A tale of two impeachments: Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump

BY:Norman Markowitz| January 7, 2020
A tale of two impeachments: Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump


Andrew Johnson was a former Tennessee Senator who stuck with the Union even though he never opposed slavery.  He came from a poor white background and both resented and envied the slaveholders. On the floor of the Senate, he said before the Civil War that he wished for poor white slaves of his own.  After Lincoln’s assassination, he had big slaveholders and Confederate leaders grovel before him and beg for pardons. He gave them the pardons and announced that Reconstruction would be over six months after the end of the war, while “Black Codes” were being drafted to restore  de facto slavery and former Confederate leaders with his support were being elected to the U.S. Congress.

But the Civil War had been in essence a revolutionary war that destroyed the slaveholders as a class. The vanguard of that revolution were the abolitionists, who had  helped to create the Republican Party, built an anti-slavery coalition, and fought the war to preserve the Union by abolishing slavery and enacting other major reforms. They would not let the slaveholders use tricks and racism to maintain power.

They fought back militantly and intelligently against Johnson, refusing to seat the former Confederate leaders in Congress, drafting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to ensure the supremacy of the federal government and the civil rights of the four million “persons,” meaning former slaves as American citizens.

When Johnson after his defeat sought to sabotage “Radical Reconstruction,” the attempt to democratize the former slave state, then and only then did Congress move to impeach him. Although the trial failed by one vote, Johnson was decisively defeated.  While he finished the last months of his term, he was no longer able to use presidential power to sabotage Reconstruction. General Grant, who had participated in the events that led to the impeachment and supported it, was elected President and erratically sought to continue Radical Reconstruction.

But what does this have to do with Donald Trump, a very rich white man who routinely uses the vulgar racist language of Andrew Johnson and adds to it crude sexism and national chauvinism associated with the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850s?  His Republican Party today is much closer to those Know Nothings and to Jefferson Davis and the leaders of the Confederacy than they are to Abraham Lincoln, much less Thad Stevens, the most important abolitionist/radical Republican leader.

While Johnson represented a counter-revolution against what had been achieved through the Civil War, Trump today represents in an open and direct way the reactionary forces who sought to search and destroy all of the gains made by the working class through the labor, Civil Rights, women’s rights, peace, and environmental movements. Those movements were the result of great upsurges in the 1930s and the 1960s associated with the New Deal and Great Society coalitions and governments.  Trump’s presidency follows nearly four decades of center-right and right political dominance in U.S. government and policy—a “second gilded age” as historians have called it, challenged with limited success by the Obama administration. Racism, sexism, the glorification of what Herbert Hoover in the 1920s called “rugged individualism,” defunding of public sector activities, and crippling of progressive taxation have characterized these policies, which have reduced the living standards of the overwhelming majority  of Americans. However, these policies have enormously increased the wealth of the capitalist class in terms of income and assets—wealth that has been used to eliminate all checks on the use of money in elections campaigns, and to finance sophisticated voter suppression efforts at the state and national levels. The long-term effects of these policies enabled Trump to gain the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by three million and would have lost the vote in the undemocratic “electoral college “ were it not for  well-documented voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Since Trump gained the presidency, a new upsurge of labor, civil rights, women’s rights, peace, and environmental movements has taken shape.  The 2018 off-year elections were a significant victory for this developing coalition, which still needs to both organize and coordinate its activities, to learn to work together in advancing a common program to defeat both Trump and the conditions that created the Trump administration.

Impeachment gives that coalition the opportunity to go on the offensive and develop that program. The very media Trump has used to provoke and divide his opponents can be used to expose him and his supporters for the liars and hypocrites that they are. And mass demonstrations accompanying the televised impeachment hearings, turning impeachment into an example of participatory democracy, will also help bring out the electorate to defeat Trump and the Republican right.

The impeachment movement, if it acts to revive and update the New Deal and Great Society coalitions, can do to Trump what the abolitionist Radical Republicans did to Andrew Johnson in 1868  in setting the stage for his electoral defeat in 2020 if not his removal by the Senate.

All this is necessary, but it is not in itself sufficient to bring about the defeat of Trump and what he represents. The defeat of Johnson’s attempt to sabotage Radical Reconstruction did not result in the victory of Radical Reconstruction in terms of the democratization of the former slave states and the maintenance of the citizenship rights that the former slaves gained.

Thad Stevens died before Johnson’s acquittal.  Stevens had also been the most important advocate for the 13th Amendment during the war and the 14th Amendment after the war.  Stevens came forward with a plan to break up the large plantations of the Deep South, the so-called Black Belt, and redistribute the land to the former slaves and also to whites (mostly poor whites) who could show that they were loyal to the Union.  These proposals were rejected as a threat, the New York Times wrote in 1867, to property rights everywhere, North and South. Before the final Senate vote on Johnson, Stevens died in despair because he saw the Republican leadership moving away from the defense of citizenship rights and full equality for the former slaves, the policies he had fought for before, during, and after the Civil War.  Without a solid economic foundation, Radical Reconstruction, the democratization of the slave states, could not and did not survive.

Today, coming forward with  and implementing policies  based on progressive taxation, strict regulation of industry and finance, national public health care, enhanced civil rights and environmental protection in the context of a peacetime economy with a fraction of today’s military spending, is the equivalent of Stevens’ revolutionary land reform, whose memory lived on among African Americans in the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule.”  Without such a program and a government to implement it, what Trump represents will return just as what Johnson represented returned in the acceptance of segregation and disenfranchisement by the end of the 19th century.

The failure to restore the policies of the Great Society saw  the policies Richard Nixon represented in his “Southern Strategy”  appeal to “the silent majority” and dismantling of the war on poverty by the end of the 20th century.

In the last paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

Today those words are a guide  for us to see the fight for impeachment as a struggle to unite the democratic forces  in the U.S against the open tyranny and corruption of the Trump administration and to put forward the economic and social program (what Marx and Engels called in 1848 “the property question”) of a Green New Deal to eliminate the conditions which produced the Trump administration  and to advance the interests of the working class on which democracy in all of its definitions stands.





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