When 'dangerous men' become president

(By Bill Moloney) "The worst kinds of people have chosen that dangerous madman Jackson as president," said John Quincy Adams of the fierce brawler who ousted him from the White House in 1829.

Spinning loyally, the incumbent’s campaign manager likewise denounced Andrew Jackson as "a cockfighter, drunkard, thief, liar and (wait for it) husband of a very fat wife."

Although the historical image of the Adams family is that of staid and proper Boston Brahmins, both father and son attacked their electoral opponents in the most vitriolic language.  In 1800 John Adams called Thomas Jefferson a "dangerous deceiver who worships at the bloody altar of the French Revolution, a Robespierre who would bring Jacobin oppression to America ".

Later joining Jefferson and Jackson as the third member --and first Republican -- in America's pantheon of "dangerous men" who attained the presidency was Abraham Lincoln who was routinely reviled as an "ignoramus,” a "clownish country bumpkin," an "ugly beanpole", and a "knuckle-dragging gorilla.” 

Continuing the simian metaphor Lincoln's 1864 opponent George McClellan reviled him as "Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon" who was "destroying the country".

Franklin Roosevelt entered the halls of infamy as a "traitor to his class", a "tool of the world communist conspiracy", a "deranged cripple", and "wrecker of the American economy".  His 1936 opponent Alf Landon accused FDR of "using the Depression to seize dictatorial power".

Finally rounding out this hit parade of "dangerous men" who schemed their way into the White House is Ronald Reagan.  President Jimmy Carter, as defeat loomed,  denounced Reagan as a "dangerous incompetent" who would make "nuclear Armageddon much more likely". 

Democratic guru Clark Clifford famously derided Reagan as "an amiable dunce", and a "third-rate actor".  In 1984 Democrats circulated pamphlets describing the Gipper as "senile" and "just short of a drooling idiot".  On the Senate floor young Joe Biden mocked Reagan's "disastrous foreign policy" and accused him of being "outsmarted by the Russians at every turn".

And now the 2016 election has elevated yet another "dangerous man" to the American Presidency.  Donald Trump has been widely denounced for his "despicable treatment of women", for being a "front for white supremacists", a "tax cheat", a "serial liar", a "crooked businessman", a "racist demagogue", and a "tool of Vladimir Putin".

It is widely asserted that his intended policies will "lead to a trade war with China", a "possible collapse of the NATO alliance", the "nuclearization of Japan and South Korea", and a "government takeover by right wing extremists".

Now it is not the purpose of this column to pass judgment on these assertions regarding Donald Trump. History and the passage of time will take care of that.

It is however the purpose of this column to clearly demonstrate that the political environment of 2016 is nothing new in American history.  Following the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1932, and 1980, supporters of the winner were euphoric and hopeful, while supporters of the loser were depressed, and even fearful, just as is the case today.

In his magisterial Making of the President 1968  Theodore White chronicled one of the most tumultuous election years in American history, one characterized by assassinations, race riots, and bitter divisions over the Vietnam War.  In discussing the aftermath of that election White said that one of the great strengths of the American democracy was the speed with which electoral passions cooled, and how quickly "people accepted the result-- however grudgingly-- and got on with their lives".

Of the previous five "dangerous men" who gained the presidency-- Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan-- none disgraced themselves, all won re-election, and today all are regarded as among the most consequential leaders in American History.

At this point we cannot know if the reality of a Trump administration will be greatly better than the dire predictions of the critics, but all Americans should hope that is the case.  What President-elect Trump certainly does have in common with those earlier "dangerous men" is that he comes to office at a time when both foreign and domestic challenges are most severe and demanding of strong and capable stewardship.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.