One hundred years ago in November, the president of the United States was desperately trying to preserve his partisan majorities in Congress in the midterm elections — and blew it, losing both the House and the Senate in an almost unprecedented result. The good news for Democrats today is that Donald Trump appears determined to make the very same mistakes that Woodrow Wilson made in 1918, greatly enhancing the Democrats’ prospects for victory in the fall.
Although Wilson and Trump are in many ways polar opposites — one pious and scholarly, the other carnal and incurious — the two men are temperamentally alike. Alexander and Juliette George’s classic portrait of the 28th president sounds eerily familiar today: “Not only did Wilson grow up with a taste for achievement and power: he must exercise power alone. … His will must prevail. He bristled at the slightest challenge to his authority.” Historian Kendrick Clements similarly emphasized Wilson’s egotism, noting that if he “was mistaken or if he deceived himself, there was no way anyone could tell him.” “[A]ngry opposition,” the Georges concluded, “only intensified Wilson’s anxieties and … dictated a stubborn determination to subjugate his foes.”
A toxic blend of arrogance and anxiety led Wilson to catastrophic political error in 1918. As the days shortened into autumn, Allied troops in Europe appeared tantalizingly close to bringing an end to the world war that had dominated Wilson’s second term. Great success was at hand.
However, the timing of the peace was cause for alarm in the White House. Wilson was deeply worried that the slender majorities he enjoyed in Congress (made possible in the House only by a coalition with third-party members) might evaporate if American voters no longer felt it necessary to rally to the flag — and give a wartime commander in chief a cooperative legislature.
On Oct. 25, Wilson issued an unprecedented written appeal to voters nationwide, asking them directly to foil his Republican opposition and give him a compliant Congress:
“My Fellow Americans: The Congressional elections are at hand. They occur in the most critical period our country has ever faced or is likely to face in our time. If you have approved of my leadership and wish me to continue to be your unembarrassed spokesman in affairs at home and abroad, I earnestly beg that you will express yourselves unmistakably to that effect by returning a Democratic majority to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. … This is no time either for divided counsel or for divided leadership. Unity of command is as necessary now in civil action as it is upon the field of battle. … The return of a Republican majority to either House of Congress would, moreover, certainly be interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership.”
Through this extraordinary bit of electioneering — taken without even consulting his Cabinet — Wilson openly nationalized the midterm election. By doing so, he turned it into a vote of confidence in his leadership. This was a terrible miscalculation.
What Wilson — blinded by stark egotism and political success — did not understand at the time was that the public was profoundly fatigued with his presidency. And this sentiment proved to be the most powerful force shaping the vote in 1918. Americans had tired of Wilson’s presence in their daily lives, notwithstanding his successful leadership in World War I.
Wilson — like Trump — had sought to fix the nation’s attention on himself, seeing the White House as the political system’s primary engine in an era then dominated by Congress. To this end, Wilson — like Trump — worked to forge a direct rhetorical connection to the American people, reestablishing, for example, a long-abandoned practice of delivering the State of the Union message each year in person. As a result of Wilson’s enhanced public profile, one Washington correspondent of the time framed an essay around the question, “Who is the United States? There is only one answer: Woodrow Wilson!” Had Twitter existed in 1918, Wilson probably would have been an early adopter.
Moreover, the prosecution of the war had made Wilson’s presence felt in American households unlike any president before him. Although some families had made the ultimate sacrifice, for most Americans the burdens of the war were more mundane, including an irksome series of food controls Wilson instituted to support the war effort. On the president’s authority, for example, federal administrators could tell Americans how much sugar they could put in their morning coffee.
In short, Wilson — like Trump — had made himself an unwelcome guest at the breakfast table, where most Americans prefer to begin their days without disagreeable intrusions from the White House. And there was, based on Wilson’s own proclamation, one good way for the citizens of his day to prevent more of the same: send the opposition party to Congress to stuff the president back into his constitutional box. What the voters did in 1918 prefigured the famous theme of Warren Harding’s successful presidential campaign two years later: a “return to normalcy.”
To be sure, the reasons for America’s weariness with the current president differ greatly from those that brought down Wilson. Trump fatigue is largely a product of the ringmaster’s perpetual circus: noise, shock and vulgar spectacle. But the fatigue is no less real. So the louder Trump gets about this midterm — the more he repeats some variation of “A vote for Cindy (or David or Patrick) is a vote for me” — the greater is the likelihood that he will suffer Wilson’s fate. Under the circumstances, many voters don’t care so much about whether America can be great again — only that it can be quiet.