Eminent historians: Donald Trump is the founding fathers' worst nightmare

Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg say John Adams and his son dreaded "ignorance and power aligned"

Published May 11, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; John Adams (AP/Getty/Salon)
Donald Trump; John Adams (AP/Getty/Salon)

Ignorance and power — it is this very combination that America's founding fathers feared would one day inhabit the White House. And look what happened! Historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, authors of the new book, “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality,” discussed this dilemma in an appearance with me on “Salon Talks” this week.

As the co-authors make clear, it’s not as if the founders never made outrageous accusations against each other — or never used partisan media to further those attacks. As Burstein notes, there was no golden age of politics in our nation where politicians were above backbiting and scurrilous personal attacks.

True, there wasn’t a Trump on Twitter calling people hashtagged nicknames, but as Isenberg explains, Andrew Jackson blamed the death of his wife Rachel — who died after he won the presidency but before he was sworn in — in large part on the harshness of the negative personal attacks leveled against both of them during the 1828 presidential campaign.

“The Problem of Democracy” focuses on John Adams, our second president, and his son John Quincy Adams, who served as our sixth president, and highlights their shared concerns over “hero worship” and the possibility that politicians might win elections not for their policy pronouncements but thanks to a “cult of personality.” In fact, both Adamses lost elections to opponents viewed as bigger, more charismatic personalities — John Adams to Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams to Jackson.

What truly united the founders was a shared concern that democracy could go horribly awry and destroy this new nation. As John Adams famously noted, “There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Adams was not alone among the founders in his concerns that the passions of the public could result in electing people who posed a threat to democracy itself. It’s impossible not to think of Trump when hearing these warnings from the framers.

In all likelihood, though, we will survive Trump. The next big unanswered question is whether Isenberg and Burstein's new book on the Adamses will inspire a “Hamilton” type musical. Can someone please get a copy of it to Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with authors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, or read the Q&A of the conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your book "The Problem of Democracy" is about two presidents, the second president of the United States, John Adams, and his son, the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. I think more people know about John Adams. John Quincy, less so. Let's talk about them before we get into the politics and the problems of democracy and understand them as human beings. First, John Adams. Can you tell us a little bit about John?

Nancy Isenberg: I think this is one of the things that people forget about the founders. They were politicians. They had enemies. One of the reasons that John Adams is interesting is that he's very open. Both of them kept detailed dairies. They admitted to their flaws, so there's something endearing about that, unlike Jefferson, who often didn't admit when he got something wrong.

They not only understood that personality was a part of politics, but both of them [were] interested in the psychology of politics. They really are part of the founding generation who realized that emotions matter, that emotions drive politics, that irrational behavior, not only informed when they talked about the fear of the mob, but of also informed elites because he was very aware that behind politics there always was ambition. Ambition would drive politicians. How do you balance the natural impulse for ambition and its negative side that the fact that people are grasping and greedy and are going to work for their own interest and not the interest of we the people?

This is where John Adams, I think, is a really interesting character, that he lets it hang out there so you know exactly what he thinks.

And John Quincy Adams?

Andrew Burstein: There's a curious parallel or a disjunction in that John Adams was riding the circuit as a lawyer and when his eldest son was born, he was nowhere to be found. He got back when his son was a week old.

John Quincy Adams was absent for all four years of his father's presidency, from 1797 to 1801. He was a diplomat serving in Europe, but he also fed his father key information, sources from the higher ranks of the European nobility. This is the rise of Napoleon and U.S.-French relations were at a low ebb. Their political relationship kind of reached the highest point when the father was president.

John Quincy Adams — his son Charles Frances, who served the Lincoln administration, wrote in his diary and mused about how his father was such a cold fish. How did he have a political career worth anything?

Whereas John Adams had it in for Benjamin Franklin, who he thought was way overrated and way past his prime when he was serving America abroad. The two of them ironing out the Treaty of Paris 1783 — John Adams called Benjamin Franklin the old conjurer, a phony. John Quincy Adams referred to his main rival, Andrew Jackson, as a barbarian who couldn't spell.

I think it's interesting. the parallels that you document so well in your book between John the father and John Quincy Adams. They are both one-term presidents, neither one got reelected and both lost to, arguably, cult-of-personality type candidates. Both were lawyers and both argued really infamous cases at the time. John Quincy Adams, loses re-election and then runs for Congress and serves there for years. We don't see that today. That level of public service is unparalleled.

Burstein: Seventeen years, from 1830 to his death. He died at his desk in Congress.

Isenberg: It’s something that's never been repeated. It was really interesting that he did that, because his father starts out in the Continental Congress. What's interesting about that, getting to the democracy issue, is that both of them believed that healthy Congress was essential for democracy.

