BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Even as early as 2016, pundits began writing that the signs and precursors of Donald Trump’s rise to power had been there all along, visible to all who had eyes to see. Although I’m no pundit, I did my share of this, too. And I stand by it. Historical analysis is the best guide, sometimes the only guide, we have to try to understand the ever-unfolding present.
(I also stand by cognitive psychology when it says we should avoid overvaluing hindsight. It turns out that almost everyone has eyes to see when it comes to explaining things after they occur.)
Still, you don’t want a specific interpretive framework to take over everything you think. Even though Trumpism’s treasonous assault on our democratic institutions dominates the whole political horizon right now, it will, in all likelihood, be rebuffed and turn into a touchstone that future historians will use to try to understand new trends.
So when I took up Robert Caro’s epic biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson over the summer, I did so fully intent on taking it neat. I just wanted to read the thing from cover to cover, from as neutral a perspective as possible, not writing little notes in the margins about Trump and Trumpism.
For the most part, I’ve succeeded. Caro’s five-book biography is a love letter to American politics, and it can be cherished by any observer of that drama, from the left, right or center. Caro takes you into a sprawling, Tolstoyan embrace of our country’s political life and transports you straight to the heart of Texas’s Hill Country, where LBJ’s unlikely rise to power began. It is a huge story of naked ambition, played out in uniquely American terms. It teaches much of broader interest along the way–about geography, about elections, about media, money and influence, and, of course, about power. But the core of the story is very much LBJ’s story.
Caro’s work stands alone, excellent on its own merits. But his main argument is, like all good history, relevant to the present. Politics changed in fundamental ways as a result of how LBJ sought, gained and used power, Caro writes. And in LBJ’s watershed career, nothing was more of a watershed than his 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The things he did to win that race left deep marks on our political culture.
Most of LBJ’s legacy has nothing directly to do with Trump. But then again, what does? Trump is such an accidental phenomenon. He wouldn’t have become anything if our culture didn’t already value swagger, wealth, celebrity, egomania, and other, far less endearing character traits before he came along. Writing long before Trump evinced any interest in politics, Caro draws out several of LBJ’s features that helped prepare our political culture for Trump’s arrival. We’re constantly hearing how Trump is breaking with time-tested traditions and setting new precedents. LBJ’s 1948 Senate campaign, though, shows that most of the tricks in the Trump playbook were not actually new.
Here are the ways I noted LBJ prefigured Trump in Caro’s account of the 1948 Senate campaign.
- He discovered the power of lying, emphatically and all the time. In 1948 Johnson was running against Coke Stevenson, a beloved former two-term governor known as “Mr. Texas,” who was deeply admired for his discipline, work ethic, and integrity. Flinty and stoic, Stevenson refused to campaign for elections tit-for-tat for the same reason some Civil War generals refused to use spies–he thought it was low and unbecoming of a gentleman. He was determined to win clean by running on his record alone. Johnson, who knew he was far behind Stevenson in early polls, sniffed out an obscure issue having to do with a controversial labor law and turned Stevenson’s reticence on it (Stevenson was reticent on everything) first into an innuendo then into an outright lie. By the end of the campaign, Johnson was openly accusing Stevenson (Mr. Texas!) of being a communist. Johnson’s campaign managers told Caro in interviews that they knew they were lying, but they also knew they could count on Stevenson’s refusal to speak up for himself. Since he would just sit there and take it, they repeated the lie about Stevenson thousands of times over the course of several months. It appeared in speeches, newspapers, radio shows, mailers, ads, and even in the mouths of “missionaries”–local people paid to spread lies in their towns’ gathering places. Basically the core of LBJ’s campaign was that one lie, told over and over. See Orwell on how all authoritarian regimes use this tactic.
