I won’t rehash all the ridiculously unfounded shit about the election being stolen that the Trump team has thrown against the wall, trying to see if any of it will stick. Instead I’ll share the sentiments of Joseph Zimmerman, an Air Force veteran who served as a nonpartisan observer of the election in Detroit. He was reacting to one of the most despicable attempts this side of Jim Crow to disenfranchise voters—in this case the mostly Black residents of that city: “As someone who served in the military, I was willing to sacrifice my life so that every single American would have the right to vote. I thought that was something that we all believed in as Americans. It breaks my heart to see that some of my fellow Americans seem to disagree.”
On the transition front, what Daily Kos’ own Hunter called Trump’s “tantrum” is having an impact that goes beyond the pandemic. Writing for Politico, Anita Kumar notes that Trump’s White House is “stonewalling” the team of President-elect Biden in ways that no predecessor has since the passage of the Presidential Transition Act in 1963, and in ways that will leave (another) permanent stain on Trump’s historical record. Veterans of Republican and Democratic administrations alike expressed grave concern about both the domestic and international impact of what he is doing. For an example of a possible effect of Trump’s actions, we know from the 9/11 Commission that the delayed transition after the 2000 election “hampered” the incoming administration’s efforts to get up to speed on national security. In terms of perception, George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who participated in three White House transitions, emphasized that “the transfer of power, even reluctantly, is important for the world to witness.”
Trump and his people can’t seem to resist blocking Biden, either administratively or physically. The refusal to begin the transition process reminds me of the cult members Trump supporters in Texas who—on Don Jr.’s orders—risked dozens of lives by using a bunch of cars to surround a moving Biden campaign bus and, incredibly, tried to push it off the road. Clearly, the moral rot starts at the Trump Train’s lead car and travels all the way back to the caboose.
Speaking of moral rot, two other outgoing presidents presided over transitions that rival Trump’s when it comes to roadblocking his successor. Probably the better known of the two is that of James Buchanan, our 15th president. Buchanan had, in his 1856 inaugural address, pledged to serve only one term. After four years, American voters were just fine with that, and they elected Abraham Lincoln to succeed Buchanan. Unfortunately, the four months between Election Day 1860 and Inauguration Day (the 20th Amendment shortened that amount of time starting in 1937) covered the period where seven Southern states seceded from the Union, birthing the Civil War.
In an interview with Slate, University of Denver history professor Susan Schulten characterized Buchanan’s views on secession as, in a word, “weird.” His actions regarding secession during the transition, though, had “tremendous consequences.” Buchanan believed that secession was unconstitutional, that joining the union was forever. However, he also believed that as president he had no authority to prevent secession, to force seceding states to return to the Union, or even to do anything to protect or reinforce federal military installations located in seceding states.
What the actual fuck? (Did I say that out loud?)
After Lincoln was elected and Southern states began talking about seceding, Buchanan’s statements made clear that he would take no action. A number of them, even before formally leaving the Union, sent state militias or other armed (white) forces to bring federal garrisons, forts, or other outposts under their control. This gave the rebel states a huge military advantage. Here’s how Prof. Schulten explained the overall impact of Buchanan’s approach during the transition: “(T)he Confederacy started out far richer and far better prepared for a war. If we’d had a different person in office, who actually used a little bit of force during the lame-duck period—it’s not that we wouldn’t have had a war, but it might have looked really different.”
One important distinction between Buchanan and Trump is that, at least as per Schulten, the former’s intent was less clear: “Did he intentionally fuel secession? It’s trickier. I think his ineptitude kept the secession conversation going, and he didn’t just shut it down.” Trump, on the other hand, is intentionally denying Biden and his team access to what they need to ensure a smooth transition.
Although the Orange Menace may—I said may—not actively want to kill Americans, he certainly doesn’t care enough to do the right thing and minimize the chances of unnecessary death and suffering. One thing that does tie Buchanan and Trump together? They are going to be right near each other at the very bottom of the rankings of best presidents of the United States for, hopefully, a long time to come. In other words, let’s hope we don’t get anybody as bad (or worse) in the future.
I suspect the other transition I’m going to discuss is less familiar. In the case of President Benjamin Harrison, there can be no doubt about intent: He sought to cause chaos and destruction in order to kneecap the political prospects of the man about to replace him. Regarding Trump’s intentions, I’m not sure exactly what’s going through his mind right now—I really don’t want to imagine what lurks in that cesspool. But Daily Kos’ own Mark Sumner makes a pretty convincing case that just like Harrison, Trump “intends to leave behind a system so broken that no one can fix it,” because he believes it’s “good political strategy.” Any harm done to actual Americans or our national interest is, to the sociopath-in-chief, just collateral damage.
President Harrison, along with the current occupant of the White House and John Quincy Adams, are the only people to lose the popular vote in two presidential elections. Harrison came into office in 1888 after defeating Democrat Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College. By this point, the Republican Party once embodied by Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and fierce civil rights advocates like Radical Republicans Sen. Charles Sumner and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens had pulled back on its previous willingness to fight for at least a measure of equality for Black Americans and had placed itself wholly in the pocket of large corporations. Although the Democrats under Cleveland were hardly progressive—even by the standards of that day—the two parties did stake out diametrically opposed positions on the crucial economic issue at hand: tariffs.
