More Historical Rhymes and Dissonances

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
A couple watches CNN airing Election 2016 results of a Presidential Poll Tracker (unfavorables) Trump - 65%, Hillary - 56% "Remember when elections were popularity contests?"

Image source: John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune.

The headlines are telling me our next president will be either the shape-shifting incarnation of Satan or a Mussolini from Queens. Boys and girls, can you spell, “Apocalypse of St. John?” My options: stockpile freeze-dried food in the basement, or restore the oxygen balance by breathing deeply into a paper bag. Is this just another quadrennial spell of national hyper-ventilating? In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt trumpeted, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” This time we just have Trump, and Clinton.

To escape the present, and have it make some sense, consider this: It is an election year in the United States. One party has selected a ticket headed by politicians from New York and Indiana. The presidential candidate has never resided in Washington. The vice presidential candidate used to be in Congress and once served as governor. The other party has picked well-known insiders, establishment types with lengthy resumes. The presidential candidate, idolized by a loyal army of admirers, had been Secretary of State under the rival who snatched the party nomination from this year’s choice. But this time, the idol’s army seized the party organization to ensure the ‘proper’ outcome at the convention.

The campaign is vicious, personal–a brawl. The press is drenched in accusations. The idol is corruption in the flesh: publicly exposed, tattooed with the names of unsavory corporate interests–a ‘continental liar,’ to boot!!  The opponent: sexually immoral, the keeper of an underage concubine, sire of an illegitimate child. The burning issue (besides graft and grifting): The nation is awash in immigrants who threaten the foundations of democracy, attached as they are to foreign religious beliefs–the pawns of despots bent on bankrupting the United States and corrupting the nation through the sick teachings of robed clerics speaking poison in an ancient language. And the former Secretary of State believes trade with alien nations brings prosperity for all. The idol’s mother even knelt to that un-American ‘religion.’ Unless real Americans fortify the border to discern who is worthy among the immigrants, the nation will be swamped with criminals, violent bomb throwers, carriers of social, political and physical pathogens.

1884 election propaganda with "Free trade" on the left and "Protection" on the right. Lady liberty stands in the middle with the caption "which?"

Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine, Unidentified artist, 1884, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Click through for more information about the 1884 election.)

The year: 1884.  The candidates: Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. Cleveland: incorruptible, “Grover the Good” to his admirers; a philanderer from New York to the rest. Blaine: the “Plumed Knight” to his admirers; the “continental liar from the State of Maine” to the rest. The problem with the immigrants: Roman Catholicism and the specter of rule by mitered prelates. One outcome of the election: the construction of Ellis Island in New York Harbor, beneath the Statue of Liberty’s glowing torch.

The parallels: Armageddon roars throughout the land, as it did in 1884. According to one zealous Republican, a vote for Cleveland was a vote for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The Republicans countered with Maria Halpin’s baby, Oscar, his arms outstretched toward Grover wailing, “I want my Pa!” No matter who won the election, the nation would get a president badly dented by the accusations being hurled about. To their credit, Cleveland acknowledged his moral failing, admonishing his followers to simply tell the truth about him; belatedly, Blaine publicly rejected the insinuation that Cleveland was un-American.

Clearly this year’s major party candidates are weighed down with baggage that renders them unfit to large segments of the population. Charges of corruption and privilege and lying have stuck to Hillary Clinton like glue. Donald Trump is a gold-plated blowhard and egotistical bully to a major of the body politic. Clinton lacks a soul while Trump has no conscience, according to popular belief. Trump says dark forces seek to rig the election in Clinton’s favor. Clinton foresees a new dark age if Trump wins. Truthfully, this kind of rhetoric does not bode well, no matter the outcome.

It’s the rhetoric, and the heat it is generating, that puts this campaign in a unique category. Nativists blaming the nation’s ills on immigrants goes back to the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, signed into law by John Adams. The Know-Nothings, led by former President Millard Fillmore, sought to limit admission to the United States to only “worthy” newcomers. To which Abraham Lincoln responded, “When the Know-Nothings get control, [the Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

Donald Trump’s love of the pronoun “I” deviates from our common political usage. While every president has possessed an enlarged ego, none of them used the word “I” as liberally Trump. And words, even pronouns, are vitally important. Historically the nation has shied away from messiahs. People could sense this in Douglas MacArthur. Andrew Jackson possessed a strong streak of the authoritarian, too. But even he understood his authority came from the Constitution, not his person.

As for Hillary Clinton’s public image problems, she is not the first candidate to be tarred with chronic lying (Lyndon Johnson), being devious (Tricky Dick), using public office for financial gain (Johnson, again), or selling out to wealthy plutocrats (Eisenhower’s cabinet of “eight millionaires and a plumber”). Or to have her religious convictions challenged (Jefferson), or to have unsavory relatives (Carter), or to be out of touch with ordinary citizens (FDR), or driven by a sense of entitlement (Kennedy), or officially responsible for deaths (Cleveland), or circulating ice water in lieu of blood (Benjamin Harrison). You get the picture. Clearly being the first woman nominated by a major party is a notable event on the national timeline. And being the first former First Lady to ask for the keys to the Oval Office sets her apart. If she wins, the Clintons could be seen as similar to Grover Cleveland, two residencies in the White House separated by an interregnum. Remember, the ‘co-presidency’ of the 1990s?

I will now don my tin-foil helmet and resume my search for the shape-shifting aliens in human form (the Windsors, if you hadn’t heard). What will they think of us, and know about us, in the not too distant future?

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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