2020 election: A historian on the perils of chaotic White House transitions

President Donald Trump is still pretending he won the election.

That’s embarrassing for him on a personal level, but there have been real-world consequences for the rest of us. On Monday evening, the General Services Administration (GSA) finally began the transition process to the Biden administration, ending a highly irregular delay prompted by Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. That delay, in the midst of a pandemic when cooperation is badly needed, could well have cost lives.

It remains to be seen how smooth the transition will be. If the Trump administration’s post-election behavior is any indication, the coming handover may not be the smoothest. And, let’s face it, Trump remains an unpredictable actor in all this. We’re still three weeks away from the official Electoral College vote; one tweet in a fit of pique and Trump could throw into chaos what for much of US history has been the generally dignified act of one government passing the baton to the next.

What are the consequences of Trump’s resistance to a lawful transition to the Biden administration? And what damage might continued shenanigans wreak?

If there’s a historical parallel for this moment, it’s probably the 1932 election and the subsequent transfer of power from Herbert Hoover to FDR. The election occurred as the Great Depression was intensifying and there was a bitter, protracted ideological fight over how to manage the crisis. Although Hoover lost in a landslide, he, like Trump, dug in and did everything possible to hinder the next administration. The result was a delayed economic recovery and an enormous amount of suffering that could have been avoided.

I reached out to Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California Davis and the author of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, to talk about the consequences of Hoover’s intransigence, why the size of the modern presidency matters so much, and what lessons we can learn from the mismanaged transition in 1933. It’s not a perfect analogy for 2020, Rauchway says, but it’s close enough and in any case worth revisiting. I spoke with him before the GSA officially announced it would begin the transition process, but much of what we discussed still holds.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

We’re in a crisis moment. The pandemic is intensifying just as Biden is preparing to take office. Is this what happened in 1933 with the Great Depression as FDR was preparing to take over in March of that year?

Eric Rauchway

It’s an unfortunate but apt parallel.

The depression took a turn for the worse beginning in the late summer of 1932. There had been a wave of bank failures throughout Hoover’s presidency, and another one began around this time. By the time you got to Christmas and into the New Year, you had the Federal Reserve bankers and lawyers saying that the president of the United States needed to use the power he had to close the banks and stop the hemorrhaging. But Hoover didn’t want to do that. He rejected it as a matter of principle.

So these are obviously different situations, but there are parallels. We’re in the middle of intensifying crises and the American voters elected a new president and a new course, and it’s being held up by the outgoing administration.

Sean Illing

How large was FDR’s margin of victory in 1932? Was it a landslide?

Eric Rauchway

Yeah, it was a landslide. It wasn’t as big a landslide as he would win in 1936, but Hoover only won majorities in six states.

Sean Illing

How poorly did Hoover handle defeat?

Eric Rauchway

I guess it’s relative, right? To use some benchmarks that might make sense to us today, Hoover was in California at his home on Election Day and he sent a telegram of concession at 10 pm Pacific time.

So Hoover admitted that he had lost. But in a more substantial way, he didn’t really concede. He accepted that he lost the election, but he didn’t accept that he lost the argument about how to manage the depression, and that’s a fight he kept waging for months after he lost.

Sean Illing

This is where Hoover’s stubbornness becomes hugely consequential for the American people, right?

Eric Rauchway

1932 is the worst year of the Great Depression. Unemployment had reached nearly 25 percent. Commodity prices for agricultural crops are so low that many farmers don’t even find it worthwhile to harvest their crops and just let them rot in the fields. People are going bankrupt, and they’re losing their homes. They’re losing their farms, they’re losing their properties. And this is putting enormous pressure on the banks, because people aren’t making their mortgage payments or their other debt payments.

The financial sector is wobbly. The agricultural sector has fallen apart. And even though it’s not owing to a failure of productivity in the agricultural sector, people are starving because the whole economy has basically broken by this point.

So that’s what the election is about: How are you going to manage this catastrophe? And Roosevelt made big promises. He promised a massive public works program to employ people and pull out of this slump. And not only that, he promised a jobs guarantee going forward. He promised all kinds of things that essentially amounted to a reorganization of the economy.

Sean Illing

And Hoover, even after he lost, did what, exactly?

Eric Rauchway

He basically said FDR’s plans would be tantamount to socialism. He says he can smell on this program the same fumes that wafted off the witch’s cauldron that recently boiled over in Russia. In other words, it’s Bolshevism. He said that it would crack the timbers of the Constitution. It would negate the ideals of America. It was a very clear-cut ideological conflict.

So when people voted for Roosevelt, they were voting either for this more aggressive program or against this less aggressive approach to managing the depression. There was a lot at stake not only with the question of how to manage the depression, but also this is a moment in the history of the world when democracy itself is being seriously questioned by large populations across the globe.

