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FDR and Trump: A comparison of two big political losses



On Feb. 5, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having recently been re-elected to a second term by a huge margin, presented to the Congress a “Plan for the Reorganization of the Judicial Branch of the government,” in the words of his special assistant, Robert E. Sherwood. The plan, which became known to history as FDR’s “Supreme Court Packing Scheme,” proposed to enlarge the Supreme Court from its historic quota of nine Justices to as many as 15, with FDR appointing the new ones, who would, of course, like himself be liberals.

“This was the most startling—and, to many, the most alarming—development of Roosevelt’s adventurous Administration,” Sherwood wrote. It “touched off oratorical fireworks in the Senate and House,” recorded FDR’s then-Postmaster-General, Jim Farley, adding, “The cry of dictatorship was raised.”

In the event, the scheme failed; Roosevelt had seriously misjudged the mood both of the country and of Congress, which rejected the bill. It was the most serious political setback FDR experienced in his 12-plus years in office.

The Muslim travel ban is Trump’s court-packing scheme. Trump’s judgment like FDR’s also lapsed on that one. The ban has failed in the courts every time he tried to install it by fiat; his latest loss, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, makes it increasingly likely that, should he appeal to the Supreme Court, he will lose again.

The fate of the Court Packing Scheme was a setback for FDR but ultimately it was only that–a passing moment: he went on to win a third, and then a fourth, term in office, and is widely considered one of the great Presidents in U.S. history, and the greatest of the 20th century, even by conservatives. The defeat became merely an asterisk in the long, successful political biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

However, should Trump lose in the Supreme Court, or, if the Court does not accept his appeal and the decisions of the lower courts stand, Trump’s defeat will not be brushed off so easily. The man who calls his many enemies “losers” himself is a loser. There are stark differences between the Court Packing Scheme and the Muslim travel ban, and also between the political situations of FDR in 1937 and Trump in 2017. For one, FDR already had a ton of legislative successes when his scheme went down; Trump by contrast has none. FDR was wildly popular in America;  in 1937 his approval rating was above 60%, while Trump’s is 38 percent, and Americans trust James Comey over Trump by a 20-point margin. FDR therefore could absorb so serious a repudiation; Trump cannot. And, of course, FDR did not have looming over him multiple scandals and the very real possibility of impeachment, the way Trump does.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a transformational President who fundamentally changed the way government works and the expectations average Americans invest in it. “From the soaring optimism of his Inaugural Address…to his unconventional first 100 days, the president was a man on a mission,” wrote Marvin McIntyre, the namesake grandson of FDR’s secretary, Marvin H. Mcintyre, last month, in NewsMax.

Donald Trump and his surrogates, like Steven Bannon, have said he wants to be a transformational President; he acts as if he already is. His surrogates now, and oddly, include the younger McIntyre (whose grandpa would be appalled). “Is it heresy to compare the leader who ushered in the New Deal to our president of today?” McIntyre asked, implying that the answer is “No.”

Well, the answer is Yes. It’s not only heresy, it’s ridiculous. But it’s highly unlikely that Trump will be remembered in a positive way, and—in view of what we know of his inclinations and those of the reactionaries around him—it’s far more likely he’ll be remembered as a dismal, divisive and disastrous president, even if he isn’t impeached. Trump may succeed in pushing the inevitable tidal forces of politics to the right for a while, but there’s nothing transformational about that. Things tilt rightward under Republican presidents—Eisenhower, Reagan, the two Bushes—and leftward under Democrats—JFK, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama. None of these presidents comes close to rivaling FDR’s importance and staying-power because FDR really did have his hand on the pulse of History, and knew how to massage it to his ends, and to match his ends to History’s imperatives.

If Trump’s small hands are touching any pulse, it’s the waning beat of his administration, winding down even as his surrogates falsely proclaim its triumph.


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