Austin, Texas – As president, he cut a grandiose figure. He was a braggart and a frequent liar. He was suspicious of other countries, frequently saying, “Foreigners are not like the folks I am used to.” He had a reckless disregard for limits. He belittled and browbeat others to intimidate them and give him what he wanted. Historian Robert Dallek said that he “viewed criticism of his policies as personal attacks” and opponents of his policies “as disloyal to him and the country.”
He would bully and insult reporters, saying of one that he “always knew when he was around, because he could smell him.” He told whoppers about voter fraud in his elections. But he did get things done, dominating the political scene for good and for ill.
No, we’re not talking about Donald Trump. During a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I was struck by just how many parallels there are between Lyndon Johnson and Trump. Liberals knew all about Johnson’s faults in the 1960s. But it was a different, more respectful media era, and his faults were underreported. The media were also willing to overlook them until Vietnam became a fiasco, because reporters liked his domestic-policy priorities in civil rights and his new government spending. “Would America have been better off without Lyndon Johnson in the Senate? And, consequently, without Lyndon Johnson as president?” asked historian Torsten Kathke, writing at his blog Thus, History! “It is a question of means and ends. Any answer can only be uncomfortable, but that is, precisely, the ground on which politics thrives.”
The answer that 91 mostly liberal historians gave for CSPAN’s new Presidential Historians Survey is clear. Despite all of Johnson’s character flaws and the Vietnam disaster, he was ranked as the tenth-best president. LBJ lost ninth place, by a historian’s hair, to Ronald Reagan, despite the Gipper’s manifestly greater integrity and honesty. Where Johnson excelled was in the category “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” There, he barely lost out to Abraham Lincoln, taking second place but still outscoring third-place finisher Barack Obama. In other words, Johnson’s ends canceled out his means.
With President Trump, conservatives are having to make similar calculations. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill are appalled by Trump’s bouts of pettiness and near-paranoia. But they also believe that they’re worth tolerating if it means that tax reform will pass, Obamacare will be replaced, and U.S. military strength will be restored.
Some conservatives go beyond that realpolitik and argue that there is a method to Trump’s menace. Writing in the latest issue of National Review, Heather Higgins, CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, notes:
Trump repeatedly reverses tone with neck-whipping speed when it suits his purpose to pivot from aggressive attack to gracious conciliation. These are clues that his bravado and bluster are an act. Trump has learned that intimidation, misdirection, controlling the conversation, graciousness, and conciliation all have their uses.
If it’s true that Trump’s grandiosity is all an act, he deserves to retire the Academy Award. But there is evidence to buttress Higgins’s contention. In the biggest crisis of his business career, he really cared about the art of one deal.
In 1990, Trump nearly went bankrupt and was forced to ask creditors to change the terms on their loans and forgive some of his debts. Trump has said he focused on it with more intensity and purpose than anything he’d done in his life to that point. In PBS’s documentary The Choice 2016, Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps, said that “bankers held gigantic meetings at Trump Tower with, like, 40 banks all sitting around in a room, Donald very sober, looking like not quite penitent perhaps, but serious.” According to Blair, Trump convinced his creditors that he was more valuable to them financially alive than financially dead. So Trump shifted from real-estate deals to licensing his well-known name. “The brand was worth now so much that bankers were willing to take a haircut in order to hang onto the name,” Blair said.
But for the media it makes little difference if Trump’s excesses are habitual or calculated. Media outlets have declared war on him because he represents what they view as an unprecedented danger. On the front page of the New York Times in August, the paper’s media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, observed that “balance has been on vacation” when it comes to coverage of Trump:
If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
But normal standards, as Rutenberg suggested, may not apply when it comes to Trump.
There was a time when conservatives made the same argument about LBJ, insisting he was a unique threat to democracy. In 1964, conservative Democrat J. Evetts Haley sold 7.5 million copies of his self-published polemic A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power. According to the Texas Monthly, Haley “portrayed Johnson as a vain and vicious man whose climb to the presidency was wrought with malevolence on every rung of the ladder.”
Some of Haley’s charges — such as Johnson’s involvement in winning his fraud-ridden 1948 Senate election by getting 202 of his purported supporters to vote in exact alphabetical order — were later confirmed in historian Robert Caro’s magisterial four-volume biography of Johnson.
Some of LBJ’s former aides also confirmed Haley’s view of Johnson’s character. George Reedy, who was LBJ’s White House press secretary, recalled:
As a human being, he was a miserable person. . . . a bully, sadist, lout, and egotist. His lapses from civilized conduct were deliberate and usually intended to subordinate someone else to his will.
Were there nothing to look at save LBJ’s personal relationships with other people, it would be merciful to forget him altogether. But there is much more to look at. He may have been a son of a bitch, but he was a colossal son of a bitch. . . . Nevertheless, he was capable of inspiring strong attachments even with people who knew him for what he was.
I don’t know just how much of a “miserable person” Donald Trump is. I do know that many conservatives have decided that regardless of their personal feelings about him, he is now president and it’s important to work with him to push through policies that will help the country. Liberals in the 1960s knew what an SOB Johnson was, but they demanded that Republicans work with him to pass legislation. And legislate they did, passing the Civil Rights Act and achieving bipartisan support for the passage of Medicare.
I left my tour of the Johnson Library and its archives this month with a question. Sure, it was easy for people in both parties to hate Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. It’s certainly easy for people in both parties to hate Donald Trump today. But in the 1960s, there was a sense that the legislative process and the wheels of government still had to turn. Back then, the country didn’t tolerate blind obstructionism and attempts to delegitimize the presidency.
If we’re going to increase economic growth, limit racial tensions, and move effectively against terrorism, those who Hate Trump need to ask themselves, Is there any point at which resisting his administration becomes counterproductive? So far, their answer appears to be no.