- He normalized name-calling. While Trump feels compelled to coin denigrating nicknames for all his opponents, LBJ was more of a dabbler. He did it when he thought it was necessary. But unlike Trump, he could leave off the schoolyard insults and and impersonate a statesman when he needed to. In 1948, mostly because LBJ didn’t have a policy angle for getting to Stevenson, he started calling him “Old man” (Stevenson was 60, LBJ 40) and “Do-Nothing Stevenson.” Eventually, he stopped using Stevenson’s real name, only using the nicknames, and his supporters followed suit. Sound familiar?
- He used the power of spectacle–and the spectacle of power. Coke Stevenson drove thousands of miles along Texas’s long, dusty roads in his own car to meet his supporters in 1948. Johnson’s aides wanted their man to cover more ground, so they leased him a helicopter. (Actually, Johnson’s friend at the helm of contractor Brown and Root, Herman Brown, paid for most of it.) In a proto-Trumpian touch, Johnson had his name painted on the side of the big Sikorski S-51. In 1948, helicopters were brand new. They hadn’t even been used in combat in World War II, just three years before. But Caro records how Johnson showed remarkably little interest in the main questions that would occupy an ordinary man’s mind about the contraption–Is it safe? Will it work? “When they were up in the air, what Johnson was watching was not the control panel but the faces of the people on the ground,” Caro writes. Johnson took to calling out through a PA system, “Hello down there! It’s your friend Lyndon Johnson.” His was a voice from on high. And it worked. “[A]s he neared a town where a landing was scheduled, he could see below him not only people running through the streets toward the landing site, but, in the countryside outside the town, plumes of dust moving along dirt roads. Farmers . . . were racing to see the helicopter land.”
- He courted the ignorant. Who can forget Trump’s brash admission in 2016 that he loved the “poorly educated!” LBJ did too. Or, he knew he needed their support. Caro recalls that, once LBJ had Texas’s business leader sewn up, he went after the rural demographic: he knew he had to aim “squarely at unsophisticated farmers.” And, since he calculated there was no time to bring them up to speed on the issues, he would appeal to their emotions instead: “He had to make them angry at [Stevenson],” Caro recalls. How did he do this?
- He used fake news. In August 1948, LBJ’s staff created a fake newspaper and mailed it to 340,000 rural mailboxes. They calculated that, while it wouldn’t fool many city dwellers, it might just work among country folk. And, Caro reports, they were right. Most rural Texans who received the Johnson Journal gave it the credibility of a newspaper simply because it looked like a newspaper. And of course it was stuffed with lies, innuendo and propaganda written to look like straight political reporting. In Trump’s case, fake news is more sophisticated and a lot of it is provided free of charge by volunteers. But it’s not new.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. At a critical point in the campaign, Texas business leaders asked Johnson to start giving populist speeches about Stevenson and his (fake) labor supporters, decrying them as “racketeers,” “goons,” and “mobsters.” The precedent for this demagoguery had been set by one of Johnson’s former opponents, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who would “just drum, drum, drum with his little catch phrases–” a contemporary observed, “‘labor leader racketeers, ‘Communist labor leader racketeers’, . . . You just wouldn’t think there would be that many ways to get ‘labor leader racketeers’ into a sentence.” But it worked. Johnson, who was at first loath to stoop this low, found the little catch phrases indeed caught on, and before long the voters were using them spontaneously despite their lack of connection to reality. “Voter fraud,” anyone?
- He was fueled by narcissism. All of Johnson’s campaigns were emotional rollercoaster rides, Caro relates. The man had huge ups and downs (and not just in the 948 campaign). But his biggest ups all came in one of two varieties–either humiliating his subordinates or basking in the adulation of crowds. “People who had known him for years,” Caro write, “said they had never seen Lyndon Johnson so ‘high'” as when he was being adored by an audience. And the helicopter gave him this rush over and over. “He really thrived on the helicopter,” recalled a friend, “and the crowds that would come out. He was energized, he was really charged up.” Who knows, if fist pumping had been a thing in 1948, maybe there would have been some of that too.
