Posted Aug 22, 2020 at 17:50. Revised Apr 26, 2021 at 14:21.
Contents — Trump – A Student of FDR?
Crises from Lincoln to Trump
OberlinChaos has revisited this ComplexityTraps article on the history preceding and following the Trump election. The recent minimal updates to its content recognize subsequent events.
Cycles in American history
History is bunk. After all, if that were not the case, modern, enlightened, up-to-date educators would not have all but eliminated it from curricula. People familiar with the last seventy years of history might spot a Complexity Trap cycle covering the period from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to Donald Trump. Ashes to ashes.
JD Nobody didn’t know that Donald Trump would become president when writing this, but that is not the point. Beneath the surface, Trump, Roosevelt, and even Abraham Lincoln have some surprising similarities that their respective enthusiasts do not see. JD Nobody, however, sees clear parallels between Trump and FDR.
Years ago, JD Nobody had an acquaintance who was a deep thinker and scholar of history that understood that history is not bunk. He had an interesting theory: The US has experienced three great crises, happening about 70 years apart. In his view, each crisis in America’s evolution involved different issues, but each was serious enough to jeopardize the country’s survival.
Depending on how one counts, the US has experienced four crises if one assumes that a crisis begins a cycle rather than ends it. Several characteristics have been shared by all the crisis periods, with oversimplification being a primary attribute. Each crisis cycle has involved varying degrees of religious ferment in the years preceding its end. Most people underestimate both the complexities and the subtleties of the moment and wake up only when they are finally overwhelmed.
At least two political factions with deep convictions characterize each crisis along with controversy over how to approach the need for change. The most influential coalition will block the next largest group but will not be strong enough to win the day.
Unfortunately, facts and logic become progressively less relevant as the crisis deepens. Both 90 years ago and today, most people have not recognized that the president has limited power to influence most events. Nevertheless, political theatrics have been central to fanning the perception that the leading political personalities have almost complete control over all activities globally and must get the credit or blame for whatever happens.
The political parties become more fragmented as the crisis comes to a head, and after the disaster, many voters “go over to the other side.” New political alignments and parties form, albeit some with the same name.
The winner in a crisis period Presidential election is a controversial candidate who probably would not have been electable in immediately previous elections. His election victory is mostly attributable to his having a dynamic, new personality and being able to seize the changed tone of the times and run with it.
Most people perceive him as genuine, honest, and concerned about them. He may or may not have those qualities. Once in office, the new president is hated by many, partly because of the need to expand presidential power to deal with the problems and partly because people will widely hate the decisions he makes.
Changes coming out of each crisis period have resulted in at least some constitutional revision to governance rules. These changes happen either by formal constitutional amendment or via “amendment by abandonment.” The abandonment route either ignores the Constitution’s requirements or uses as much glib lawyering as necessary to reinterpret the Constitution for the moment’s convenience.
“Crisis Zero”: The Revolutionary Period
Growing, but often unrecognized, relationship complexities and subtleties between England and the Colonies created the nation’s first complexity trap. The outcome of the Revolutionary War was far from certain, and the entire thirteen-year period under the Articles of Confederation was unstable. The Articles were a governance oversimplification, resulting in a complexity trap caused by the Articles’ simplicity and governance complexity.
The period between publishing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the inauguration of George Washington as President in 1789 is Crisis Zero by this reckoning. In JD Nobody’s friend’s analysis, the lead-up to the end of Crisis One started after George Washington was inaugurated and ended with the Civil War outbreak in 1861.
Crisis One: The Constitutional Crisis
After breaking free of the Revolutionary period’s complexity trap, the nation embarked on a period of growth and prosperity fueled by new territories to populate and transportation infrastructure to build. Canals and railroads were replacing cowpaths, the country grew, and telegraphy complemented slow mail communications when the constitutional complexity trap crisis ended. The end occurred about 70 years after George Washington’s inauguration.
The Constitutional crisis was over the degree to which the states could govern themselves and whether states had the right to secede from the Union. Slavery was initially the third issue, later becoming the primary issue in Lincoln’s mind. The federal government could not act on the slavery issue because the authority to deal with it belonged to the individual states. These three issues resulted in the Civil War once passions on both sides finally reached the boiling point. The Crisis One troubles were obvious and seen by just about everyone.