Democrats, led by Cleveland, supported reducing import tariffs, while Republicans wanted to keep them at a high level so that domestic industries could better compete with comparatively cheaper foreign imports. Beyond the merits of the debate, business owners wanted to maintain the tariffs. The Republican politicians they bankrolled claimed that Cleveland and the Democrats would destroy the economy by lowering them. According to historian Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, “some Republican employers told their workers that if Cleveland was re-elected, they’d be fired.”
When Harrison defeated Cleveland, he declared, “Providence has given us this victory.” His political fixer Mark Hanna, one of the most important figures in the history of the post-Reconstruction Republican Party, had a different take: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it. A number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him president.” Harrison and his party, perhaps believing that God was on their side, decided to add six new states to the Union—which they expected to vote reliably Republican—in order to give “Providence” a little help.
Unfortunately for the GOP, the will of the people intervened. In 1892, Cleveland won the popular vote and the Electoral College by the largest margin in 20 years. He became our only president to serve nonconsecutive terms and, in addition to metaphorically spanking Harrison at the ballot box, he even found time to spank Bart Simpson’s grandfather as well.
This is the greatest presidential history joke in the history of television. Can’t get the video up in the tweet, unfortunately, but it doesn’t get better than Grandpa Simpson saying that Grover Cleveland spanked him on two non-consecutive occasions. https://t.co/eisra7borr
— Ian Reifowitz (@IanReifowitz) November 20, 2020
But seriously, the Republicans were mad and didn’t take losing very well. In an interview with Slate, Prof. Richardson described the reprehensible policies they pursued during the transition:
“(The) Harrison administration deliberately ran the country into the ground. They deliberately did it! It’s in the newspapers. They say to readers, OK, you elected a Democrat. They don’t know how to run the country. They don’t know anything about money; all the money is going to drain out of this country. There’s not going to be anything left. Take your money out of the stock market; we’re headed for a terrible crash. They basically created this crash.
As the panic developed, the financiers rushed to Washington and said, DO something! And the secretary of the treasury, Charles Foster, and Harrison said, No, we’re good. Foster actually said publicly that, as he saw it, the administration was only responsible for the economy up until March 4, the day Cleveland took office. He didn’t even manage it—the economy actually collapsed 10 days before Harrison left office.
But if you Google anything, it’s going to say to you, It happened on Cleveland’s watch. But no! It happened on Harrison’s watch! But again—the Republicans wrote the history books….Then, for the midterms in 1894, they went and told people, We told you the Democrats would crash the economy; re-elect the Republicans and we’ll be fine.
Can you guess what happened? Voters handed Republicans the biggest midterm victory in the history of our country. In the House, the Democrats lost 130 seats, as well as four in the Senate. I hope Trump doesn’t find out about what Harrison did, because it definitely could give him some ideas.
Honorable mention goes to Herbert Hoover, who comes in just below the two aforementioned paragons of presidential petulance on the list of worst transitions. After presiding over the first three years of the Great Depression and seeing his Republican Party lose the House and Senate for the first time in a decade, Hoover lost the 1932 presidential election in a historic landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. Although during his transition he didn’t engage in the sort of direct economic sabotage committed by the Harrison administration, or carry out some equivalent of the indirectly pro-Confederate agenda of Buchanan, Hoover nonetheless acted in an incredibly unproductive way during one of the darkest periods in our country’s history.
The outgoing president repeatedly tried to convince President-elect Roosevelt to abandon his campaign pledges and essentially disavow the New Deal. Thankfully, FDR would have none of it, and refused to go along with any of Hoover’s plans. During the transition period, Roosevelt also barely missed being assassinated in Miami, where a gunman’s bullets aimed at him instead hit five others and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. At least that was not Hoover’s fault.
Taken in sum, how does Trump’s transition travesty compare to the actions taken by previous on-their-way-out-the-door presidential saboteurs like Harrison and Buchanan? Is Trump the absolute worst? Just maybe tied with the most irresponsible of his predecessors?
These might be abstract, academic questions, and we may not be able to fully answer them for months if not longer, after we see how the rest of the pandemic—as well as other events—play out. As depressing a thought as that is, we have some light at the end of the tunnel. Whether or not he accepts it before then, Trump’s defeat will become official no later than Dec. 14 when the Electoral College meets and casts its votes.
Yet even though President-elect Joe Biden probably needs less training than any incoming president in our history, the impeached president’s actions are certainly going to cause tangible, material harm to countless Americans, and perhaps undermine our democracy in ways that cause profound, even permanent injury.
The most important question for the present is: How long will Trump be able to keep this up?
Fair Fight is a voting rights organization in Georgia (founded by Stacey Abrams) that is doing the crucial, on-the-ground mobilization we need for the Jan. 5 runoff. Click here to get trained on their phonebank and textbank programs and reach Georgia voters from the privacy of your home.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)