Donald Trump Is No Lyndon Johnson

Johnson, McNamara, Rusk in July 1965

John Fund at the National Review recently compared Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump. Citing also this blog, he argued that there were similarities between the two presidents and the dilemmas they posed, or pose, for their parties. While Fund is not wrong in comparing Johnson’s grandiosity and self-centeredness to Trump’s, the two politicians should be considered opposites in both their policy goals and in their views on not only the role of government, but also their takes on the process of governing.

Johnson, underneath all his bluster and bravado, was a consummate political operator, adept at moving the levers of power in favor of the social justice policies he favored. His great strength was a savvy for strategy and for convincing (often through less than aboveboard means) the various players in the various branches of government to act on his behalf, or at least to refrain from acting explicitly against his wishes. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson contributed significantly to keeping the United States on even keel and from slipping into a prolonged panic. He sought to bring together many varied opinions and positions. When he saw no path to reelection after his exacerbation of the Vietnam War had become unpopular, he did not stand for the presidency again.

Lyndon Johnson Signing 1968 Civil Rights Bill
President Lyndon Johnson Signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill. Photo by Warren K. Leffler.

Trump, in contrast, has so far blundered through a month of ad-hoc executive orders and alternate-reality-based pronouncements that have rattled domestic political opponents in both parties and many American voters, as well as foreign governments. The two presidents stand for very different political programs, but this is not their most important difference. Johnson fascinates historians because he was a uniquely contradictory figure, a personality seemingly at odds with himself. This is reflected also in the appreciation many liberal historians harbor for Johnson. To state, as the title of Fund’s article proclaims, that liberals “idolize” LBJ is a foreshortening of their image of the man. There is no view of Johnson’s achievements to be had without reference to his many failings. There is certainly no level of liberal idolization to be seen regarding Johnson akin to the one Ronald Reagan enjoys in conservative quarters.

Unlike Johnson, Trump is all surface: he means what he says and says what he means, but either side of that equation is ultimately disposable. President Trump’s conception of government appears to be that of an aircraft carrier of which he is the captain and that goes where he wants it to go – and on which he can punish for insubordination those who will not assist him. President Johnson’s was closer to that of a pirate ship on which he needed to convince people to row in the same direction when the winds stilled.

Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk in July 1965
President Lyndon Johnson Talking to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right) and Secretary of State Dean Rusk after McNamara’s return from South Vietnam, July 1965. Photo by Warren K. Leffler.

Fund touches on something fundamental when he writes that

…in the 1960s, there was a sense that the legislative process and the wheels of government still had to turn. Back then, the country didn’t tolerate blind obstructionism and attempts to delegitimize the presidency.

The rise of such obstructionism and delegitimization began in the 1990s. This was in no small part due to the tactics employed by Newt Gingrich, later an early Trump supporter, during his tenure as Speaker of the House. Historical analogies are always flawed to some extent. To compare LBJ with Donald Trump, however, is especially fraught with problems because of this shift in how Washington behaves, which occurred between the two presidencies. Because of it, even if Johnson and Trump appear temperamentally similar, any lessons supposedly to be drawn from the Johnson years for how Trump’s supporters or detractors should act must be taken with a pinch of salt at least as huge as the two presidential personalities.

Read Fund’s article here: Trump Is a Lot Like the LBJ Whom Liberals Still Idolize
or my original piece on LBJ here: The Power Conduit: Robert Caro’s LBJ

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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