This is why you can't equate Alexander Hamilton's federalism with John Adams' federalism. He believed in the importance of local knowledge, which is usually what the anti-Federals claim to be defending. He believed in the importance of the town meeting. He believed that essentially from infancy, he said you had to be trained to debate, to deliberate, to be able to articulate your interest to your representative.

Burstein: An informed citizenry. That's what mattered to the founders, the heralded founders we know about. This is the one thing they agreed upon, regardless of what the rest of their politics were like, was an informed citizenry, and that the information that they received from their elected congressmen was good information, reliable information. Maybe that sounds a little optimistic, but that was a major matter for them.

What I find really remarkable in your book is that the framers really had some problems with democracy. A lot of times we forget in America that our Senate originally was elected by the state representatives, not by the people, and James Madison said at the time that it was to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led. That comes up so much in this book — the concerns of the Adamses and others that America's just going to run amok, Americans are going to be taken over by whims and passions. What was going on at that time that made them so concerned about democracy?

Burstein: They cared most about balance in government, and they exhibited moral courage in that they never aligned with a party themselves. Technically, John Adams was a Federalist, but they stood above party, and parties were being used kind of like today, it's a straight vote.

What John Adams first foresaw, and this went back to the ancient Roman Cicero, who was a model of both of theirs. Not only the three branches of government come from Cicero, but the idea that the senate would represent the well-heeled but that no moneyed aristocracy would be able to dominate. They would be countered by the democracy which was lodged in the House of Representatives, the lower house.

Isenberg: And this is why he emphasized the importance of checks and balances. We hear that all the time, but he really believed in the importance of institutional balance because he assumed that fame and ambition was in every person's heart, and that no government structure itself, in a sense, is inevitably going to be perfect. You have to find a way to check the natural impulses of humans.

That’s what I think is important because, yes, they are concerned. They often equated democracy with mob-ocracy. So they're afraid, and that's from the classical sense that the mob will create anarchy. But they were even more afraid of oligarchies. They were more afraid of aristocracies that would pull the strings behind what John Quincy Adams would call "the smokescreen of democracy."

When democracy is all about having riotous campaigns, and even nicknames for the candidates. Andrew Jackson has the first full-length campaign biography, and [Adams] said that what gets lost through all of the theatrics is what's going on behind the scenes. What he zoned in on was that the real interest of the Jacksonian democrats were this alliance between Southern slaveholders and Western speculators. That's where the power was. It's the aristocracy performing for the masses, but in a sense, the people don't get anything in return.

Burstein: The context for this fear of mob-ocracy was the French Revolution. When John Quincy Adams was in Europe from 1795 — he was first appointed by George Washington as the minister to the Netherlands, where his father had previously served during the revolution and secured funding for the revolution.

The French Revolution was unfolding. The terror, the beheading of the king, Americans, especially the Federalist Party, was concerned that the pro-French enthusiasm in America — OK, get rid of the king, as long as the people get to rule — Thomas Jefferson believed as secretary of state, that things would iron themselves out.

The Adamses had a different view, and John Quincy was over there, as a clearinghouse of information. They had reason to fear, it was kind of like after 9/11. Panic set in, and there was the belief that you had to be on your guard, that Americans can be turned against Americans in 1793, '94, '95. George Washington's second term in office was fraught.

John Adams believed that Washington would not have gotten a third term, and that's why Washington so nobly decided to give up the presidency after two. It was because the French Revolution divided America into two sides; pro-French and pro-British. Where do you stand? The Alien and Sedition Acts, which is John Adams' presidency's worst moment, were also a result of the tremendous fear of mob-ocracy, of the French Revolution infecting America, coming to American shores.

Isenberg: The other thing, is that John Quincy Adams, when he observes what's going on in France — and this is what people forget about the French Revolution — after the terror, what happens at the end? Well, Napoleon makes himself into an emperor. This was almost imitating what had happened in classical republics, classical governments, the other extreme is once you have the imaginary illusion that the people are in charge, they turn around and elevate their hero into an emperor, who is even more powerful than a president.

You note that John Adams said, "There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Is that what he was talking about? We're going to usher in democratic change, we'll get rid of the monarch, and then we'll create a new monarch in a way?

Burstein: More particularly, what he meant by that statement—and this was in 1814, so he was already an ex-president—what he meant was that when the people exercise power directly, you'll have competition among the people. There's no level playing field, there's no social equality. So some people will become wealthy and powerful, and then you'll have an aristocracy of wealth.

When you have this inequality, it will lead to either a sort of revolt against those in power, the oligarchy, or the election of some kind of hero, a charismatic Napoleonic figure. In history, John Adams studied world history deeply, and concluded there never had been a democracy that did not come to this sort of end.

