled, and prices stayed high. When big business and big government get together to write regulations, hard-working Americans suffer. You don’t create jobs. So I hope you will take a look at how complicated the Green New Deal is, besides costing $93 trillion in the future.
—Sen. Charles Grassley, The Green New Deal, Senate Floor, March 6, 2019
Sen. Charles Grassley: The New Deal was not a cohesive plan; it was a collection of disconnected policies
I have compared it to the New Deal of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and its attempt to get us out of the Depression with the New Deal then. In his 1932 campaign for President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for what he called a “bold persistent experimentation.” That is a pretty good description of the New Deal. It wasn’t a very cohesive plan, but it was a collection of disconnected policies. In that sense, the Green New Deal emulates its namesake. It, too, is kind of a collection of disconnected policies. The New Deal of the 1930s failed to pull the economy out of the Depression that actually ended at the beginning of World War II. It is not surprising, however, that it didn’t pull us out of the Depression because it didn’t create economic growth. Economic growth needs predictable and sensible tax and regulatory policies.
—Sen. Charles Grassley, The Green New Deal, Senate Floor, March 11, 2019
The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past
Photo Credit: Hackernoon
“I’m a student of history and I see what happens when you fire people and it’s not good.”
Donald Trump, remarks, April 26, 2019
Perhaps we are so inured to President Trump’s declarations of “fake news” that we don’t think much about his other methods of disinformation—history, for example—unless, of course, it is to chuckle at his apparent ignorance of the past when he makes a gaffe. But Trump is thinking more about history than we imagine and he is doing so in a way very different from former presidents, who used history as a way to unite the nation. For Trump history is a way to enhance his personal power. Occasionally Trump’s apparent ignorance of history makes headlines, and when it does we tend to dismiss it as not very serious in comparison with other presidential failings. But we should not be complacent. It is a powerful part of his political armamentarium aimed at our democracy.
TRUMP’S FAKE PAST
Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump moved a portrait of Andrew Jackson into the Oval Office. We soon learned that under the tutelage of chief strategist Steve Bannon, the president had become an admirer of Andrew Jackson—ironically enough the founder of the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t Jackson’s party affiliation that attracted the new president; it was his populism and strong man anti-establishment politics, qualities that Trump sees in himself.
The president’s apparently slender grasp of history grabbed headlines on May 1, 2017, when he gave an interview on satellite radio, telling the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, that “had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”
Of course Andrew Jackson died in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War broke out. Trump may have been referring to the nullification crisis of 1832, a standoff between the federal government and South Carolina. But the facts of history have little relevance when Trump is making a point. The point was that in Trump’s view a powerful leader who breaks the rules can save the country, even from a calamity as “irrepressible” (to quote William H. Seward) as the Civil War.
The Jackson portrait controversially formed the backdrop for an event honoring World War II Navajo code talkers later in 2017, when the president created a spectacle by posing the Native American veterans in front of the Jackson portrait. Could it have been accidental—or simply boorish—that he drew attention to Andrew Jackson’s infamous 1830 Indian Removal Policy, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the southeastern United States to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River in today’s Oklahoma? Are there echoes here of his white nativism and anti-immigrant policies? Politicizing the event further, Trump took the occasion to renew his attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren with the insulting nickname “Pocahantas.”
President Trump at event honoring Navaho Code Talkers, November 27, 2019 Credit: AP
Trump is famously proud of what he sees as his intelligence, which often leads him to depart from prepared remarks. When he extemporizes about history, he betrays his abysmal ignorance—but it is worth remembering that such comments have their origins in a vainglorious desire to impress, not an innocuous ignorance. During Black History Month in 2017, Trump seemed to think Frederick Douglass is still alive. “I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” There were other times when his basic ignorance of history raised eyebrows: he inquired from the podium at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising dinner if anyone knew Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican.” Or when he spoke to the Women’s Empowerment Panel and asked his audience, “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?”
He was rightly ridiculed for these remarks. But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has said, “History is no joke. It’s on the curriculum because it is only through it that the psyches of other nations can be understood and wars averted.” I would add that it is only through an understanding of American history that we can transmit the principles of our democracy to the next generation.
THE END OF HISTORY?
The title for this piece is borrowed from Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay published in The National Interest. Fukuyama declared that with the fall of the Berlin Wall the world was about to experience the “end of history.”
