Johnson and Trump
by Anonymous Student
November 22nd, 1963, United States President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while driving through Dallas. The perpetrator, Lee Harvey Oswald, was never charged, due to his own murder. It was a transformative event for the average American, one that would come to shape the world for decades to come. And, it wasn’t the assassination. No, the most important event of the decade may have very well taken place on November 22nd when VicePresident Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in to the presidency, with Jackie Kennedy right there next to him; she was still wearing the same dress she had worn a day earlier, caked in her late husband’s blood. She insisted on wearing it throughout the swearing in ceremony.
That day marked the beginning of the Johnson Years. Johnson was brought on as VP due to Kennedy’s need for the support of the Southern Democrats, who had backed Johnson. Even after Kennedy chose him as his running mate, no one seriously expected Johnson to have any real power. Nonetheless, Johnson was perhaps the most effective president in the later half of the 20th century. He transformed the nation, bringing to life his vision of a ‘Great Society’. By upholding civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development, public services, and his because of his “War on Poverty”, Johnson’s presidency marked the peak of modern liberalism after the New Deal era.
Nonetheless, Johnson himself was a unique character. Despite having assumed the quiet, domesticated Vice President role very well during Kennedy’s tenure, Johnson exploded onto the scene as a President, legislating a complete overhaul of the entire defense department and completely changing the social scene by passing the Civil Rights Act. His rapid legislative initiatives showed just what an effective leader he could be. In hindsight, it may have been fortunate that President Kennedy discharged the seat unto Johnson. Kennedy himself was a better campaigner than leader, whose entire time in office was marked by blatant nepotism, heightened Cold War tensions, CIA assassinations of multiple Latin American revolutionaries and the overthrow of Abd al-Karim Qasim (which some regard to be the true origin of the many crisis in the Middle East). Kennedy was a man who cared for public opinion more than almost anything, and given how the 60’s proceeded, perhaps it was for the best.
The question still remains: how, oh how, was Johnson such an effective president? Was it his famous ‘Johnson Treatment’ (wherein the President would produce his genitalia and proceed to wave around in order to intimidate)? Was it his grassroots organizing experience? Or perhaps, was it the fact that Johnson took his personal mandate to govern, and used it as a tool against Congress to fundamentally change the role of the President. Lyndon B. Johnson has left many legacies, but no more enduring than the shadow of Vietnam. Regardless of the fact that he had inherited the disaster from Kennedy, Johnson fundamentally shared Kennedy’s views on the matter. His escalation of the Vietnam War led to his loss in the 1968 election.
Furthermore, it led to the war that traumatized a generation. It is important to note that, before Vietnam, the President had played a more ‘limited’ role in foreign operations that involved the entire government. For example, President Woodrow Wilson had tried to increase American involvement in World War I. However, when both the British and the Germans rejected his many offers to mediate, there was very little he could do. Privately, Wilson wished he could conduct missions abroad, giving the British manpower and resources without a formal declaration by Congress. However, at the time, this was rules highly unconstitutional. It was only after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by German U-boats, killing over a 100 American citizens and turning public support the other way) that brought the US into the war.
Another example lies in the years leading up to World War II. At the beginning of the war, it was well known throughout Congress that President Roosevelt wanted direct American involvement in the war. However, the American public was very anti-war at the time, and embers of Congress would never have dared to declare war for fear of losing their seats. Throughout the early war period, Roosevelt kept in private correspondence with Churchill. Unlike Wilson, who was a highly principled man, Roosevelt took a different interpretation of presidential power. He regarded it fully within his rights to launch covert intelligence and defense missions without the support of Congress. Interestingly, we this shift in executive power is something we will come to see as a pattern. Nonetheless, Roosevelt was privately in favor of war with Germany and continued to interfere with German, Italian and Japanese efforts around the globe.
