David Doolin: 'History shows it won't be easy to get rid of president now - but he'll be vulnerable when voters head to ballot box'
Divisive, unlikeable, egotistical and vengeful. There are many parallels between Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson, the first US president to face impeachment, just over 150 years ago in 1868. There might also be some important lessons to be gleaned from Johnson's story.
Now faced with impeachment, Trump will be only the third American leader, after Johnson and Bill Clinton, to have faced a trial, and once again the process arrives at a time when the United States is at a crossroads. Richard Nixon faced the prospect of impeachment too, but resigned in 1974 before the procedure was enacted, following the Watergate scandal. While Clinton beat the rap and served out his term, it is the story of Johnson where some of the echoes from the past can be heard today.
In many ways Johnson was the Trump of his era. Both fanned the flames of racial tension, both made threatening attacks on their political rivals and both seemed to view the president's office as a vehicle to force through their agenda. Johnson was vice-president to Abraham Lincoln and came to power after Lincoln's assassination, in April, 1865. A fact that led many to suggest he was unfit to be president. Knowing as we do the massive role Russia played in manipulating the US election of 2016, Trump faces similar accusations.
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Interestingly, both presidents understood the importance of Irish-America, but not if it stood in their way. Johnson initially had the support of many Irish Americans, partly because he was their commander-in-chief at the close of the Civil War in a reunited America, for which an estimated 200,000 Irish had signed up and fought to achieve. He also allegedly conspired with the Fenian Brotherhood as it organised and executed an invasion of Canada, then British North America, in 1866. However, that goodwill turned sour when Johnson outlawed the Fenians in June 1866 having ordered the US military to stop any incursions across the border by Irishmen seeking to create a war with Britain.
Anglo-American relations 'trumped' Irish concerns then, as they apparently do today. Just look at how Trump has used his resort in Doonbeg to boost his image with Irish-America, while at the same time his administration has publicly backed a no-deal Brexit, despite the potential damage to the Good Friday Agreement and the economic catastrophe it would mean for Ireland. Although far removed from the experiences of their ancestors, one wonders if those politicians who yet assert an Irish Americanness, would learn the lessons from the past and call out a betrayal of Ireland, as their forebearers in fact did of Johnson. Unfortunately, not very likely.
While Johnson supported the newly reunited states of America after the bloody Civil War, he was a southern Democrat, and believed that America was a country for white men and its government should be of white men only.
The issue of race is part of both of these stories. Trump has made overtures to deflect accusations of racism, and yet he continues to rile up race hatred at rallies across the nation, and infamously defended white supremacists after Charlottesville as 'some very fine people'. His continual accusations that the impeachment process is equivalent to a lynching, underscores his deliberate belittling of the appalling racial history in the United States.
As for the history of Johnson's presidency, the inevitable clash between the White House and Congress led to a scandal and eventually Johnson's impeachment in 1868.
Accusations of Johnson abusing his presidential powers and denigrating the norms of the office abound. Post-Civil War, a period known as Reconstruction, aimed at protecting former slaves in southern states was initiated in the American south. However, with his southern sympathies, Johnson set about unravelling Reconstruction.
He was more concerned with pardoning his fellow white southerners, those who conspired and fought to secede and break up the American union. Johnson thus vetoed bills that had aimed to help former slaves. He returned former plantation lands to those slave-owners who had fought for the confederacy. And began to undermine the US army which was overseeing much of the Reconstruction policy.
His argument claimed that Reconstruction was not conducive to a necessary forgiveness for former confederates, in order to allow a deeply divided US to reunite after war. Many in Congress were angered at Johnson's attempts to halt Reconstruction. Many were angered at his sympathy for those who betrayed the union. Many genuinely feared that allowing southern power-brokers back into their positions of power, as Johnson set out to do, would endanger the union yet again. Many were outraged that these policies would also clearly disenfranchise freed slaves.
In the end the ballot to impeach him lost by a single vote. However, his reputation was severely damaged and he would go on to lose the 1868 presidential election to the highly popular Civil War veteran Ulysses S Grant.
If there are any insights from the presidencies of Johnson and Trump, from an Irish perspective we might hope that those Irish Americans who were genuinely engaged with Irish concerns would call their president out, when promises to aid Ireland's cause are reneged upon. As for the lessons of impeachment, it surely is that even with a despicable president who clearly undermines the law and brings the office into severe disrepute, the likelihood of removal after an impeachment trial is slim. Especially considering the contemptible inaction of Republicans in the US Congress, who do not have the moral clarity required to protect the political system. No US president has been successfully impeached and even overwhelming evidence is no guarantee to success. Trump's opponents will, it seems, find that out over the course of this current process just as Johnson's did back in 1868.
The best history lesson for Americans who understand the rot that has set in with this current executive, is that it will be the ballot box that remains their best hope of remedy
Dr David Doolin is Teaching Fellow of American History at UCD and author of 'Transnational Revolutionaries: The Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1866'