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” he wrote, “or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such.” For Fukuyama writing in an age of hope for a new “post-ideological” world—that is, a world not driven by communism, fascism, or even monarchism and imperialism—it seemed that we had achieved a level of human political development marked by the triumph of liberal democracy in partnership with modern capitalism. He saw “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama has been much criticized for his seemingly premature (if not naive) declaration of the triumph of liberal democracy, especially as the events of the past decade unfolded: the disastrous outcome of the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy; the rise of autocrats in Hungary, Turkey, Thailand, and Poland—not to mention China and Russia; and now the increasingly illiberal politics of nativist and anti-immigrant parties in France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. Britain struggles to define itself in the wake of Brexit . . . and in the United States the Trump administration has made common cause with dictators around the world and breathed new life into nativism, white nationalism, and isolationism.
We may, in fact, be witnessing the end of liberal democracy instead of the end of history. And closing our minds to the objective past can only hasten the process.
TRUMP ERASES HISTORY
In an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn before heading to a National Rifle Association event in Indiana, Trump reprised his notorious statement that there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the August 12, 2017, riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. His comments were prompted by Joe Biden’s criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville as the centerpiece of his announcement of his presidential candidacy against Trump. In response, Trump pronounced that he had handled the incident “perfectly.” Denying that he was referring to white supremacists when he equated the opposing sides of the demonstrations that led to the riot, Trump insisted he was “talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.” He continued, “People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”
The history of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee sculpture controversy bears review. Its origins lie in the 2015 mass shooting in which nine African-American worshippers were murdered at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a neo-Confederate white supremacist seeking to incite a race war. In the wake of that shooting, Confederate monuments and symbols were removed nationwide. In Charlottesville local citizens petitioned the city council for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and other symbols. To decide the question, the city council appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces—which recommended removal, an action approved by the city council in February 2017. Opponents of removal, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a lawsuit against the city. By then the fate of the statue was the subject of intense local controversy. In May a notorious local white nationalist, Richard B. Spencer, led a torchlight parade protesting the removal of the statue; in July fifty Ku Klux Klan members held a rally to protest removing the statue, which attracted several hundred counter-protestors. Both events were dispersed by police, who used tear gas and made 23 arrests at the July rally.
Unite the Right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Image courtesy of Unicorn Riot via Wikipedia Commons
A larger gathering of white supremacists from several states, dubbed the Unite the Right rally, was called for August 11–12. Protesters included neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and far right militia members. They chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and displayed neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and anti-Muslim regalia as they marched carrying lighted torches. They were met by counter-protestors, one of whom was killed and nineteen of whom were injured when a white nationalist plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protestors.
This nuanced and highly sensitive history is completely erased by Trump’s simplistic explanation of his comment that he was referring to nothing more complicated than protests and counter-protests over the statue of a “great general.” Given the circumstances of the events surrounding Charlottesville, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is deliberately distorting these events. Is he trying to solidify his electoral base by changing the facts to suit his purposes? And do those purposes include glossing over America’s troubled history of race relations?
In addition to simplification, repetition is an important part of Trump’s political strategy in using history. A series of extracts from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.com makes this clear. For example, on January 19, 2019, he declared:
Newt Gingrich just stated that there has been no president since Abraham Lincoln who has been treated worse or more unfairly by the media than your favorite President, me! At the same time there has been no president who has accomplished more in his first two years in office!
This statement was repeated 57 times. In rebuttal, Fact Checker states in part, “Trump, unlike many presidents in his first two years, had signed few major pieces of legislation. Certainly, the whirlwind of accomplishments under presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama exceed Trump’s efforts.”
Or there was this statement on February 12, 2019: “More people working today in the United States than at any time in the history of our country.” This claim was repeated 55 times and was rebutted in part by Fact Checker with these words:
Of course there are more Americans working. That’s because there are more Americans today than ever before. More meaningful measures of the overall health of the job market take population into consideration. The unemployment rate, or the share of people who don’t have jobs, was at 3.9 percent in December and that wasn’t a record low.
Or on February 21, 2019, the president proclaimed “the largest tax cuts in the history of our country” and repeated it 131 times. Fact Checker responded:
Trump’s tax cut amounts to nearly 0.9 percent of the gross domestic product, meaning it is far smaller than President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981, which was 2.89 percent of GDP. Trump’s tax cut is the eighth largest tax cut—and even smaller than two tax cuts passed under Barack Obama.
Trump also declared, on April 15, “Our country has one of the best economies in many years, perhaps ever” and repeated it 134 times, but as the Fact Checker pointed out:
The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he makes a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton—or Ulysses S. Grant.
