President Franklin Roosevelt speaks at the dedication of Roosevelt Square in Gainsville, Ga., in 1938
New York Times Co. / Getty Images
By David Kaiser
October 26, 2017

Although Donald Trump’s Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, the centerpiece of his legislative program, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, has failed to pass the Senate. Other plans for tax cuts and infrastructure may be threatened by party splits. But the President has another arrow in his quiver when it comes to legislative accomplishments, as he tweets his anger against specific Republican Senators, including John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The tactic has worked, as this week Flake joined Corker in deciding to give up his Senate seat.

Incumbent Republicans generally fared well against far-right opponents in the 2016 Republican primaries, but the President has introduced a new element into the situation. Though Corker and Flake gave their own reasons for deciding not to run again — the former citing his belief that Senators should not serve more than two terms, the latter pointing to the declining level of discourse in Congress — they evidently did not want to face an angry Republican electorate, which can be goaded to fury by almost daily presidential tweets in the midst of a campaign.

Trump’s conflict with Senators from his own party has an important historical precedent: the purge that Franklin Roosevelt unleashed against half a dozen conservative Democrats in 1938. As the New York Times noted earlier this week, FDR failed. Now, however, it seems that Trump has succeeded.

In 1936, after four extraordinarily productive years in office, Franklin Roosevelt won re-election by one of the largest margins in history, carrying every state but two, Maine and Vermont. His coattails also left the Democratic Party with its biggest Congressional majorities in more than a century, 334 to 88 in the House of Representatives and 74-17 in the Senate. (These figures do not include a few minor-party members in each house.) Roosevelt seemed to dispose of nearly absolute power, but dangers loomed beneath the surface.

This was, in particular, the first time that the Democrats had enough of a majority to exercise control of Congress even without their solid block of Senators and Representatives from the South. White southern Democrats, aware that black voters had turned out for FDR in large numbers, were worried about possible civil rights legislation. Those dissident Democrats saw their chance when the President—resentful of the Supreme Court’s nullification of various New Deal laws—introduced a bill that would have allowed him to appoint five new justices. The bill failed dismally in the Senate, and the rest of the New Deal agenda stalled as well. The President now faced a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats—one that dominated Congress for the next 26 years, until 1964.

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Then as now, the United States was in the midst of a great political crisis, and opinions were highly polarized. On one side stood Roosevelt and his progressive supporters, favoring an unprecedented government role in the economy and benefits for labor and the American people; on the other stood partisans of the market and states’ rights. In contrast to the situation today, however, every section of the country, including the South, featured both New Dealers and conservatives. Already, New Deal southerners—who tended to be liberal on everything but race—had fought spirited contests against conservative, openly bigoted opponents in Democratic primaries for the Senate and House, and many of them had won.

In the middle of 1938, as the historian Susan Dunn showed in her book Roosevelt’s Purge, FDR and a small circle of White House advisers decided to back primary opponents against four Democratic Senators and one Congressman who had played key roles in the opposition to the New Deal. These were Senators Walter George of Georgia (where Roosevelt had his second home); “Cotton” Ed Smith of South Carolina, an outspoken racist; Milward Tydings of Maryland, who had opposed virtually every major piece of New Deal legislation; the conservative Guy Gillette of Iowa; and Congressman John O’Connor of New York, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, who had kept a good deal of New Deal legislation from the floor. Although Roosevelt had little in common with his fellow New Yorker Donald J. Trump, he, too, liked to get out among the people and campaign, and during the summer of 1938 he traveled around the country and appeared at rallies endorsing his chosen candidates, some of whom, like Olin Johnston in South Carolina, were distinguished politicians in their own right.

But the purge was a failure. All four Democratic Senators won renomination easily, and the only scalp Roosevelt carried home was O’Connor’s, in New York, his own home base.

So far, Trump seems to getting better results. Flake’s and Corker’s states are as almost as solidly Republican now as Georgia and South Carolina were Democratic in the 1930s, and the winner of next year’s Republican primaries will almost surely replace them. Candidates endorsed by Trump and his allies are almost certain to win Flake’s and Corker’s seats. Though Flake has been portrayed by some as a hero of the resistance to President Trump, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fairly gloated over his departure. It proves her boss’ continuing ascendancy over our fractured political system. Other threatened Republican Senators are quickly mending fences with the White House.

Donald Trump’s election revealed that our political system as we knew it had collapsed. Neither major party could produce a candidate who could defeat his outsider candidacy. Trump has never commanded the allegiance of a majority of the American electorate—as FDR certainly did—but he has by far the largest, most devoted following of any political figure today. He may indeed strengthen his position in the Republican primaries and the general election of 2018, and he needs only a few victories to extend his success at the voting booth to the chambers of Congress.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

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