• History
  • politics

A U.S. President Tried to ‘Purge’ Members of Congress From His Own Party. Here’s Why It Failed

5 minute read

When President Donald Trump met with House Republicans earlier this week in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill ahead of Friday’s vote on the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s healthcare overhaul, the meeting was apparently not exactly friendly.

“If you don’t pass the bill there could be political costs,” he told the members of his party, according to Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who was paraphrasing Trump’s warning to lawmakers. Failure to pass the bill would mean that “people could lose their seats,” he is reported to have said.

He is also reported to have said that those who do not support the bill could be “ripe for a primary,” and said that he was going to “come after” one notably recalcitrant representative.

That remark has been compared to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision in 1938 to personally back the primary opponents of incumbent Southern Democratic Senators who didn’t sufficiently support his New Deal policies.

Though it’s not a perfect comparison — and Trump’s remarks have been played down by the White House — experts tell TIME that it’s still a relevant one, showing that even the most powerful presidents don’t necessarily have the ability to oust members of Congress.

Of the 32 Senators up for re-election in the 1938 midterms, 29 were Democrats and nine were out of favor with Roosevelt — the “traitors,” as TIME called them back then.

“FDR felt these senators were too obliged to corporations’ interests in their states, too unwilling to recognize the unemployed’s need or the entire country’s need for social welfare legislation,” as FDR scholar William Leuchtenburg puts it. In addition to opposing the president’s “court-packing” plan for the Supreme Court, many of the dissidents also opposed a reorganization of the executive branch in a way that would have increased his power as well as The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which they felt “would undercut their sectional advantage in being a low-wage area,” Leuchtenburg says. (John Jeffries, author of the new book A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940, adds that the law also raised racial issues, as it would have increased pay for African-American workers in the South.)

The White House did not take a hands-off approach to trying to replace those nine. In fact, TIME’s June 13, 1938, issue reported that White House Secretary Marvin Mclntyre was said to have personally drafted incumbent Georgia Sen. Walter George’s primary opponent, Lawrence Sabyllia Camp.

It backfired. Not only did the men FDR supported against the incumbents generally lose, but the victors used their triumphs to make a point. For example, when South Carolina’s Sen. Ellison D. (“Cotton Ed”) Smith won “a fat majority of votes, the widest margin of all his six races” for the Senate, as TIME put it, he used his victory speech “to remind Southern Democrats of Franklin Roosevelt’s fondness for Northern Negroes.”

As the magazine explained that fall, FDR and his supporters had not necessarily expected to win every contest; the long-term goal was to create a “national political machine” of “Roosevelt Liberalism” for the 1940 election, cleansing the party of its conservatives even if fewer Democrats were in office overall. But even that goal “got precisely nowhere”:

Against the machines of the Senators unPurged, and reinstalled for another six years, the Purge machinery can hardly be expected to nominate delegates to the Democratic national convention of 1940. To perpetuate his Liberal program, in person or by proxy, Franklin Roosevelt must control that convention or found a third party and with it carry the country. After a Purge that did not purge, these tasks looked more formidable than before. Senator George sounded almost as though he were issuing an ultimatum to Franklin Roosevelt when he gently said last week: “All great Democrats bow to the will of the people.”

That November, Republicans gained over 80 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, leading TIME to characterize the results as “the greatest Congressional turnover since 1894,” when Democrats lost over a hundred seats midway through President Cleveland’s second term. Democrats may have maintained their majorities in both chambers, but the election was still demoralizing for a party that had boasted sweeping wins in ’32, ’34, and ’36.

TIME concluded, “If last week’s returns conferred a mandate, it was upon the Congress, not the President.”

Yet there appeared to be little long-term damage from the failed purge, as FDR went on to win a third term in 1940 — but the circumstances were extremely unusual. After all, as New Deal legislation slowed down, World War II was heating up. And, perhaps ironically, FDR soon found that he had reason to be glad the purge had failed: “The people who supported FDR in the buildup to the war were the Southern Democrats he tried to purge from the party,” says Susan Dunn, author of Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party.

And FDR wasn’t the only one to learn the limits of presidential power in this arena, says Tony Badger, author of three books on the New Deal and professor of history emeritus at the University of Cambridge. He also cites President Richard Nixon’s “largely unsuccessful attempts” to help defeat Democratic candidates in the 1970 midterms as an example of how difficult it is for a president to take down an incumbent member of congress.

So what is the lesson for Republican politicians as they head into the vote over the new healthcare bill?

If history is any indication, though their actions may sway voters, any concerted effort to replace them with more compliant congressional candidates would be a difficult battle. As Badger puts it, it’s very easy for a president to find a candidate with whom he agrees — but very difficult to find one who can win.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com