So if people voted for Roosevelt’s program, they ought to get it, is Roosevelt’s philosophy. But Hoover doesn’t see it that way, because he thinks Roosevelt’s program is going to be a disaster, not only practically but also morally. So he tries very hard to prevent it from being enacted in specific ways. He uses the lame-duck Congress session to try and prevent any New Deal legislation from passing.

And in more general ways, he tries to pressure Roosevelt to swear off any of the New Deal measures, or most of the New Deal measures, that he’s promised. He tries over and over again to get Roosevelt to pledge that he won’t inflate the currency, that he won’t run up debt with a big public works program, that he will balance the budget, which is all stuff that, as Hoover himself privately said, would mean abandoning 90 percent of the New Deal.

Sean Illing

What were the consequences of Hoover’s stonewalling?

Eric Rauchway

Well, if you look at the official data on the economy, the recovery from the Great Depression begins in March of 1933, which is the very month that Roosevelt takes office. Now, many economic historians look at that and they say, “Well, this is actually not a coincidence.” This happens because Roosevelt’s earliest moves help to shore up the economy.

And if it’s true that Roosevelt’s policies at the beginning of the New Deal induced the recovery, then any day sooner that you could have begun that recovery, or even part of that recovery, means that people would have retained their jobs, would have retained their savings, in the case of starvation would have stayed alive. It’s really costly to delay a recovery that is, in theory, available to you sooner.

Sean Illing

How unprecedented was all this at the time? Was it unusual for an outgoing administration to obstruct an incoming administration this overtly?

Eric Rauchway

I can’t think of another example where there’s an outgoing president who’s quite so deliberate about it as Hoover was. I mean, the other really costly transition in the history of the American republic is 1860 to ’61, but it’s not really Buchanan who’s making the problems for Lincoln. It’s the Southern states that secede. So I don’t think there’s a direct analogy here. And I think that’s because there aren’t many examples you could point to where changing parties meant so much in terms of what the incoming administration was going to change.

Sean Illing

You’re obviously looking at all this from your perch in 2020. What are the most important parallels?

Eric Rauchway

It’s very hard to determine what the will of the people really is when you look at any election. But I think it’s pretty clear that in the 1932 election, people broadly were dissatisfied with Hoover’s management of the depression, and were happy to choose instead Roosevelt’s proposals for how to manage the depression.

Today, I think it’s pretty clear that if you had to point to one thing that lost the election for Trump, it’s his mismanagement of the pandemic. It’s very unusual for incumbents to lose, especially one with as devoted a base as he has, so it seems like that was what lost him the election. People were happy to say, by analogy, “We’d prefer Biden’s more aggressive approach to coronavirus.”

So that seems like a fairly clear parallel. A choice has been made, and if you assume (and it’s just an assumption at this point) that Biden’s proposals are going to be more effective than the Trump administration’s policies have been, and that doing more to manage the pandemic would save lives, every day that we forestall implementing those policies, every effort that we make to hinder that incoming administration, is going to cost lives.

Sean Illing

Were there any other long-term consequences of Hoover’s actions worth noting?

Eric Rauchway

One thing I’d say is that Hoover continued to misrepresent what he had done for years, and his belief that digging in your heels against the New Deal, or anything like it, became a kind of core principle of the Republican Party. He had influence over folks like Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, who took Hoover’s intransigence as a model. And I think you can see some of that in Mitch McConnell’s absolute steadfast opposition to anything that even looks like a step in the direction of a New Deal.

Sean Illing

What would you say is the biggest lesson to be gleaned from 1933, particularly for the incoming Biden administration?

Eric Rauchway

If some of the parallels we talked about hold, then the Biden team should set aside hopes for a smooth transition and plan instead to make creative use of the resources they have now, and also those they will have as of January 20, 2021.

The Roosevelt folks consulted widely to find out what tools might be available to them to meet the emergency, and acted expeditiously as soon as they could — using the Trading With the Enemy Act, using existing resources like the Army and the Veterans Administration for logistical support in early relief efforts. And the executive branch now is much larger, and more complex, and entails further-reaching authority than it did then, so Biden could potentially do a lot to achieve his aims using such methods.

Sean Illing

I don’t want to speculate on how effective Biden’s policies will be because I honestly have no idea, but in 1933 at least, FDR overcame Hoover’s intransigence and set the country on a different course. Do you expect Biden to do the same?

Eric Rauchway

I do not expect him to do exactly the same because he doesn’t have the congressional majorities that Roosevelt had. That’s the easy answer. I would say what he does have is a lot of state capacity in the executive branch that wasn’t available to either Hoover or FDR. Again, the presidency is bigger and more powerful now than it was then. And, as I’m fond of repeating to my students, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.

Source link

Share with your friends!

Products You May Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the latest news
straight to your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.