I have been asked many questions these days about the proper attitude and informed decisions to be made by Christians and people of faith about the elections this year. To be more precise, I have been asked the same question by many people: Is Donald Trump someone to be trusted; does he know or understand biblical principles and basic Christian creedal tenets; is he someone who will “make deals” with the devil – so to speak – once in office?
I am asked those questions by a variety of folks, in my putative role as a social critic, political commentator, and Christian writer. I have no special insights, not holy ones I claim, anyway. Among those who ask me these burning questions is… myself.
A crazy political season. A crazy world, crazier and more ominous by the day. If it is not the advent of End Times, we might wish it were. We all should be primarily seeking spiritual, moral, and ethical answers – because our major challenges in America are, and have been caused by, spiritual, moral, and ethical lapses.
I will don another one my hats, my actual training as a historian, and posit some observations. Those who make stark critiques and censure are Jeremiahs. Most of us historians, as Gibbon and Macaulay did, wait millennia to make sense of history, to discern missteps.
There is an aspect of the human spirit that tends to think that contemporary crises are unprecedented, perhaps apocalyptic. It cannot always be true; but someday it will be. Oddly, we occasionally adopt the attitude of Dr Pangloss, that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and in certain ways it too sometimes is correct.
But has our society, in our days, begun its ultimate dissolution? Is it possible that we are past “sliding down the slippery slope” and, rather, in the maelstrom of the flushing toilet of history, a vortex going “down the tubes”?
I think it is reasonable to think so. Too many of our foundations are crumbling, too many moral traditions are denigrated or ignored. But our political season, as crazy as it is, is not unprecedented.
We can look back at other crises in presidential contests. In 1800 the election was deadlocked – at the time, the House of Representatives, not the general populace, voted for president and vice-president, separate votes for each of two candidates; all later adjusted by a Constitutional amendment. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each had more votes than the incumbent president John Adams, but a secret deal withheld some of Burr’s electoral support and resulted in his defeat. The invective, chicanery, and dirty dealing all led to what history calls the “Revolution of 1800.” A few years later, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and eventually fled west where he reportedly attempted to organize an uprising against the United States and/or Mexico.
Let us gloss over the social aspects of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, bereft by scandals, charges of “loose women” in the White House kitchen, and White House events where the president invited the general public, leading to shredding of carpets, destruction of furnishings, and theft of property. Jackson’s presidential campaigns led to the “spoils system” of trading votes for jobs.
In the 1860 election, the Republican Party, then only six years old, gained the White House as beneficiary of four candidates in the field. Abraham Lincoln’s nomination was secured by his manager who forbad Honest Abe from attending or knowing anything about their machinations – such as promising the same federal offices and cabinet positions to more than one person. The campaign was dirty (Secession was imminent) and dangerous (Lincoln reportedly travelled through pro-slavery Baltimore on his way to the inauguration in a plaid cloak and Scottish cap to evade assassins).
In 1896 a virtual unknown, William Jennings Bryan, delivered a speech (the “Cross of Gold”) to the Democrat convention that stampeded the delegates to nominate him in a frenzy. Barely old enough to serve as president, Bryan’s radical, socialist agenda split the party in two and had Americans, those who were not seduced by the firebrand, fearful of blood in the streets.
Theodore Roosevelt, wildly popular on his retirement in 1909, went on an African safari and tour of Europe for a year, partly to grant the spotlight to his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. But during Taft’s term, there were personal slights of TR; reversal of many Roosevelt policies; serious broken promises; and a calamitous decline in the GOP’s popularity, including the loss of Congress. Severe affronts to Roosevelt, and an irresistible demand from many Republicans, persuaded him to challenge Taft for the nomination.
An ex-president versus a sitting president. Friends became enemies. “Liar” and “Fathead” were among the many epithets. There were mass defections from the GOP after the nomination was wrested from TR, who had won most of the new-fangled primaries. The speakers’ platform at the Republican convention had barbed wire under the bunting, in fear that riots would break out. TR’s bolt of the convention led to the independent Bull Moose party, which soundly trounced the GOP; Taft won only two states. A Socialist, Eugene Debs, polled nearly a million votes. In late October, a bartender who had been persuaded against a Third Term shot Roosevelt point-blank in the chest. TR insisted on continuing to his speech; with blood streaming down his shirt, he spoke for almost 90 minutes. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the four-way election.
