The myths we believe most fiercely are the ones we tell about ourselves. As our nation contemplates a new president, we fear that President Trump may fulfill his campaign swagger and rule the country as a prototypical “strong man.”
We claim that we’ve never seen such a leader before, but that’s only literally true. We haven’t seen it, but our grandparents did, and so did their grandparents. In fact, we’ve had three “strong man” leaders in our nation’s history, and that’s counting only the ones who succeeded. We’re overdue for a fourth.
They have been spread evenly through our nation’s history, roughly every 72 years. Once those who saw our last strong man have died, we swoon into a new one’s collapsing arms.
Our country might never have formed without a strong central leader to get things started. George Washington has always been the father of the country, singular in prestige and power. He didn’t devise the country’s separation of powers, but he brokered its acceptance. Few believed they would limit him.
England’s King George III saw Washington as a new king who would never walk away from the central power he amassed, telling a confidante that if he did, “He would be the greatest man who ever lived.” When he refused to accept a third term, he surprised everyone.
Seventy-two years after Washington became president, Abraham Lincoln entered the Oval Office. He had won only 40 percent of the popular vote, and he was not a trusted name among the power elite. He couldn’t claim any sort of mandate, but he governed as if he’d been given one.
The young nation went to war with itself, and mercilessly so. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, imprisoning citizens without trial for the first time since winning independence. The Civil War might have ended sooner and with less bloodshed, but Lincoln and his generals required nothing less than unconditional surrender.
Lincoln issued the strongest proclamation since Washington and 55 others signed the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all southern slaves at once. There was no promise of a transition period, no reparations, no accommodations of any sort. Freedom for 3.1 million slaves in the rebel states was not negotiated — it was proclaimed.
Freedom for northern slaves did not come by presidential fiat, but by the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It hadn’t yet passed when Lincoln was assassinated by a former confederate spy, John Wilkes Booth, in 1865.
Imprisoning citizens without trial, challenging judicial supremacy, Constitutional limits on executive power — America didn’t see these conditions again until after a new strong man won the presidency in 1933.
Seventy-two years after Lincoln’s first inauguration, the nation was again in turmoil, but this time the battles being fought were economic. The Great Depression was ravaging the worker class. The elderly and the infirm were dying on the streets. Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately set the nation on a new course.
His first 100 days in office produced a dizzying array of new programs that put people to work on construction projects, created the Social Security retirement program, strengthened unions and other worker protections. When the United States Supreme Court threatened to undo some of his initiatives, he attempted to expand its size with more sympathetic jurists.
Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack the court” failed, but other populist initiatives succeeded. When popular fears about Japan’s aggressions rose, Roosevelt ordered over 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps “for their own protection” until the conclusion of World War II in 1946.
Just as Lincoln never saw all American slaves freed, Roosevelt died before the internment camps could be closed. Roosevelt broke with presidential tradition when he refused to refuse a third term — and then a fourth — as president. The Constitutional limit of two elected presidential terms passed six years after his death.
Seventy-two years after FDR took office would take us to 2005, when President George W. Bush was imprisoning Americans without trial overseas, surveilling Americans at home, and torturing enemy combatants — all with minimal judicial oversight. Or you can count 72 years from FDR’s death — that brings you to 2017.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.