Not until after Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 inauguration did this growing complexity trap become a full constitutional crisis. Just about everyone in the country was demonizing someone. Reasonableness was mostly missing from the scene. Lincoln was an exception to the lack of reasonableness because he had a perspective tempered by being a Northerner and having married into a Southern family.
When the war started, most people thought the troubles would be over quickly because the other side would turn tail and run once confronted on the battlefield. The war’s opening battle – the First Battle of Bull Run, also called the Battle of First Manassas – occurred on July 21, 1861. The fierce fighting and many casualties sobered both armies, and only then did they realize that the war was going to be much longer and bloodier than either side had anticipated.
Many Washington, DC residents were so sure the rebellion would not last long that they came to the battlefield with picnics to see the rebels’ defeat. Instead, when the battle was over, the picnickers were fleeing for their lives. Similarly, most people caught up in the next two crises were initially prone to minimizing the situation.
Initially, Lincoln’s thinking was that upholding the Constitution and keeping the nation together was more important than slavery. Toward the war’s end, Lincoln changed his mind and made ending slavery his top priority. Deep wounds remained on both sides long after the war ended.
As in the later crises, the adversaries on each side were partly right. The Constitution’s Tenth Amendment denies all power to the federal government unless granted explicitly to the federal government. The Constitution makes it abundantly clear that the South was mostly correct on the states’ rights issue, while the North was right on the slavery issue. Ending slavery required a Constitutional amendment to give the federal government the expanded power needed.
The de facto Constitutional changes coming from Crisis One advanced the erosion of the Tenth Amendment’s original intent. This slow but relentless shift of power to the federal government caused the people and the states to look progressively more to the federal government to solve problems.
Curiously, Britain’s recent vote to withdraw from the European Union is a modern “states’ rights” issue. In its way, history is repeating itself.
In the US, the political party alignments changed by Crisis One lasted for 70 to 100 years and reflected the growing trend toward more central power and a changing electorate. The new Republican Party became the party of Blacks who were allowed to vote and an advocate for more central power and business interests. The new Democratic Party became the party of farmers, laborers, and Southern whites. These somewhat illogical alignments slowly restructured themselves along more logical lines due to the 1965-1980 Civil Rights reforms.
Crisis Two: The Financial Crisis
By the reckoning of JD Nobody‘s friend, Crisis Two was the Great Depression’s financial crisis. The Crisis Two complexity trap ended 64 years of growth and prosperity fueled by new territories to populate, industrialize, improved communications and transportation innovations. In one lifetime, the nation had become a nation of 48 states, a rapidly growing world industrial and financial power connected by rail, radio, telegraph, telephone communications, and home to a growing urban, immigrant population. Television and aviation existed, but neither was ready for general use. World War One had transformed the country from a debtor nation into a creditor nation.
The 1920s were the culmination of the prosperity that came from all those developments. These new complexities set the stage for massive sociological, economic, and political change and launched the next crisis – almost 70 years after the first one. The world was far more complex sociologically than it had been 70 years earlier.
Herbert Hoover was the man in the White House when the roof fell in. Herbert Hoover, who preceded FDR as President, was widely perceived as responsible for the 1929 stock market crash and the severe Depression developing during Hoover’s term. Hoover became soundly reviled during his presidency. Hoover’s unpopularity was much more extreme than what President Barack Obama has experienced.
After World War I, the growing social, economic, and financial complexities eventually collapsed into chaotic simplicity and national despair. The situation provided the perfect setup for scapegoating those in positions of responsibility and blaming them for a colossal mess they had only partly created. People love simple explanations for problems. Notice any similarities to today?
The spectacular 1929 stock market crash extended only from September 1929 to November 1929 and was attributable mostly to corrective market forces than to either any presidential actions or the economy. A significant bull market followed the 1929 crash and continued until June 1930. Only then did the big, nearly three-year-long stock market trip to the bottom begin. This second stock market collapse was primarily a reflection of the failing economy and not its cause.
Things fell apart to a far higher degree in Crisis Two than just about anyone had thought possible. Financial difficulties fed on themselves as many trustworthy loans and financial arrangements went bad along with the shaky ones. No doubt existed about the situation’s seriousness because the troubles were visible and everywhere. The economic disintegration had caused massive damage to the nation’s ability to produce food, clothing, and shelter. For many citizens, survival was now an issue.
