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America Loves Strongman Leaders … Every 72 Years

February 1st, 2019 by dk

Before the next presidential campaign cycle begins consuming all our attention, we should recognize an almost spooky pattern that has shaped our presidential elections. America has a secret soft spot for strongmen. We elect them every 72 years. Only four U.S. presidents have ever suspended habeas corpus protections — imprisoning Americans without a trial.. If you have 36 cents in your pocket, I can show you the faces of the first three.

George Washington has always been the father of the country, singular in prestige and power. He was first a general, imprisoning anyone not sympathetic to his campaigns. Few believed he would abide by our new government’s separation of powers.

England’s King George III saw Washington as a new king who would never walk away from power, telling a confidante that if he did, “He would be the greatest man who ever lived.” When Washington 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. 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 imprisoned citizens without trial for the war for independence. The Civil War might have ended sooner and with less bloodshed, but Lincoln and his generals required nothing less than unconditional surrender.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all southern slaves at once — no 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. (Slaves from the four states and assorted territories that did not participate in the rebellion were not freed by Lincoln. They had to wait for the 13th amendment to pass, after Lincoln’s death.)

Imprisoning citizens without trial and Constitutional limits on executive power — America didn’t see these conditions again until after a new strongman won the presidency in 1933.

Seventy-two years after Lincoln’s first inauguration, the nation was again in turmoil, but this time the battle was economic. The Great Depression was ravaging the worker class. Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately set the nation on a new course with a dizzying array of programs to protect workers.

A dozen years later, when popular fears about Japan’s aggressions rose, Roosevelt ordered over 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps — imprisoned without trial — “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 were closed.

Seventy-two years after FDR took office would take us to 2005, when President George W. Bush was imprisoning Americans without trial overseas and at home by recategorizing them as enemy combatants. George W. Bush is not yet featured on an American coin, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel against it happening someday.

If you prefer to count our 72-year strongman itch from the time Japanese Americans were given back their freedom, you’d be expecting to see a strongman in the White House right now.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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