Conservatives have traditionally attempted to lionize America’s presidents and downplay historical moments where we have fallen short of the Founders’ vision. But Donald Trump is having the opposite effect on his defenders.
Unable to elevate Trump up to Mount Rushmore standards, a new strategy has emerged: bring past presidents down to Trump’s level.
Most recently, conservative radio host Mark Levin advanced the “everybody sucks” argument—not to exonerate Trump, but rather, to argue that he’s no worse than the rest of them.
Appearing on Fox News’ Hannity, Levin argued that “John Adams would be impeached” for the Alien and Sedition Acts. “Abraham Lincoln would be impeached,” too, according to Levin.
“Thomas Jefferson would be impeached. The Louisiana Purchase without budget approval from the Congress. Woodrow Wilson would be impeached. He re-segregated the civil service and he put political opponents and reporters in prison. He would be impeached. The great FDR would be impeached. Internment of Japanese-Americans...”
“John Kennedy would be impeached,” Levin continued, for using “the IRS and the FBI against his political opponents, leaked information against them. Lyndon Johnson would be impeached. Used the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA, to tap into his political opponents into civil rights leaders.”
In other words, everyone cheats. Every president was horrible. Nobody was heroic.
Is nothing sacred?
File this one away in the “Arguments you never thought Republicans would be making” category.
Conservatives have long been champions of American exceptionalism, praising our nation for being a beacon of hope—forged by the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
We don’t judge America’s more unsavory past actions—some of which were taken during those wars—based on more enlightened modern criteria.
We don’t invoke what America did wrong to sully what America did right.
But now that Trump is being subject to accountability by contemporaneous standards, conservatives have decided to turn American icons into power-mad autocrats, just so Trump looks OK by comparison.
For all the hand wringing about The New York Times’ 1619 Project and how it was designed to reframe American history and “delegitimize America,” today’s Republicans sound more like Noam Chomsky than Ronald Reagan. But then, undermining American Exceptionalism is the logical conclusion for a party that nominated a guy who, when asked about Vladimir Putin killing journalists, replied: “I think our country does plenty of killing, also…”
And it’s not just Levin. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, made the same argument during one of the impeachment hearings: “Can you name a single president in the history of the United States—save President (William Henry) Harrison, who died 32 days after his inauguration—that would have not met the standard of impeachment for our friends here?” Buck asked law professor Jonathan Turley (after reciting a similar litany of America’s sins committed by her presidents).
No wonder today’s Republicans think Trump is better than Lincoln. But do they even have a point?
Jefferson’s decision to double the size of the United States may have been hypocritical (he previously held to a view of the Constitution where a president’s powers had to be explicitly spelled out), but should he have been impeached for it? Ultimately, the consensus seemed to be that Jefferson’s literal view of the Constitution was too strict, and the Senate voted to ratify the Louisiana Purchase as a treaty.
The Espionage Act, which effectively gave Wilson the power to jail opponents of the war effort, was passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court during his presidency.
Internment was done by FDR by executive order, but also adjudicated in real time and upheld by the Supreme Court. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it hard to impeach.
I could go on...
We may abhor these presidential actions in hindsight, but those presidents never tried to run afoul of the constitutional system of checks and balances the way Trump has tried to prevent the House from investigating his actions.
What is more, many of them were taking action while their nation was at war (a chilling reminder that presidents generally have even more latitude during times of perceived crisis).
To be sure, some of the most egregious examples cited by Levin—siccing the FBI on your political adversaries, for example—should have resulted in impeachment.
The larger question, though, is whether Trump should try to live down to their standards. In other words, do we really want future presidents to behave like Lyndon Johnson? That, effectively, is where Levin and Buck are leading us.
Many of the examples cited (let’s go back to the Louisiana Purchase) involved a president overstepping his bounds on behalf of the nation (which is entirely different from Trump using the power of the presidency to advance his own personal cause).
There’s a lot of gray in what's impeachable, but asking a foreign government to interfere on your behalf in the upcoming election is pretty black and white.
And what about the danger that impeachments could become routine? In recent years, there have been three serious impeachment threats. Rather than being frivolous, though, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump all deserved impeachment.
Some observers can look at the uptick of impeachment threats in the last 50 years as an example of too much policing of presidential power. I prefer to see it as a feature, not a bug: as an example of how we have become more rigorous about enforcing the standards that say no man is above the law.
Still, Republicans do have something of a cudgel in warning that impeachments could become rampant—and that the next Democratic president would very likely be impeached based almost solely on a desire for revenge.
In my book, this sounds more like a threat than a warning. Just as Trump tried to extort Ukraine, his minions are threatening America, as if to say: “Nice presidency there, it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan, I suspect, would not be pleased by this Grand Old Party. Mark Levin couldn’t care less about them, however. Like most Republicans, his loyalty is to Donald J. Trump.