The law required the Federal Reserve to protect the dollar by maintaining healthy bank reserves, so the Fed had to raise interest rates to comply with the law. This tightening helped strangle the limping economy and made it impossible for many people and businesses to pay back bank loans. These bad loans caused many banks to fail, making it progressively more difficult for the economy to work.
No economic group had wanted the troubles or benefitted from them, but there were plenty of simpletons with naively incomplete answers about how to fix things and whom to blame. The big difference between then and now is that today’s difficulties are not as overtly apparent as were those in the 1930s. Still, today many more simpletons are probably endowed with “the” answer. Complexity traps breed a backlash of simpletons.
The 1932 election chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the next president in an atmosphere of much vitriol. The period’s political tone would not allow listening to the sitting president, even when his ideas made sense. Notice any similarities to today?
An opportunistic Congress had blocked Hoover’s ideas, including revising the Federal Reserve Bank’s operating rules, until FDR could get the credit for addressing the period’s problems. Notice any similarities to today? Indeed, Hoover had tried to implement many of the ideas FDR implemented once he was in office.
The Hoover Presidency started when civility and respect for both the presidency and the president’s person were the norm but ended on a very different note. The nearly complete breakdown of political civility and growing political venom made the transition from Hoover to Roosevelt quite nasty and needlessly worsened the country’s economic damage. Notice any similarities to today?
During the transition period, Hoover repeatedly asked Roosevelt what he (Hoover) could do in his last days as president to smooth the transition into the Roosevelt Presidency and keep the crisis from becoming even worse. Roosevelt was not statesman enough to accept Hoover’s offer because he would not risk allowing a political “enemy” to be involved in part of the solution – even for the country’s good.
More cooperation doubtless would have helped make the four-month transition between the presidents less damaging. Still, FDR saw increasing the country’s damage as a low price to pay to maximize the damage to a political opponent. Trump and FDR have similar thin skins and emotional insecurities that have clouded their managerial judgment.
On Roosevelt’s inauguration day, this situation rose to a crescendo of boorish indecency toward the departing president. After swearing in the new president, Hoover walked to the train station alone. No simple courtesy act, such as driving the former president to the train station or thanking him for giving his best efforts under often impossible circumstances, occurred. Doing so would have risked elevating the former president above demon level and reducing the “politically necessary” rancor the nation felt toward the “enemies.” Notice any similarities to today?
Many people agreed with FDR’s actions to deal with the crisis, but many others were violently opposed, thinking the changes were a great mistake. The 1930s produced heated discussions over whether FDR was saving the nation or was destroying it – a debate that continues to this day.
One other instance of a catastrophic financial crisis has unfolded during the transition from a Republican President to a Democratic President. In the 2008 transition, George W. Bush and Barack Obama coordinated and cooperated effectively and with gentility and civility. Those times were at high risk of becoming a financial Armageddon that would engulf the entire world, but fortunately, a few big men acted quickly and decisively to prevent disaster. Each staff focused on dealing with the problem at hand, not maximizing their glory or publicly vilifying their counterparts.
Both Trump and FDR have understood that politics is theater and that their acting skills must be skillful enough to keep supporters from seeing through their performances. Conversely, it is equally important that their detractors see through the “dishonesty and phoniness” of those on the other side. In turn, this theater feeds waves of self-reinforcing anger among the supporters and detractors, anger that further increases supporters’ motivation.
Building a power base via mutual vilification keeps the supporters as motivated as possible. This strategy works best when your supporters significantly, but not overwhelmingly, outnumber your detractors. You want your opponents to be strong enough to make a lot of threatening noise but not strong enough to win. Although Lincoln did not extensively use vilification, it worked in 1862 and 1932, and it still works today.
The truth probably is that FDR saved the country from an even bigger disaster, but he also did some long-term damage. The proud independence and self-reliance that most Americans had during the Depression lessened in the following decades, and progressively, more borrowing decreased most consumers’ financial freedom.
This trend probably occurred because the growing complexity of post-Depression life gave people fewer simple, clear choices and less control over the ever-increasing complications that they faced. Their slowly eroding self-reliance and decreasing ability to control their destiny and cope with growing complexity have forced people to look increasingly to the government to solve problems. This growing complexity has not turned the land of the free and the home of the brave into the land of the freeloaders and the home of bravado, but that is the trend.