These distortions of the historical record are just a few excerpts from the first few months of 2019. Psychologists tell us that repeating an untruth has the effect of validating it as truthful. This is called the “illusory truth effect” and is used often in advertising, political campaigns, and propaganda. Researchers first identified it in 1977 but its practitioners date back to Quintillian, Napoleon, and Marcus Antonio in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. President Trump understands the truth effect and uses it artfully as part of his disinformation attack on American history.
PRESIDENTIAL USES OF HISTORY
Politicians, of course, have always used history—and continue to do so today—to bolster their programs and policies. Some distort it to serve their purposes. Franklin Roosevelt spoke about how politicians use history to validate their positions at a Jackson Day dinner, January 8, 1940.
Millions of unnecessary words and explanations and solemn comments are uttered and written year in and year out about the great men of American history . . . to prove what Jefferson or Hamilton, Jackson or Clay, Lincoln or Douglas, Cleveland or Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt or Bryan, would have said or would have done . . . if they were alive today. . . . Yes, the devil can quote past statesmen as readily as he can quote the Scriptures, in order to prove his purpose.”
And yes, FDR massaged history to meet his political objectives . . . but I think there is much to be said about a president who communicates with the public secure in the knowledge that he and they share an understanding of a generally accepted “truthful” understanding of the American past.
According to Alexander Heffner, host of PBS’s Open Mind, Trump’s acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016—unlike the acceptance speeches of previous nominees—failed to mention a single presidential precedent. Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860, in which Lincoln showed that a majority of the signers of the Constitution opposed extending slavery into new territories, presidential candidates have bolstered their positions to the electorate with historical allusions. Lincoln was able to demonstrate that his position, and that of the new Republican Party, was hardly radical; it was the view of the majority of the Founders. Other Republican presidents have similarly borrowed from their forbears. When Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the Republican Party to start the Bull Moose Party, he cited Lincoln. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Wendell Willkie—in his 1940 bid against Franklin Roosevelt—embraced TR’s motto “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Ronald Reagan famously evoked the Puritans’ “shining city on a hill” to inspire his vision for a new America.
President Obama delivering his Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2013.
Credit: USA Magazine
Yes, we are in a “post-historical” era in which the traditional narrative of American history is much contested. But the fundamentals of the American creed of liberty and equality remain potent—as Barack Obama made clear in his Second Inaugural, which was anchored in the Declaration of Independence. He called upon Americans to remember the Revolutionary War, Lincoln, the Civil War, and John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. He referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nation’s struggle for civil rights including Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.
As Obama and every successful president before him has demonstrated, the power to lead this nation is connected to the power to inspire people to act upon the generative ideas of American democracy. When the president and the American public share an understanding of American history, they are in communication with one another and engaged in an exchange of ideas that can result in persuasion, changed minds, leadership, and a stronger and more equitable democracy.
Donald Trump’s uses of history are qualitatively different from those of other presidents. Unaware of or uninterested in the complexities of the past, history is useful to him only out of necessity when faced with the requirement to preside at an event with historical resonance (i.e., comments on Black History Month or before a group of feminist women), or when he finds himself in trouble for making insensitive comments (Charlottesville). These uses are, perhaps, easily dismissed by informed Americans for their obvious inaccuracy. But Trump also routinely turns to history to employ the “truth effect” on the record of his presidency. In broad, erroneous, and self-serving generalizations, he delivers a steady stream of disinformation: Trump has produced the best or the most successful economy or employment record, or the largest inaugural audience, or the most legislation and the most successful first hundred days of any president in American history. He bends and twists history to deliver a fake past that glorifies him and inflates his power. Americans who have an understanding of the nation’s past dismiss these conceits—but for many his “fake past,” like his pronouncements on “fake news,” take on the illusion of truth.
FDR’S USES OF HISTORY
Franklin Roosevelt often led by using historical example. Sometimes he made light of it, as in his Second Fireside Chat when he used America’s most famous self-made man to criticize Wall Street speculators who chafed under the New Deal’s banking and investment regulations. “Only a very small minority of the people of this country,” he declared, “believe in gambling as a substitute for the old philosophy of Benjamin Franklin that the way to wealth is through work.” Then he cheekily pointed out that government regulation was even favored by America’s first Republican president. “I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that ‘the legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves.’”
Franklin D. Roosevelt Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
But if reference to the “great men” of American history does not resonate today, FDR also called upon the common narrative of American resourcefulness in a speech commemorating George Rogers Clark.
