Inspired by Brenda Wineapple’s fine recent study of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Alex Pareene intertwines the similarities between Johnson and Trump’s voting bases, the political establishment’s fetish for moderation, and having the moral clarity to recognize what is at stake by leaving Trump in office for the sake of keeping his attention long enough to sign legislation.
I’ve written often about the snow job that teachers did on us high schoolers when we got to Reconstruction. Presented as a well-intentioned mangling that ushered in the so-called Gilded Age, Reconstruction was taught as if textbook writers had toiled at the bottom of the ocean to avoid dealing with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts passed a century after the Civil War ended; if they endorsed those attempts to redress a hundred years of spilled blood, then a good faith argument required them to credit the Radical Republicans of 1866 and 1867 for wrenching leadership away from the racist demagogue in the White House whom Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to woo War Democrats, had placed on the ticket a few years earlier.
The Radicals were right about nearly everything, and the moderates—who made a big show of caution and deference to the Constitution and generous accommodation to the office of the president—were plainly wrong. The ones who didn’t even have skin in the game but who wanted representation for those who did were correct to be fanatical in their pursuit of a more perfect country—and, more important, they were right about the baleful and regressive consequences of moderation in the face of extremist and reactionary unreason.
And any actually reasonable observer of American politics over the last several decades would have to conclude that it isn’t the diversity of one party that has led to gridlock. Rather, it’s been the brittle, homogeneous outlook of a conservative party that increasingly counts on a base that is overwhelmingly white and male—but, of course, anyone posing as a moderate interlocutor of good faith can blame their extremism on the diversity of the other side. “Radical liberals made me more racist” is, alas, not a remotely novel claim in American politics. Wineapple writes how, after Johnson angrily declared that “this is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men,” The Chicago Times—a reasonable Republican paper of the time—wrote: “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” In other words: The Radical Republicans made him do it.
We’ve heard variations on the last sentence from our Trump-loving relatives: if liberals didn’t push bathroom bills, paper straws, panic over rising seas, and an equitable health care system, I wouldn’t have voted for the racist!
In the last week we’ve heard testimony from career diplomats that in another era would have flipped a couple of querulous Republicans and instead will remind Americans which party cares about the Constitution. I waffled too on the political merits of impeachment; I’m no legislator. If Pareene is chiding Democratic leadership for abjuring its constitutional duties until early October, he’s not wrong, which makes the timing of this essay unusual.