Crisis Three: The Cultural Crisis
By the reckoning of JD Nobody‘s friend, the third great crisis arrived about 70 years after the previous crisis – just in time for 9-11 to formally kick off the next crisis cycle. 9-11 was primarily a cultural attack rather than a military attack. JD Nobody‘s friend viewed this cultural crisis as probably the most serious of the crises because it goes to the heart of everything the nation is.
Everyone alive at the time of the first two crises could see the troubles everywhere, whereas a cultural crisis is much more intangible and invisible. People know that something is very wrong but cannot clearly articulate what it is.
The more we reflect on the times in which we live, the more we notice the similarities between today and the times at the bottom of the Great Depression in 1932–1933. Both situations have involved colossal political upheavals having many similar crisis attributes. Emotions often transcend logic when such crises deepen.
At the finish of the first and third crises, many people threatened to leave the country after Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump were elected. Lincoln was thoroughly hated by much of the country for the duration of his presidency. Only after his death did Lincoln become a national hero.
Even though the party labels are reversed today, it is interesting that Donald Trump has learned presidential theater well from perhaps his best mentor – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both Trump and Roosevelt are renegade agents of change who are hated by “the establishment.” Both are men of great wealth who have put themselves forward as populists. Their most enthusiastic supporters are the people who hate wealth and privilege the most. Trump has gained their support by speaking to them in locker-room English rather than country club English and dressing accordingly.
Roosevelt, like Trump, was notorious for glib double-talk that his supporters loved. FDR’s relentless vilification of bankers and industrialists played exceptionally well in Peoria but did little to build the bridges that could have helped heal the nation. In a sense, Roosevelt was a lifetime ahead of his time politically, with the difference being that he focused his double-talk on mostly innocent bankers and industrialists. In contrast, Trump has focused his double-talk on Mexicans and Muslims.
Counterproductive slander is counterproductive slander, but it is a significant ingredient in a crisis election. In pursuing the presidency, both Trump and Roosevelt allowed the pursuit of political gain to demean both the office and the path to it. Both men have chosen to relentlessly vilify and slander their predecessors in the presidency even though neither deserved it.
One can only guess what psychological forces might have turned Trump and Roosevelt into emotional pieces of work, utterly obsessed with destroying their adversaries. The homes in which they grew up would affect the need to destroy adversaries. Trump hardly grew up in a gentle, teddy-bear atmosphere; FDR’s mother, Sarah Delano, was an overwhelming force in the lives of those around her, dominating FDR’s entire life until nearly the end of his second term as president.
In today’s history-exempt world, almost nothing interconnects over time with anything else, and everything is somebody else’s fault. Nevertheless, FDR and Trump both came to the forefront in rapidly changing times and recognized that the previous ways of doing things were on their way out. Theatrics and unusual behavior are the primary ways in which FDR and Trump have led their electorate away from the familiar and have much of the public regarding the newly evolving world as normal.
Of course, Trump is much cruder than FDR ever was, but we live in much coarser times. Today the world is in an international cultural crisis, whereas FDR faced only a national financial crisis. After allowing for the differences between the times in which these two men have lived, their similarities stand out more strongly than their differences. As long as people see history as bunk, people won’t connect any of these dots.
In short, both FDR and Trump are wealthy men from the Establishment who gained much support from ordinary people. Both have been able to speak the average person’s language when that skill has mattered. Both knew how to appeal to those endowed with pure ignorance. Both have regularly delighted in driving the members of the opposite party into apoplectic fits.
Trump, like FDR, will have periods of political cheapness and periods of effective leadership. Could today’s sins of Donald Trump be long-delayed and exaggerated blowback from FDR’s sins, and even from earlier leaders – a perverse payback, including compounded interest?
Other similarities not discussed above are the cultural dysfunctions that preceded the Civil War and the Second World War. The similarities are not exact — they never are — but close enough that it is worrisome.
The deep divisions before the Civil War seem eerily similar to today’s deepening racial and economic divides. Before the Second World War, there was a naive complacency toward having achieved “peace in our time,” which glossed over the deepening troubles.
Kristallnacht in Germany was a precursor of much worse to come. It provides an ominous foreboding to today’s Antifa-led “mostly peaceful protests.” In both cases, people have been intimidated and sometimes killed. The focus on violent and terrifying property destruction looks to be a small but growing American Kristallnacht. The posts Black Lives Matter — Hijacked by Antifa and The Electronic Holocaust explore related concepts.
/s/ JD Nobody (No pronouns!), OC ’61.