I have called those of us who are here today ‘pioneers of 1934.’ . . . We, too, . . . have come to a realization . . . that the accustomed order of our formerly established lives does not suffice to meet the perils and the problems, which today we are compelled to face. Again, mere survival calls for a new pioneering on our part.
In the midst of World War II, FDR used Washington’s Birthday as the opportunity to call the nation together, recalling Washington’s famous prayer at Valley Forge.
The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government. They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.
Here and in many other speeches FDR linked the achievement of lasting world peace to his two new freedoms (freedom from want and freedom from fear) and the fundamental guarantees of the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Much as Obama linked the Declaration of Independence to civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of the LGBT community, FDR—like any president seeking to strengthen the nation and the world—knew he could turn to history to support his case.
ON HISTORY AND AMERICAN LEADERSHIP
During their historic visit to the U.S. in 1939, the King and Queen of England visited Mount Vernon. Here they are pictured a few days later in front of the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, June 8, 1939. From left: Eleanor Roosevelt, King George VI, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, and Franklin Roosevelt. Credit: Legacy Files WordPress
In a telephone call to Mount Vernon I learned that Franklin Roosevelt visited Mount Vernon twelve times during his presidency, the most visits by any president before or since—most famously, perhaps, when he escorted the King and Queen of England to Washington’s home during their 1939 state visit. It was the first time that a reigning British monarch had set foot on American soil. With that visit FDR signaled the metaphorical end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Anglo-American alliance that would be needed to defeat Hitler.
It was recently reported that President and Mrs. Trump escorted President and Madame Macron on a visit to Mount Vernon in April 2018. The museum’s president and CEO, Doug Bradburn, conducted the tour but found it hard to hold President Trump’s attention. So he explained that Washington was a major real estate speculator in his time.
Trump couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself. “If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
Bradburn then told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.
President and Mrs. Trump and President and Madame Macron at Mount Vernon,
April 23, 2018. Image courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association
But did Trump really get the point?
That Washington’s greatness was founded in his modesty, truthfulness, and above all his understanding that presidential power in a democratic republic requires the ability to turn away from it.
That Washington could have been king, or at the very least president for life. Everyone wanted him to remain in power but he returned to Mount Vernon.
That Washington knew he was establishing important precedents for every president to follow. Does Trump understand what every president before him has understood: the importance of historical precedent, not as useful for “cover,” self-promotion, or personal protection, but rather as fundamental to American governing?
Trump’s behavior suggests that he does not understand the basics of our form of government, all of which are grounded in history.
- The separation of powers and the necessity for the executive to share power with Congress and the courts.
- The importance of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.
- The importance of honoring and extending national values—among them, the U.S. as a haven for the world’s dispossessed.
- An awareness of the accomplishments of past generations.
- The need to continue the unfinished work of the promise of liberty and justice for all.
- The importance of understanding the sources of U.S. power in its alliances, upholding its treaties, and in international institutions such as NATO and the UN.
- And above all America’s role in the world as the exemplar of liberal democracy.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing on the eve of the millennium, was as confident as Fukuyama that we had achieved an historic triumph over the political ideologies of the past.
Our world at the millennium is plainly not Hitler’s world.
The Thousand Year Reich had a ghastly run of a dozen years.
Nor is it the world of Lenin and Stalin.
The Communist dream turned out to be a political, economic, and moral nightmare.
Nor is it Churchill’s world. He was a great war leader, but he was the son of empire, and empires have faded into oblivion.
Our world today is Roosevelt’s world.
For liberal democracy to survive, let alone to thrive as Schlesinger and Fukuyama saw it, the president must understand history and his place in it. And then he (or she) has to use it to lead all the people to a shared understanding of the meaning of American democracy.
In Trump I’m afraid we have literally come face to face with the end of historical understanding, which opens the door to that which our founders most feared—the abuse of power. In the 18th century the danger was the unbridled monarchy; today it is the autocrat, the demagogue. Let us reconfirm our national commitment to historical understanding as a vital force in animating American citizenship and democracy.
“Address at the Jackson Day Dinner, January 8, 1940.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 9]: War and Aid to Democracies, 1940. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Macmillan, 1941, p. 29.
“Second Fireside Chat of 1934, September 30, 1934,” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, pp. 421-22.
“Address at George Rogers Clark Celebration, Harrodsburg, Kentucky, November 16, 1934.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, p. 457.
“Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 12.]: The Tide Turns, 1943. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 112.
Telephone conversation, Karen Anson, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, with Jennifer Kittraus, George Washington–Mount Vernon Historic Site, January 20, 2006.
Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr. Time, April 13, 1998.