President Trump and his backers have recently drawn a lot of attention — and outrage — by threatening something akin to a party purge: Republicans who don’t sign on to Trump’s agenda won’t be endorsed or funded. The uproar isn’t surprising in that it’s yet another violation of political norms in the Trump era. But it’s not an original tactic.
In fact, in the not-too-distant past, another Oval Office occupant tried to impose his will on his party as part of a broad-based rewriting of political norms that also saw him disregard the other branches of government, make expansive use of war powers and face accusations of being a dictator.
That president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Presidents push at the boundaries of their authority in lots of ways, and they bristle against the institutions designed to constrain them. FDR’s example shows how a president can successfully ignore political norms and break through institutional constraints, but also how institutions and citizens can check that power.
To clarify, that doesn’t mean that Trump and FDR are exactly alike, or really that they’re anything alike. There are obvious differences in demeanor, ideology, policy programs and political experience. And while we don’t have modern polling to tell us how popular Roosevelt was, we know he was elected — with healthy majorities — four times. He certainly has his detractors, but he frequently appears on expert survey lists of the greatest presidents. It’s too early to know what Trump’s legacy will be. But so far he’s less popular than any modern president has been at this point in his term, and experts expressed skepticism about his leadership from the very beginning.
Of course, FDR’s successes with the electorate and his high historical rankings don’t excuse his norm violations, nor should a review of his actions be read as a rationale for Trump to follow suit. But the extent to which Roosevelt was able to change other governing institutions and make them more responsive to his agenda demonstrates how much power the presidency really has. A leader who is determined to use it expansively will have plenty of opportunities to do so. At the same time, not all of FDR’s efforts to strengthen the presidency succeeded.
So what did Roosevelt try to do, and how did the system push back?
1. FDR tried to bring down Democrats who disagreed with him
FDR wanted to remake the Democratic Party from a patchwork party of urban machines and Southerners into a liberal, New Deal party. To that end, in the 1938 midterms, he broke with traditions separating presidents from both local party matters and congressional business: He campaigned against conservative, anti-New Deal candidates in Democratic primaries.
The New Deal had been a crucial turning point for the Democratic Party when many of its major legislative items passed in FDR’s first term.This number is driven by Roosevelt’s long tenure in office — Grover Cleveland has him beat for the most vetoes per year.
But in the end, Congress overrode the veto of the revenue bill. And while the New Deal is most closely associated with Roosevelt, members of Congress had plenty of input into what the policies ultimately looked like.“The Office of Censorship had no real power to punish journalists,” Peter Duffy wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, but it did have long-standing tensions with a few over their war stories.
‘>5 Trump has also sought to control media coverage and call the shots in relationships with journalists, but he has used different tactics and taken a much more antagonistic approach. As in the judicial example above, Trump’s approach has been soft power (public relations) instead of hard power (rules or laws), compared with FDR.
Trump hasn’t done anything on the scale of one of FDR’s most controversial actions as president — Japanese internment. That said, some of Trump’s rhetoric and policies have raised fears that the factors that helped lead to internment, such as racial prejudice and “expedience,” are becoming bigger problems, and that ethnic profiling and civil rights violations will become more prevalent and more overt.
And Trump is not likely to repeat one of Roosevelt’s clearest norm violations: staying in office for more than a decade. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed by wide margins in Congress and ratified in 1951, assured that FDR’s tenure would not be repeated.
So what can we learn from FDR?
It tells us a lot about the presidency — and what Americans value about it — that one of our most celebrated leaders had such an aggressive view of presidential power. But just as FDR expanded the scope of the office, some of his actions also contributed to the creation of stronger constraints.
The term limits example illustrates that when presidents violate norms, political opponents — and even former allies — will push back. But this resistance depends to some degree on the health and legitimacy of other institutions in the system. Trump’s attacks on the media and the judiciary may prove to be more successful than FDR’s because they could undermine that health and legitimacy.
Sometimes pushing at the boundaries of presidential power strengthens the checks on that power. Other times, it illustrates how flimsy and porous those boundaries can be.
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