Isenberg: Just one more point: The thing that is so important about John Adams' critique is that he put class power at the center of politics. Essentially, he argued that it is always going to be a force. You can't assume the class politics are not going to creep into democracies or republics. I think he is very focused not only on the passions of the people, but on how you address the inevitable power conflicts that are going to be a part of the political arena.

That’s the other reason that we need to pay attention to them. We need to remember that politics isn't and shouldn't be — I mean, this is the other classical quote that I like. Plato and Socrates said that you have two options: Either you want statesmen who they compare to doctors, who give the people the harsh medicine that they need, or you have politicians who are like chefs who are just feeding people to indulge their worst appetites.

I think we see this all the time. We see the campaign as a big performance, people talk about likability and charisma, but then the policies always get pushed to the side, and they don't care about, well, do you want someone who can actually get something done, get legislation passed?

We have questions like, "Who would you like to have a beer with?" "Who would you prefer to drive across country with?" It seems that the framers were so weary of political parties for a reason. We look at it now, we see the manifestation. They were brutally honest about human ambition and about how people can be manipulated. We've seen it, not just now — not everything is Trump. We’ve seen people in the past, even Democrats or progressives who are charismatic, who can lead people without policy and lead them with promises of hope and change. You can see how personality sells over policy.

Burstein: The Adamses both were problem-solvers. They believed the purpose of government was to solve problems in a way that would benefit the majority of the people. That's what "public" meant. There was no golden age of democracy, there's no "Make democracy great again," because it was always a street fight, a brawl, and the personalities contesting one another, and the newspapers going after one candidate on the basis of the most crude, vulgar kinds of slurs.

It’s not like the founding fathers sat around and had these Cicero-type discussions, right? Both John Adams and his son used the media of the time. They had their own media outlets, in a way, that they were bankrolling to say the most scurrilous, outrageous things about their opponents. When you read “The Problem of Democracy,” and get a sense of our history, it's almost calming. What was their concern about political parties? How did they believe party politics might undermine democracy? 

Burstein: They called political parties factions, and no one wanted to belong to a political party. They said, well, this is the Federalist interest, this is the Republican interest, because the word "party" meant faction. As democracy provoked anarchy, what they called the "spirit of party" was a spirit of division. The Constitution did not recognize the inevitability of organized political parties.

Isenberg: The Constitution didn't recognize it, although as I've said, they should've anticipated it, because parties existed in Great Britain, and many of the newspaper people came from Grub Street in Britain, and used slander as an effective political weapon. What's interesting about John Adams is that he also compared the rise of parties, because he also studied dynasties and dynastic families, so he realized that they would use a lot of the same tactics, even in terms of promoting candidates, pushing candidates who had a prominent name.

He offers this beautiful critique of George Washington, this is in 1807, well after his presidency. He talked about the cult of celebrity around Washington, and he said Washington's most important trait was his handsome face. The second was that he was tall. The third was his elegant breeding, and then finally his large estate, that he was wealthy. It wasn't Washington's native intelligence that people were responding to. It was the fact that his image was everywhere. Everyone knew Washington's face, and that's part of the reason he was elected president.

I'm sure everyone has asked you this. What would the Adamses, who railed against the idea of a cult of personality and wanted smarter people who would inform the electorate and move them by policy, not passion — what would they think of Donald Trump?

Burstein: Well, what they hated most about the flaws in America's republic was the prospect of ignorance and power aligned, so I think there's no question. You don't have to ask, "Would they have been conservatives, would they have been liberals?" As they believed in an informed citizenry, they feared the combination of ignorance and power. I think that says enough.

The last thing here before we wrap up: Many people have talked about Trump being Jacksonian and Trump is certainly a fan of Andrew Jackson, which is ironic. Tell us a little bit about Andrew Jackson, and why people see Trump in Jackson or vice versa.

Isenberg: Trump has Jackson's picture on the wall, but I still think Steve Bannon told him to put the picture there, and Trump probably doesn't know anything about Jackson. But Jackson had very little political experience, as everyone has pointed out. He did serve in the military. He carried a bullet next to his heart from a duel. He was known for his duels, for killing someone in a duel. People were afraid that he was an autocrat.

He was known for being extremely passionate. He had legal training, but he didn't even recognize the normal pattern of the three branches of the government. He assumed that the courts and the executive were co-equal branches, which really meant he was in charge.

Burstein: Jackson was Trumpian in the sense that he believed that embodied the will of the people, and automatically expressed the will of the people. He didn't have to read or study, he just knew instinctively what was best for the people, and he rewarded loyalists. He gave the best land, when he was in a position to distribute land taken from Indians, to his closest confidants. He promoted people who were not always the best educated or the best informed, but people who were loyal to him. So there you go.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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