Under the unique leadership of Donald Trump, the United States government is losing its ability to function. He is threatened by existing and imminent investigations and his impeachment is freely discussed. Two years into his term, he has had two secretaries of state, three chiefs of staff, two secretaries of defense (if you include the currently serving acting secretary) and three national security advisers. Less than half the country approves of what he is doing and his party just suffered a major electoral defeat, losing control of the House of Representatives. Now, the President’s insistence on some sort of wall on the southern border has led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Have comparable breakdowns ever happened before? Yes, a few times. The earlier episodes shed some light on what has caused our current crisis, and give us some idea of how it is likely to be resolved.
The first occurred in 1841, when, for the first time in U.S. history, a President, William Henry Harrison, died in office. His Vice President, John Tyler, succeeded him. Tyler and Harrison had been elected as Whigs and Harrison had been expected to implement the Whig program of a new National Bank, higher tariffs, and money for roads and canals.
It turned out, however, that Tyler did not believe in most of those things. Nearly his entire cabinet resigned in protest during his first year in office, and he vetoed several key measures, establishing himself as the most prolific vetoer in the history of the White House to date. He even vetoed at least one measure he had initially agreed to—just as President Trump has refused to follow through on some deals he has made.
Only the threat of a government default—yes, essentially a shutdown—forced agreement on key financial measures. Tyler’s relations with Congress got worse and worse, and the Senate failed to confirm a number of his appointments, while the House looked actively into the possibility of his impeachment. He tried to rebuild his authority by pushing for the annexation of the independent Republic of Texas, but lacked the strength to bring it about. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 1842, and the Whig Party joyfully dispensed with Tyler in 1844, only to see their candidate defeated by Democrat James K. Polk. The nation had limped through four years of chaos.
In 1865, for the second time, the death of a President—Abraham Lincoln—put a Vice President into office despite his being out of step with the ruling party. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was a “War Democrat” who had defied the secessionists in his own state, remained in Washington during the war, and received the Republican nomination for Vice President in 1864 in order to give the ticket the widest possible appeal. He was completely opposed to real equality for black Americans and rejected various Reconstruction measures and the 14th Amendment, which Republicans in Congress passed without him.
To keep the Cabinet in cooperative hands, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, later found unconstitutional, forbidding him from removing Cabinet members without its consent. In early 1868 Johnson defied the law by trying to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who supervised Reconstruction. For that, the Republicans impeached Johnson, who survived his Senate trial by a one-vote margin. Ulysses S. Grant was elected by a landslide a few months later.
The collapse of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, a third example of the U.S. government breaking down, began when Wilson had a series of strokes during 1919, while he was desperately trying to persuade a Republican Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty and allow the United States to join his new League of Nations. His second wife, Edith, persuaded his doctor to conceal the seriousness of his condition and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened.
Wilson could not answer his correspondence or see other officials except on rare occasions. His illness seems to have made him paranoid, and he became estranged from several of his closest collaborators. (Trump, likewise, has always had great trouble trusting those with whom he works.) He also refused to compromise in any way with Senate Republicans over the Versailles Treaty—and the treaty went down to defeat, leaving the victorious European powers all alone to cope with postwar problems and a resurgent Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The Democratic Party did not renominate Wilson, and Warren Harding won a tremendous Republican victory in November 1920.
A possible fourth example for this list is perhaps most obvious, but also—surprisingly—least certain to qualify as a breakdown. Having been re-elected by a huge margin in 1972, Richard Nixon by the late spring of the next year found himself consumed by Watergate, had to fire many of his closest associates, and became personally isolated while Congress investigated and prepared to impeach him. Such was the strength of the government at that point in history, however, that it continued to function anyway, as Congress handled domestic affairs and Secretary of State Kissinger took care of foreign policy. Nixon ended his term in ignominy, but with a cabinet of relatively able and responsible men, still doing the nation’s business.
In none of these cases, significantly, did the breakdown come to an end thanks to a reconciliation of the wayward President with the Congress and the rest of his government. Only the election and accession of a new President put the crisis behind the country. So isolated were Tyler and Johnson—who had never been loyal members of the ruling party—that they could not even win renomination for a second term. Trump still retains the loyalty of his party, as Wilson did, and may well be renominated if he chooses to run. But the midterm success of House Democrats suggests that he, like those three presidents before him, may see himself and his partly decisively repudiated by the country in the election of 2020. Meanwhile, these examples suggest, the United States has nothing to look forward to in the next two years but increasing chaos.
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 nine books, including, most recently, his autobiography, A Life in History. He lives in Watertown, Mass.