Unprecedented, unprecedented. Everything is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Except it pretty much has. Whenever you see the word “unprecedented” in the media, you should ask yourself: Has this reporter ever read a history book? Make the case against Trump if you want to, but if you pretend the sorts of things he does are without precedent, you simply make yourself look ignorant.
Virtually any presidency you examine is guilty of far worse acts than whatever you think is the worst thing Trump has ever done, from John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, a breathtaking offense against freedom that was meant to punish political resistance, to Millard Fillmore’s Fugitive Slave Act, which made it so the evil tentacles of the South’s slavery regime could reach up North and pluck back people who had successfully made it to freedom. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and did nothing to stop his troops from shutting down newspapers they didn’t like.
Think Trump is more vulgar than anyone who’s held the office before him? In 2016, when Marco Rubio once implied he had a small dingle-dongle, Trump responded, “I guarantee you there’s no problem” — and everyone got the vapors. But Lyndon B. Johnson actually liked to show off his Johnson, peeing in the open air outside the House Office Building. When reporters once asked Johnson why the US was in Vietnam, he pulled out his todger and exclaimed, “This is why!”
You say Trump is an unprecedented threat to civil liberties? Woodrow Wilson’s administration threw people in jail for opposing his policy to join WWI the year after he campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” A leading political figure of the day, Eugene V. Debs, was imprisoned and still behind bars when Wilson left office two years after the end of the war. (The administration of Warren G. Harding let him out). Imagine Trump throwing, say, Beto O’Rourke in jail for opposing his Iran policy. Wouldn’t that be more outrageous than anything he actually has done?
You say Trump is an unprecedented fascist? Take a peek at the history of the American Protective League, a private organization given semi-official status by Wilson’s attorney general, which allowed the group to use the legend, “Organized with the Approval and Operating under the Direction of the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation.” During WWI, the APL was basically a group of brownshirts and thugs who carried official-looking badges that amounted to a license to beat up protesters and search people’s houses without warrants. Wilson’s fascists numbered a quarter of a million at their peak, and had some 600 offices nationwide. Wilson played good cop, saying he thought the group’s actions were a bit unfortunate, but did nothing to stop them. They continued to operate even after WWI ended.
Trump has undermined the press in an unprecedented way? Trump may have booted Jim Acosta (temporarily) out of the White House and he may mock The New York Times, but Wilson conducted a sustained campaign of suppression and intimidation against the left-wing press for opposing his war policy, which he supported with a huge outfit that has been called “the nation’s first ministry of information.”
Wilson’s Committee on Public Information even published a newspaper, the Official Bulletin, which Smithsonian magazine dubbed “the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily.”
Also, Andrew Jackson directed government contracts to newspaper publishers who gave him favorable coverage, and John Adams put a newspaper publisher in jail for nine months for “false, scandalous, and malicious writing, against the said President of the United States.”
You say Trump is guilty of abusing his power in unprecedented ways. But if the Supreme Court kept overturning Trump, and Trump’s response was to suggest that they had dementia and proposed adding six Trump-friendly justices to the bench — wouldn’t that be the most controversial thing he had ever done? It would not, however, be unprecedented, since that’s exactly what Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed.
And, if you think Trump is an unprecedented racist but consider Roosevelt the model for all great progressive presidents, that’s pretty hard to reconcile with FDR’s internment program, which rounded up 120,000 people based solely on racial suspicion (they were Japanese or Japanese-American) and threw them into prison camps during WWII. Most of the people imprisoned were American citizens.
As for “indulging racists,” Lyndon B. Johnson can hardly be topped on that score. True, it was a different time, but even at midcentury it wasn’t cool to refer to the Civil Rights Act as “the n—-r bill,” as Johnson repeatedly did, nor was it OK to use casual slurs in everyday life around the White House. Johnson once told his black chauffeur, “As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, n—-r, you just let it roll off your back like water.” (Before that, Wilson resegregated the federal government and hosted a White House screening of the Ku Klux Klan movie “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915.)
Trump sought to use unprecedented force of the federal government against a political opponent? Please. Johnson didn’t just suggest Ukraine launch an investigation, he did something much more direct and outrageous — he actually had the CIA spy on his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as Steve Usdin reported in his recent book “Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington.” CIA man Howard Hunt — whose actions would later help derail the presidency of Richard Nixon — infiltrated Goldwater campaign headquarters, “collected advance copies of position papers and other material, and handed them over to CIA personnel,” Hunt wrote. Hunt’s assets included one of Goldwater’s staff secretaries. Johnson was completely shameless about this, to the point that, “Goldwater campaign staff noticed that the Johnson campaign had the unnerving habit of responding to points in their candidate’s speeches before he had delivered them,” Usdin wrote.
Trump sought to press his attorney general to serve political ends like never before? Bill Barr can hardly top Robert F. Kennedy when it comes to suspecting the Attorney General is partial in presidential matters. When John F. Kennedy appointed his brother as AG, he said breezily, “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.” Four years later, President Johnson asked his AG whether he could fire the (independent) chairman of the federal reserve board, William McChesney Martin. (Only for cause, not for policy differences, he was told).
You say Trump has tried to influence the sacred, independent Federal Reserve Board for the first time ever? Johnson (who was 6-foot-4) physically assaulted (the much shorter) Martin, pushing him against the wall and screaming, “Martin, my boys are dying in Vietnam, and you won’t print the money I need.”
Trump says random stuff on Twitter that no previous president ever would have dreamed of? During a crisis about the value of the dollar, Johnson once publicly suggested Americans be barred from traveling anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere in order to keep dollars from leaving the country. Trump has said some off-the-wall things but few are as strange as Johnson telling people they might have to cancel their summer vacations in France to aid his reelection prospects. Johnson did back down, as Trump repeatedly has.
Finally, let’s not forget that the administration of Barack Obama himself, who frequently claimed to have presided over a scandal-free era, actually spied on journalists from the Associated Press and The New York Times in order to trace the source of leaks. The Justice Department collected two months’ worth of phone records of AP reporters, and federal investigators tracked the credit records and phone logs of James Risen, a Times reporter. They even spied on his movements. Two years later, a reporter with a similar name, James Rosen of Fox News, was targeted, with the feds grabbing not only his phone records but the phone records of his parents.
In 2004, before he became president, Obama declared, “We don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in red states!” But President Obama’s officials did worse than merely “poke around”; they harassed and intimidated legitimate reporters acting in the public interest.
Team Obama may never have called reporters “the enemy of the people” as Trump has, but he treated Fox in much the same way Trump treats CNN, barring its reporters from briefings and announcing (via White House spokesperson Anita Dunn): “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.”
Obama aide David Axelrod suggested not only that he didn’t like Fox News but that other media organizations should give them the cold shoulder: “It’s really not news — it’s pushing a point of view,” he said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we’re not going to treat them that way.”
That’s just a passive-aggressive way of calling one news outfit “the enemy of the people.” Trump may be the first president to regularly insult people in all caps on Twitter, but in substance and temperament he’s very, very precedented.
Kyle Smith is the critic-at-large at National Review.
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