President Trump’s second impeachment, on Jan. 13, 2021, is an important historical marker — a stern repudiation by the House of Representatives of his conduct in office. But what will it take to defeat the broader phenomenon of Trumpism? Andrew Johnson’s presidency furnishes a cautionary tale about the limits of impeachment as a political remedy. Impeachment tarnished Johnson but failed to root out Johnson-ism — namely, the toxic ideology he had promoted as president. Instead, that ideology poisons American politics down to the present day.
The similarities between Trump’s term in office and Johnson’s abound: Johnson was a racist demagogue who fomented violence, abused his pardoning power, regarded partisan competition as a form of warfare against enemies, disdained to attend the inaugural of his successor and ended his term in defiant disgrace. Like Trump, he also illustrates the profound harm presidents can do with their words.
A Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee, Johnson was the only Southern senator to reject secession in 1861, and Abraham Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate in 1864 to symbolize the hope of national reconciliation amid the brutality of the Civil War. Johnson’s yeoman-class roots and his antipathy to elite enslavers seemed to augur strict punishments for the leading Confederates and the redemption of the Southern masses. But with the war’s end, Johnson’s antipathy to Blacks and desire for White solidarity came to the fore.
As president in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson made several cynical arguments that spelled the doom of Reconstruction.
First, he advanced the notion that the end of slavery meant only that Black Americans had the right to earn wages, not the right to full citizenship. Secondly, Johnson insisted that his own policies of leniency toward former Confederates would swiftly reunite the nation. When congressional Republicans rejected those policies, angered by Southern recalcitrance, Johnson blamed the continuing strife on the congressional program of Reconstruction enfranchising Black men in the South — something White Southerners alleged created a period of “Black rule” during which ex-Confederates were victimized.
At the heart of Johnson’s politics was a zero-sum-game ideology of race relations: Any gains for Blacks would come at the expense of Whites. During his Third Annual Message to Congress, delivered in December 1867, he made this clear. “If the inferior obtains the ascendancy over the other,” he warned, “it will govern with reference only to its own interests — for it will recognize no common interest — and create such a tyranny as this continent has never yet witnessed.” There was no possibility of interracial democracy in Johnson’s worldview, only the supremacy of one race over the other.
His reactionary rhetoric harked back to the proslavery propaganda of John C. Calhoun. But it was also preemptive, designed to deem the Reconstruction experiment in Black citizenship a failure before it even began.
Johnson promoted these ideas with a web of falsehoods, as he escalated his political war with Congress, pardoning thousands of ex-Confederates and opposing civil rights legislation. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, designed to give freed people some basic legal protections, on the ground that it would “operate in favor of the colored against the white race.” His vetoes of the 1867 Reconstruction Acts labeled the congressional program an exercise in “absolute despotism” aimed at “Africanizing the Southern part of our territory.” If his policy of reconciliation had received congressional support, then “peace and its blessings would have prevailed.” Instead, because of radical agitation, “millions” of Whites would be “deprived of rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”
And these claims weren’t just hyperbolic bluster. Words mattered to Johnson as instruments of power. He prided himself on being a charismatic orator who spoke in the populist vernacular and connected with the masses. In his public speeches, Johnson reviled those Whites who supported Black civil rights, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, as traitors who were trying to “poison the minds of the American people” against him, and he vowed that he was as prepared to “fight traitors at the North” as he had been to fight Confederates during the war.
Johnson firmly believed that he represented the will of the people. Letters from constituents reinforced this idea. A voluminous correspondence decried the Radical Republican “reign of terror” and praised Johnson for his “fearless and patriotic defense” of white supremacy. He was emboldened, too, by the conservative press, which defended his leniency to former Confederates.
The bold lies Johnson offered up could be easily refuted. There was no postwar “Black rule” in the South, as African Americans remained underrepresented in political offices, even during the height of Reconstruction. Nor did the tales of White victimization hold up: The Republican coalition in the South refrained from any large-scale lasting disfranchisement of former Confederates, in part because Black politicians defended the absolute sanctity of voting rights as the bedrock of democracy.
But Johnson tapped into an extreme racism that was completely impervious to facts.
Republicans called out Johnson’s corrosive rhetoric as they drew up impeachment charges in February 1868. While most of the charges concerned Johnson’s violations of the Tenure of Office Act (in removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office), Article 10 condemned the president for his speech: the “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues,” and “loud threats and bitter menaces,” by which he had “attempted to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” The Article quoted extensively from an unhinged 1866 speech in which Johnson had denied any responsibility whatsoever for the white supremacist violence roiling the South, and in which he had cursed and threatened Radical Republican congressmen.
Johnson pushed back on this issue as the Senate trial unfolded and insisted that his public rhetoric had a single purpose: to show that Congress, and not he, was the source of the nation’s strife. “If I have advised the people of it in terms not exactly befitting a state document, it has been because the more pointedly the truth is told, the quicker the masses of the people apprehend it,” he maintained, touting his populist credentials.
In the end, Johnson narrowly escaped removal from office — the Senate vote on conviction was just one vote shy of the necessary two-thirds majority. He felt vindicated. But even as Republicans targeted Johnson with the ultimate political punishment, they neglected to wage a sufficient campaign against his ideas. This failure enabled his vision of racial supremacy as a zero-sum game in politics to persist and flourish.
Johnsonian rhetoric was featured in the Democratic Party’s 1868 presidential campaign, which cast its candidate, Horatio Seymour, as the champion of White men and the Republican Ulysses S. Grant as the symbol of Black rule. Johnson’s words lived on in the propaganda of the “redeemers,” who fomented vigilante violence to bring down congressional Reconstruction and then imposed Jim Crow segregation. They lived on in the cult of the “Lost Cause,” which romanticized the prewar South and trumpeted Confederate blamelessness. Johnson would nearly ride the tide of “redemption” back into power, winning a Senate seat in January 1875, only to suffer a stroke that took his life that July.
For all the differences between Johnson’s era and our own, a red thread connects Johnson’s vision of America — in which only one race can rule — with Trump’s words as he celebrated white supremacist and domestic terrorist groups that attacked the Capitol as “patriots” and insisted that his speech on Jan. 6 was “totally appropriate.” Impeaching Trump holds out the prospect of prohibiting him from ever holding office again. But even such a punishment won’t defeat Trumpism unless Americans recognize the lasting harm his words can still do and work to systematically discredit his ideology.