By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- More than a half-century ago, Lyndon B. Johnson came here to deliver a speech setting forth his vision of the Great Society.
It was perhaps the grandest and gaudiest, broadest and most breathtaking, political vision of all time: A society where poverty and prejudice were banished, where pollution was cleansed and bad schools were improved. "For in your time," the president told the 1964 graduating class at the University of Michigan, "we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."
The Great Society is but a faint and feeble memory in the Trump era, where government is distrusted and where lawmakers are pilloried as feckless captives of special interests and their own self-interest. But it is worth re-examining perhaps the most idealistic impulse of the 36th president in light of the far different vision of the 45th, for both men would be surprised if not appalled to see the links -- and we may better understand the profile of the current occupant of the White House in the contrast he has with this predecessor, whose presidency spanned the years 1963 to 1969.
It is startling to discover that the Great Society speech, labored over in haste but with eloquence by the wordsmith Richard Goodwin, contains rhetoric familiar to Trump. In those Ann Arbor remarks, Johnson spoke of the need "to build homes, and highways, and facilities equal to all those built since this country was first settled," adding, "so in the next 40 years we must rebuild the entire urban United States." In his inaugural address, Trump vowed to "build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation."
Johnson asserted that "it is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today" while Trump complained of "mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities." Johnson said that "most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified," while Trump spoke of "an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge."
Now there is no confusing the Johnson vision of an expansive federal government and big-spending social welfare programs with the Trump vision of a sharply curtailed federal government that is contemptuous of social-engineering theories. Neither man would feel ennobled by a comparison to the other.
But this examination of the two men may lead us to a deeper understanding of the role of Trump in our national passage.
He is no Johnson liberal, but he is also no Barry Goldwater conservative, nor even a conservative in Goldwater's historical lineage, which includes Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as president; and then Jack F. Kemp, who served in the House and the George H.W. Bush Cabinet and was a GOP vice presidential nominee; and then Paul Ryan, also a Republican vice presidential nominee and now the speaker of the House.
Ordinarily someone with Trump's political inclinations -- uncomfortable in his party's tent, holding some views that are congenial to the rival party, though from a far different perspective and with a far different style -- might be regarded as a bridge between the two parties. But that is not even a plausible argument; Trump's skill is not in building bridges, but in creating chasms.
Viewed with revulsion by Democrats who grudgingly acknowledge they may embrace his infrastructure spending impulses and viewed with skepticism by Republicans who distrust his motivations and are mortified by his comportment, Trump may truly be a post-partisan figure. A man who is dependent upon no one, a newly inaugurated president who prizes his independence, Trump may in fact be an Independent.
There have been several Independents in American politics over the years. Sen. Angus King of Maine, which has elected two Independent governors since 1975 and where Trump picked up a single electoral vote in the state's Second Congressional District, is an Independent, as is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump may have sought to establish links with Sanders -- both fought Hillary Clinton, and both thought the competition was rigged in her favor -- but the Vermonter is more accurately a democratic socialist, a description that no one would apply to Trump and that the president would consider risible. For his part, King is wary of Trump's suitability as chief executive and has opposed the president's selection to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is commonplace to say that Trump is like no political figure on the American scene, today or yesterday. But it is more than his style and manner of communication that set him apart.
He bears no resemblance to the last two Republican presidents, the two Bushes, nor to the last two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. He has little in common with Reagan, who also had an earlier profession, and has nothing in common whatsoever with Jimmy Carter, who also battled the Washington establishment.
No presidential candidate in modern times has drawn as heavily from the natural constituency of his rival party as Trump; he mounted a stealth raid on the blue-collar voters who were the mainstay of the Democrats since the Al Smith campaign of 1924. No president in a century -- Theodore Roosevelt is the lone possible antecedent -- has embraced an ideology that collides as forcefully with that of his own party: Trump wants to spend more money than is acceptable in the party of Bob Taft/Bob Dole austerity and has protectionist views in a party that hasn't had a major adherent of that creed since Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley in 1930.
And while Trump is often accused of being insensitive to minorities, that profile has historically been more prominent among Democrats (whose Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, along with Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, battled desegregation with unseemly passion). In addition, House Republicans and Trump have far different views on taxes.
Trump may be a member of the Republican Party, but he doesn't really belong there. He is surely not a Johnson Democrat. In the end, he may deserve the label of America's first Independent president.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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