Whether he knows it or not, the specter of Lyndon Baines Johnson haunts Donald John Trump. There are some jarring similarities — two big, fleshy men given to vulgarities and gauche behavior, boastful, thin-skinned, politically amoral, vengeful, unforgiving and, most important, considered illegitimate presidents. For Johnson, that took some time to sink in; Trump is already there.
Johnson ascended to the presidency upon the death of John F. Kennedy and then won election in a landslide over Barry Goldwater. Nevertheless, an air of illegitimacy clung to him like an odor. It thickened as opposition to the Vietnam War became more and more furious and it peaked, in my estimation, with a hoax in 1967 by Paul Krassner in the counterculture magazine the Realist. Tongue in cheek, it reported that Johnson had climbed into Kennedy’s casket and there done unspeakable things. The story was abominable, tasteless and deserved any other insult you could throw at it, but some people believed it. I know. I heard it.
Jump now a half-century to the recent stories relating to Trump and alleged shenanigans in Russia at a time not all that distant. The accounts, unverified and as revolting as any concocted about Johnson, had a currency that can be explained only by Trump’s own behavior — a persona that seems so self-indulgent, so juvenile, that almost any sort of behavior seems credible. Trump called the report fake news and, as always, blamed the messenger (the media, the intelligence community, etc.), but he ought to have looked in the mirror and wondered why he looks so ugly to so many people.
Krassner is an obscure 1960s figure; Rep. John Lewis is not. The Georgia Democrat said the other day that Trump’s presidency was illegitimate and he would not, as an invited member of Congress, attend the inauguration. Trump, of course, tweeted a disparagement. As he did when he belittled John McCain’s heroism under torture, Trump said Lewis was “all talk” and “no action.”
Lewis is one of the last of the great civil rights-era heroes. He marched. He protested. He had his head cracked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. It was 1965 and the Alabama police nearly beat him to death. He is a man of immense courage and morality, so much greater than Trump in those respects.
Yes, Trump won in the electoral college, and that, alas, is all that matters. But on the larger point, Lewis is right. Trump conducted a dirty, dishonest campaign that sullied the very presidency he won. He questioned Barack Obama’s legitimacy, trafficked in racism and demagoguery, and seems to have had poll workers in far-off Moscow. Still, he’ll be the president.
But Trump ought to pay attention to Lewis and what he represents. The president-elect will take the oath with a minority of the popular vote — a substantial deficit of almost 3 million votes. He enters the Oval Office with historically dismal poll numbers, lower now than right after he won the election. He has done nothing to woo the majority of Americans who rejected his candidacy and has, instead, adhered to his schoolyard habit of tweeting his every grievance, denigrating his every critic, making cameos with vaccine and global-warming doubters and, as if to show some versatility, rascals such as Don King and Kanye West. It is a “Gong Show” with no gong in sight.
Lyndon Johnson would no doubt warn Trump that he is already on thin ice and he will plunge through it the moment Congress takes the measure of his unpopularity. Johnson was a man of huge political abilities and experience, and his achievements in civil rights entitled him to greatness. Yet, when Vietnam went sour, so did the public, and it seemed, after a while, that his personal characteristics, scathingly caricatured by artists such as David Levine and Jules Feiffer, oozed out of him so that they obscured both him and his accomplishments. He was deemed capable of anything — of lying and perversion of all kinds. This is where Trump stands now.
By the end of the week, Trump will be the president. I wish him the best; I wish him the worst. The dilemma is how to separate loathing for him from love of country. I am leaving it to time to work that out. Meanwhile, Trump will have his moment, that’s for sure, but when things go wrong he will be chased from office — just like Johnson once was. The ancient Greeks knew why: A man’s character is his fate. In that case, Trump’s presidency is doomed.
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