Dreading the thought of a President Trump? He can’t possibly be worse than some other presidents. Look at Richard Nixon, Warren G. Harding, and Andrew Jackson/.
Famed American writer Gore Vidal once declared, “We are the United States of Amnesia; we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” No chapter in our nation’s history has proven that notion to be true more than the 2016 election cycle.
Many comparisons have been made between Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and fear-mongering leaders from other nations, particularly Adolf Hitler. And if real-life leaders aren’t enough to illustrate disdain for the man, British author J.K. Rowling has declared that Trump is worse than Voldemort, the evil wizard of the Harry Potter series.
Let that sink in for a moment.
What’s most amusing about the “Which real or imagined leader is slightly less evil than Donald Trump?” argument is who’s missing from it. To date, no one has mentioned American-bred examples of elected officials who played on the nation’s fears to get elected and went on to misuse their powers in office.
As millions of Americans pray and wail and plan their four-year trips to Canada in anticipation of a Trump presidency, it’s worth noting that America has previously elected to the highest office in the land men who make Donald Trump look like Mother Teresa in comparison.
Richard Nixon: From regular guy to crook-in-chief
Richard Nixon was not the first Quaker to be elected president (that distinction goes to Herbert Hoover), but he was first man with good intentions to be elected to the Executive Branch who inadvertently turned it into a criminal enterprise.
Sarcasm, people. That was sarcasm.
Americans became aware of Nixon’s questionable work habits before he became president, when a 1952 New York Post article accused the then vice presidential candidate of improperly using money from a trust fund for his Senate campaign. Nixon was able to turn the accusations into positive campaign publicity thanks to his brilliant political maneuvering, in the form of his famous “Checkers” speech. By showing television audiences that he was just a regular guy who worked hard and loved his dog, he easily distracted Americans from a pretty epic warning sign of things to come.
Nixon was elected president during a time when the country was bitterly divided and desperate for stability. The Republican Party proclaimed a return to “law and order” (code for suppressing dissenting voices) during the 1968 Republican National Convention. Once he was in the White House, however, Nixon used any means available to him to discredit his critics. He partnered with the FBI and the CIA to illegally bug the offices of his political adversaries, and worked with the IRS to harass activists, entertainers, and anyone his office deemed suspect.
The Watergate Scandal revealed his administration’s illegal doings to the world, but even during his televised address announcing his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon continued to portray himself as a hardworking man who couldn’t possibly be at fault, because his intentions were good.
“I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation,” he said through his teeth.
Warren G. Harding: With friends like these, who needs accountability?
Rewarding friends and supporters with positions of power is nothing new (just ask Michael Brown, former horse competition judge-turned-director of FEMA under George W. Bush). But when Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding came to the Oval Office in 1921, he faced a long list of I.O.U.’s from the guys who got him elected. As a result, the federal government was full of many Harding cronies but very little oversight.
That lack of oversight came back to bite Harding big time in not one, but two national scandals. The first stemmed from the Veterans’ Bureau, a new institution founded in 1921 to provide free medical care to soldiers wounded during World War I. Harding gave the reins of the taxpayer-funded venture to his poker buddy Charles Forbes, who took kickbacks, sold cheap land at astronomical prices to companies building the hospitals, and fixed prices for medical supplies. Eventually the Veterans’ Bureau scandal landed Forbes in prison, but not before increasing the national debt by millions of dollars and laying the groundwork for the bureaucratic labyrinth that would become the modern Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
The Teapot Dome scandal was another embarrassing episode, exposing massive bribes and fishy leases of federal oil reserves under Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall. Secretary Fall became the first American to be tried and convicted of a crime while holding a Cabinet position.
Even in death, Harding couldn’t catch a break from the scourge of scandal. In 2014, the New York Times published a series of steamy letters between Harding and his mistress exchanged during an affair that lasted right up until the 1920 election. Any hope of remembering the 29th president’s positive contributions to history vanished when the world found out that Harding’s pet name for the presidential member in his letters was “Jerry.”
Andrew Jackson: The Constitution-stomping racist
The story of Andrew Jackson reads like an epic novel. Orphaned at age 14, he was a hero of the Revolutionary War as well as the War of 1812, and the first prisoner of war to go on to become president.
Jackson was also the first presidential candidate who appealed to the working class, setting up grassroots support groups in “every state, county, and township” while incumbent president John Quincy Adams opted to sit back and let newspaper articles make his case to the American people.
Once in office, Jackson vetoed the renewal of the Bank of the United States‘ charter (he claimed the Bank existed to benefit foreigners and the rich), expanded slavery into Florida through authorized raids and land grabs, and enforced the most far-reaching and genocidal Indian policy in United States history.
Jackson’s hatred of Native Americans inspired him to violate the Constitution and ignore a ruling from the highest court in the land. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1832 that the state of Georgia did not have any authority over tribal lands (as in the state had no frickin’ right to claim millions of acres of Cherokee land for itself), President Jackson scoffed, “Well, [Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision: Now let him enforce it!“
Jackson’s state-sanctioned policy of discrimination set the stage for brutal attacks on native villages by white settlers in the South and the infamous Trail of Tears, a deadly march that saw one out of every four Cherokee Indians die as the tribe made its way to the newly designated “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi.
Think of that the next time you look at a $20 bill.
You deserve better, America
It’s worth mentioning that the elections of each of these men took place during times in our history when our country was in the throes of war (or had recently emerged from one), the economy was in the toilet, and citizens were fed up with limited earning power and were eager to assign blame to somebody for their lot in life.
If we paid closer attention to history, we’d realize that the men who made big promises of peace and prosperity and went to great lengths to portray themselves as regular guys were the ones who went on have the biggest scandals on their watch.
Let’s pretend for a moment that Richard Nixon, Warren G. Harding, and Andrew Jackson are America’s dysfunctional ex-boyfriends. They swept us off our feet with big promises and short-term bursts of success, and then broke our hearts when we found out about their bad behaviors. Sure, we held our heads high in public after we went our separate ways, but inside we were broken; embarrassed that we let ourselves fall for “those guys.”
We promised ourselves it would never happen again, that we wouldn’t fall for the infectious energy and sweet nothings. We were determined not to go weak in the knees for the bad boy disguised as the hard-working dog lover who just wants to do the right thing. The days of being humiliated by Watergate, “Jerry,” and $20 bills were over. “Never again,” America said through the tears and the Celine Dion music blaring on the car radio.
And then The Donald arrived.