I know many people dislike the phrase ‘We’ve been here before,’ but every now and then the cliche is true. All this week BBC Radio 4 are running a series on the historical precedents for the rise of Donald Trump – no easy task, since so many aspects of the man and his rise are, frankly, unprecedented. One key precedent, however, is worth talking about today, and one concerning a very convenient constitutional timetable – at least, as far as Harold Rex is concerned…!
One of the key tests as to how democratic a country is lies, of course, in how smoothly a change of government is managed. We in the Western world often don’t realise how lucky we are: there have been at least two African countries, after all, where the losing government has simply refused to accept the result. In the UK, the transition is scarily swift: as the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman put it in his 2003 book The Political Animal:
At the most important level, Britain feels like a democracy: an election takes place on a Thursday, and the removal vans are in Downing Street on a Friday.
In the United States the transition period between presidents is a little longer: from Election Day on the second Tuesday in November to 20 January the following year – roughly about eleven weeks. It hasn’t always been that long – indeed, it used to be much longer. America’s second president, John Adams, didn’t take office until 4 March 1797 – and that remained the standard start date for every president thereafter for the next 140 years. It’s only since 1937 that every president has been inaugurated consistently on 20 January after the presidential election.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in for his second term at the White House exactly eighty years ago, he did so amid considerable controversy. In his first term he had signed into law a substantial raft of legislation (the New Deal) aimed at getting the nation back to work after the Depression. Whatever “alphabet agency” was creating the jobs – whether it was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), or the National Recovery Administration (NRA) – the view of Roosevelt and his cabinet was that if nobody else was going to spend America out of the slump, the government had better do it. The bods in Washington DC even took measures to reform the banks and overhaul their credit practices – unprecedented action by a country not at war. Needless to say, all of these measures were extremely shocking to conservative-minded figures in the States at the time, who viewed bootstrap-pulling rugged individualism as the nation’s best way back to prosperity.
There were also prototype health-and-safety measures, aimed at improving production practices in various industries – and here was where the trouble started, from the point of view of FDR and his team. When in 1935 one firm, the A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp., protested the government’s imposition of codes (after the NRA had claimed the Schechters were selling unhealthy chickens), the Supreme Court – led by Charles Evans Hughes, who had lost the 1916 presidential race to Woodrow Wilson – decided unanimously that the NRA was unconstitutional, and the Administration had to cease its work. In fairness to the judges, however, the Administration had been laying down codes that legally were the responsibility of state governments rather than the federal authorities in DC.
All the while, Roosevelt continually faced the accusation that he was behaving like a dictator. Certainly, the government’s hands-on strategy in tackling unemployment was unprecedented, and to the minds of many critics was simply not the American way. FDR’s weekly radio broadcasts to the nation – his “fireside chats” – didn’t exactly assuage fears among those on the right (or, indeed, some on the left) that the president was fashioning a slo-mo dictatorship. His controversial proposed Justice Reorganization Bill of 1937, whereby he suggested that Supreme Court judges be automatically replaced if they had failed to retire within six months of turning 70, only added fuel to the critics’ fire.
Despite the objections and rulings of the Supreme Court, the New Deal was popular among the voters: how else to explain Roosevelt’s more emphatic re-election in 1936? Whereas in the 1932 contest he won 57% of the popular vote, four years later his share had gone up to 61%, and his party, the Democrats, won all states except Vermont and Maine. What’s more, the New Deal had had a measurable and positive impact on unemployment in the US: in 1933, when FDR took office, the numbers out of work made up around a quarter of the workforce; when he was sworn in for his second term the proportion of unemployed stood at about 14%.
As far as is known, Roosevelt never used the phrase ‘I alone can fix this,’ but the electoral evidence suggests that increasing numbers of voters believed that he could. Consistent majorities of voters also appear to have had few qualms about whether the president was aiming to establish a dictatorship: Roosevelt was re-elected on two other occasions, ultimately dying in office in April 1945. (These were the days before the 22nd amendment – before that change to the constitution the two-terms-maximum rule was just a convention)
To his own mind, America’s longest-serving president was not being dictatorial, insisting instead that he was governing differently because, as far as he was concerned, the times and conditions of the day demanded a more hands-on head of state, as he explained in his Second Inaugural Address, given on 20 January 1937:
Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does.
If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace.
While it is obviously too early to say whether Donald Trump will be the president America needs right now, it is arguably the case that FDR was exactly what the nation needed in the ’30s: he appeared to be a president of his times, and in spite of the warnings of the critics the US did emerge from the Depression and Second World War with its democratic institutions intact – which is more than can be said for many other countries. Of course, it is possible to overdo the comparison game when talking about FDR and DJT, but doing so doesn’t half make you wonder how Roosevelt and other presidents (like, say, Nixon) would have fared with Twitter…