Another year of the gun, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, after a primary victory in California, were killed. A sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, was forced from running again when he could not endure widespread protests and a rebellious Democrat Party. Millions in the streets and campuses; a bitter primary; riots outside the convention; the anarchist Yippies; a candidate nominated (VP Humphrey) who had not even run in the primaries; the return of the has-been Richard Nixon; and the amazing grass-roots revolt of third-party candidate George Wallace. The story of 1968.
So… does this year’s election cycle seem tame yet? For all the elements that foreshadowed our current season of discontent, I think the campaign of 1884 has the most parallels. So far. The GOP, in the White House for 24 straight years, was rife with divisions. Factions called “Half-Breeds” and “Stalwarts” hated each other and vied for power. An office-seeker of one faction had assassinated President James Garfield, of another, when he was frustrated in securing a federal job. Bosses continually attempted a comeback for ex-president Ulysses Grant, whom they could control.
Sen. James G Blaine was the favorite for the nomination. A former Speaker of the House, he had been involved numerous. He sold influence; he had solicited bribes. He arrogantly admitted many of these discretions, but he was a magnetic speaker who swayed crowds and inspired devotion. He faced opposition, however, not so much from strong candidates, but a field of lesser names.
The major threat to Blaine instead was from the reform movement in the GOP, a gaggle of veterans and newcomers. Among the former were George William Curtis and Carl Schurz, whose political careers went back to the Civil War. Leaders of the latter group were young Henry Cabot Lodge and 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, a major force in the convention. Their efforts to advance reform candidates failed on the floor.
There was public revulsion against Blaine (“Blaine, Blaine; James G Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” street crowds chanted) but a lot of GOP voters fell in line. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat candidate, was “ugly honest,” a good reputation for 1884; but midway through the campaign it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child – remember, this in the staid Victorian era. (“Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” rival crowds chanted.) THAT was some campaign.
As in 2016, a large number of Republican politicians and activists faced moral and practical dilemmas. Many of them sincerely believed that Blaine was toxic for the party’s self-esteem and for its future; and they had made threats – or promises – never to vote for Blaine. Excruciating.
There was, collectively, a Solomonic decision. Reformers like Curtis and Schurz and Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most prominent pastor, whose sister had written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” left the Republican Party, and supported Cleveland. They were dubbed “Mugwumps.”
Reformers like Roosevelt and Lodge, however, reluctantly remained within the party. Never endorsing Blaine, they “supported the ticket,” stating that the only way to influence the party was from within the party. Young TR, whose wife and mother had died a few months earlier (on the same day), left for an understandable “sabbatical” on his cattle ranch in the Dakotas. For two years he was a cowboy, out of the public eye. He made one or two campaign speeches for down-ticket candidates, including Lodge who ran for Congress.
Lodge lost. He and Roosevelt both considered their political futures ruined.
Both were mistaken, of course. Many of the Mugwumps eventually returned to the GOP, which thereafter always had – has had – a reform wing. Cleveland won, but a dozen years later he and many establishment Democrats boycotted the agrarian radical Bryan. Blaine lost the 1884 election, but by a whisker.
The final detail of the final moments of that crazy 1884 campaign might be relevant if not dispositive to troubled Republicans weathering Hurricane Donald this year: a moral, specifically a religious, aspect.
Just before election eve, Blaine attended a dinner of industrialists and monopolists at Delmonico’s in New York. One of the speakers, a nonentity minister, in his speech described the Democrats as the “party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Rum was a smear on lowlife aspects of stereotyped Democrat voters; Rebellion was a reminder of the Democrats’ association with Secession.
Romanism, however, was a word that touched social and religious nerves. It was a direct reference to Catholicism, imputing a congenital association between Democrats and the Pope; and was not meant as a compliment. The consequent furor over the insult (which Blaine had ignored) energized New York City’s Irish immigrants. New York City went Democrat; New York State and its electoral votes narrowly went for Cleveland… enough to tip the national outcome away from the GOP.
The scenario is a different animal than whether to endorse a candidate you distrust or despise in 2016 – but it reminds us that religion is never far from the larger debate. Our civic consciences might still roil over whether to Trump, or not to Trump. Life has gone on in America despite, as Kipling wrote, “The tumult and the shouting dies.”
Myself, I greet with dubiety Trump’s assurances that he is familiar with the Bible, understands doctrine, and has a saving knowledge, as we say, of Jesus Christ. But we are not to judge: I question, however. “God judges the man; voters judge the candidate” is, this year, less of a maxim and feels like more of an excuse.
Many of us have the nagging feeling that things are different this time, that past is less than prologue. The Captains and the Kings may depart, yet we seem closer to our destiny, maybe an apocalypse.
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