By Kimball Shinkoskey
Those who place confidence in slogans like Make America Great Again, or Build Back Better, risk embarrassment down the road, if American history is any indicator. Presidents are monopolists of political power. Sometimes they actually deliver on their seductive promises, but most times they deliver the opposite, if they feel like it.
James Polk ran on a slogan of “54-40 or fight.” This was a clear promise to unleash the might of a brand new American imperial empire on the four winds. America, from the mid-1800s on, spread its skirts outward and reaped the benefits of influence and conquest like Rome of old.
A half century later, Theodore Roosevelt reminded voters that what America could not produce at home, we could grab by force from abroad. His philosophy was, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Another fifty years later, the nation heard, “Give ‘em hell Harry.” Harry Truman then introduced the nation to the hell of unconstitutional President-declared wars, starting with the Korean War.
Often, the slogan makes a little bit of sense, but a whole lot more nonsense. During a time of civil war in 1864, Abe Lincoln popularized the saying, “Don’t change horses midstream.” An electorate in a day of horse-mediated travel understood that the river current might tug so hard you might never get back on any horse at all.
That slogan became the mantra of presidents desperately unwilling to give up national power, even if it was un-American or unconstitutional to continue in office. Franklin Roosevelt used the same slogan in 1944 to successfully win his fourth presidential term and make him the first American ruler for life. Others after him, like George W. Bush, let the electorate know that because there was a savage and necessary war going on (that he started), why would they even think of changing leaders after only one term?
Over the course of our long, patriotic history led by macho presidents we also spent the flower of our youth on foreign soil with the end result of making dirty old rich men dirtier and richer, leaving the rest of the nation harassed and impoverished.
History has a habit of repeating itself. After a killer influenza epidemic and our first world war, a campaigning Warren G. Harding called for a “Return to normalcy.” Turns out Harding then introduced the American people to a different kind of “normal,” a level of political corruption that became the acceptable norm in the twentieth century White House.
What more seductive sound could one hear than a promise to reduce the work day by a couple hours? Woodrow Wilson brayed, “Vote for 8 Hour Wilson.” I wonder if employers had a little say about that too?
Very often, presidential candidates openly and scandalously promise what every American desperately needs and wants. Herbert Hoover promised “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Did he actually have the power to do that? George H. W. Bush yammered, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Then, of course, new taxes happened.
Ronald Reagan intoned the lyric, “It’s morning again in America.” But he forgot to mention that the new dawn he would create would move America from once being the greatest creditor nation in the world to, in his term, being the greatest debtor nation in the world. A dark morning indeed.
Most often, presidential promises just require a blind leap of faith. Mr. Trump’s team said, “Build the wall and crime will fall.” In 2020-2021 crime leapt like a wildfire across America. But no matter, sounded like a done deal at the time.
Robert Kimball Shinkoskey is a retired state government worker who writes about current events from a historical perspective, including The American Kings: Growth in Presidential Power from George Washington to Barack Obama (2014).