This is an interesting shift. Wilson, just 20 years earlier, had deemed himself unable to launch any kind of operations that undermined American neutrality, but Roosevelt, in an almost identical situation, had seen it fit to launch covert operations and begin an effective trade war? In fact, many historians estimate that even after the United States declared war upon Japan, after Pearl Harbor, they were not directly at war with Germany. German and Japanese forces almost never fought on the same theater during any time of the war. It was Germany, interestingly, who felt the need to show support for their ally Japan and decided to declare war upon the US as a show of support. The Germans never expected that the United States was considering non-participation in the European theater; until the Germans sent them a declaration of war for no reason whatsoever.
Before we can understand how Johnson shaped the society of today in true detail, we must look to the end of the Roosevelt years, where a decidedly similar event occurred. Unlike Kennedy, President Roosevelt was an accomplished man when he died in office. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that despite his exceptional achievement, he was not clever enough to stop his biggest blunder, who took place but a few months before he died.
Roosevelt did not want to pick Harry S. Truman as his Vice President for his fourth term in office. He found him simple minded, quiet and disastrously inept. He much preferred the his Vice President, the brilliant Henry A. Wallace, perhaps the most socially and economically liberal person ever elected to office. However, he was persuaded by party leadership to drop him because of suspected Soviet sympathies that grew in the prelude to the Red Scare. With the party convention win week and with no alternative candidate, he instead was forced to pick Harry Truman, a man whose sole characteristic was that there was no one who desperately hated him. All possible other candidates at the time had their individual enemies rush to block them.
Nonetheless, it was Truman who ascended to the presidency when Roosevelt passed away. He immediately began to dismantle what some considered to be Roosevelt’s signature foreign policy development, the lukewarm relationship with the Soviet Union. Influenced heavily by his cabinet, and with many whispering that there was no way he would be an effective leader, President Truman took charge, overseeing the Berlin Airlift, infuriating Stalin and beginning the Cold War. He destroyed the isolationism that had defined the United States for over a century, dropped the only two nuclear weapons ever to be used on cities with high civilian populations and launched the Korean War.
Here develops a pattern. Obviously, like Johnson after him and Roosevelt before him, Truman believed that this increase of executive power stemmed from an increased threat level throughout the world. Once, during a national railroad strike, he used his gained powers to call for a new law to draft all the railroad strikers into the Army, and even called for, in an open letter, veterans to form a lynch mob and destroy the union leaders. These did not come to pass, but should indicate the lengths to which President Truman believed his authority extended.
Now, we return to President Johnson. Like presidents before him, he extended executive power into the modern era. However, a critical difference appears. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson began the program that would, eventually, led to the crisis of mass surveillance currently underway in the United States. Johnson authorized the tapping of phone conversations of others, including the friends of a Nixon associate and, notably, Martin Luther King Jr. Therein began the tradition of an American President using their executive authority to claim that they had a right to temporarily suspend constitutional rights without notice in the benefit of national security. This very idea has come to be, in modern times, a noxious defect that reverberates through all modern liberal democracies.
Nonetheless, the most important legacy President Johnson left was that he was the tipping point. There had been a constitutional crisis simmering in the United States ever since the powers of the president began to slowly increase. However, due to the technological advances of the mid 20th century, and due to the fact that America had never been in a position of such power: where American influence extended across the globe, covering a great geological and political mass. To ensure that this empire was protected, President Johnson began to ensure that the executive branch could take ‘war-like’ action without necessitating the approval of congress. Through history, we have seen this idea extend to the assassination of foreign heads of state, massacres throughout revolutionary and anti-capitalist communities (both in the US and abroad) and, perhaps most recently, the authority of the United States President to effectively end any individual life, anywhere on the planet, without the need to disclose the reason or even disclose the death.
So, what does all this have to do with Trump? Well, uniquely, Donald Trump has come to sit in perhaps the most powerful White House in history. Never before has the American Empire been so powerful. President Bush Jr. and President Obama were the architects of this modern interpretation of executive authority, the bedrock of which was President’s Johnson’s incremental increases to executive power. What will come of the world now? What will happen when a man of Donald Trump’s caliber and temperament is given the most deadly, most powerful office in the land at the most powerful the office has ever been?
Well, the answer is very simple. Start saving for that apocalypse bunker.