- He used the military as a prop. Unlike Trump, who connived to avoid military service, LBJ actually did a hitch. As a U.S. Congressmen in 1941, he had told his supporters that, if war broke out, he would take up a rifle and fight on the front lines alongside their sons, husbands and brothers, “in the mud and blood with your boys,” as he put it. What he actually did was to arrange a cushy Naval reserve commission as a Lieutenant Commander and spend five and a half months driving up and down the U.S West Coast mostly partying with a friend, occasionally drumming up contracting business and building political connections. On a brief fact-finding trip to the South Pacific in June 1942, he did in fact experience combat on an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber. He didn’t really do anything except be inside the B-17 as it got shot up by Zeroes for 13 minutes over New Guinea, but eye-witnesses said he was exceptionally calm. Although the crew, who took heroic measures to get their crippled plane back to base, went unrecognized, LBJ was awarded a Silver Star–the military’s third-highest honor–for his ride along. Unsurprisingly, Johnson immediately began to embellish the episode, and by the time he ran for Senate in 1948, he was telling crowds that he had fought extensively with their boys throughout World War II. He wore his Silver Star on his lapel and would hold it high for the crowds to see. He told flat lies (“I was in the jungles of New Guinea.”). His most shameless acts, though, were his deliberate use of war veterans as campaign props, and not just any veterans. Caro reports that LBJ’s campaign manager was given the specific task of seeking out vets “whose service and sacrifice had been dramatized by the loss of a limb” to introduce Johnson’s speeches. Eventually, there was hardly a man with all his limbs, Caro writes, trotted out to introduce LBJ. Trump, whose only positive regard for military service seems to be based in movies, does not miss a chance to bask in the glow of military honor, at least as he narrowly and cynically conceives of it.
- He transformed the election campaign into an amoral contest to be won at any cost. One of the reasons Caro made an entire book in his series about the 1948 Senate campaign was to draw an historic contrast between Johnson and Stevenson. Stevenson, in Caro’s estimation, was the last of his kind–a politician who felt a duty to present himself honest and unadorned to the tribunal of the vote. There was something hard and Roman about him. And, not to get all sentimental, but there was something hard and Roman about American politics writ large. Not after LBJ though. LBJ introduced the idea to American politics that the ends justified any means when it came to winning a campaign. And Americans, it turns out, kind of liked this idea, sleaze and all. When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!” this meant, “Cheat if you have to,” and we all knew that. Not to give him too much credit, but Trump and his enablers are sort of the Oakland Raiders presidency. The thing about our democracy, however, is that it falls apart once everyone starts pursuing victory at all costs. Rules are the glue that hold institutions together. If you normalize the idea that they are mere impediments to winning, you’ve started down the road to obliterating democracy. Without a culture of rule-following, there are no rules.
In closing, I want to be clear about one thing: By dabbling in history and drawing some ho-hum-looking comparisons between Trump and LBJ, I am not trying to downplay how bad Trumpism is for us. Trump’s amplification of LBJ’s foibles (along with other, more toxic faults) has brought our system of governance and politics to the brink of ruin. So, in putting some key facts down in black and white, I am merely attending to one of Orwell’s cardinal reasons for writing: the “[d]esire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” If posterity is to recover from the sickness of Trumpism, we need to understand now how it got here. Part of it, at least, got here in a helicopter.
P.S. Actually I want to be clear about one more thing. Lyndon Johnson was a reprehensible man defined by naked ambition, but unlike Trump he was also enormously complex. He was capable of superhuman levels of work, and he constantly fought and won political battles that looked unwinnable. He was much more than Trump’s political Vorgänger, as my post might suggest. I called Caro’s books about LBJ Tolstoyan, but there was something more Dostoevskian about LBJ himself–something deeply mysterious at his core that drove him to demonic exertions of will. He remains worthy of study. Trump, in contrast, is a one-dimensional clown. As many serious historians will bother setting down his biography as will serious personages bother attending his funeral. Zero.