By James Carter
It seems with each passing day this nation moves closer and closer toward a genuine constitutional crisis, owing to the continuous instability and outrageousness of the Trump administration. Most of us have very likely lost track of many of its outrages even though some occurred only months or even weeks ago—doesn’t that dust up over the travel ban seem years old now? A few days ago, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, went so far as to liken the U.S. to the last days of Rome, due to its reliance upon and need of the military to provide support, stability, and order, in the absence of competent and able political leadership and institutions. The president has, if only reluctantly and haphazardly, become surrounded by what is uncomfortably termed the “axis of adults,” consisting of three Generals: James Mattis as Defense Secretary, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, and John Kelly as Chief of Staff. While providing some comfort in the near term, and under bizarre circumstances, this is an alarming development nonetheless in a nation built upon the rule of civilians and requiring civilian control over the military. Further, the president remains out of control, most recently equivocating and even implying sympathy for American Nazis and white nationalists, following the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va. Numerous reputable news outlets have warned of or announced a constitutional crisis—The Hill, The Washington Post, Politico, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, Slate, The Atlantic, Salon, CNN, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and on and on. Given Trump’s absolute refusal to admit wrong doing, some have even speculated that when/if pushed, he might simply assume far greater powers more akin to a dictatorship and use what he likes to call “my generals” to ensconce himself for the long haul. A truly frightening prospect indeed.
What might surprise some (and provide an odd kind of relief?) is the fact that we’ve been here before. That is, we’ve lived through moments that many contemporaries viewed as constitutional crises, moments that seemed ripe for the unconstitutional usurpation of power by some individual or group bent on steering the nation in a different direction. I’m not here referring to Watergate, an event that has lately become central in our national conversation on the issue of constitutional crisis. No, this episode unfolded decades earlier and, in some ways, much more dramatically exposed tensions similar to our own day.
The setting was the 1930s and the Great Depression. Following the stock market crash of October 1929, the U.S. economy collapsed, leaving millions unemployed. By 1933, the official unemployment level spiked to 25%. The nation was in the grips of the most enduring and deepest economic depression ever—and that is actually saying a lot. The newly elected administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with the experimental “New Deal,” rolling out what some called an “alphabet soup” of legislative efforts. This New Deal consisted of programs and initiatives designed to stem the freefall, stabilize the banking sector (the Emergency Banking Act, 1933), Wall Street (the Securities Act, 1933), the industrial sector (the National Industrial Recovery Act,1933), and the agricultural sector (the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933), among many other legislative efforts. So, prolific was the administration in quickly passing very big legislation that its early efforts became known as “the first hundred days,” and forever changed the way we judge the success of administrations.
That massive effort, the success of which is still hotly contested today, sparked a series of tensions that will be somewhat familiar to us today. While drawing broad support from labor and the working classes, women, blacks, etc., (it is worth remembering he was re-elected in 1936, 1940, and again in 1944) and forging the enduring “New Deal coalition” that lasted until 1968, many among the wealthy class and corporations on the political right loathed it and feared the example it set. Simply put, if the New Deal succeeded, it would forever transform people’s understanding of the role of government, and also the role of the corporations, now held by many Americans as responsible for the great crash and subsequent depression.
Accusations flew at FDR, accusations of communism, socialism, and fascism. He was criticized for expanding presidential power; his effort to control the Supreme Court in the so-called “court packing plan,” fed these charges and back fired badly. The right-wing opposition to FDR and the New Deal grew to crisis proportions in a little-known episode that emerged in 1934 when Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (ret.) testified before Congress the he’d been approached by someone plotting a coup against the administration. Butler, by then already retired from a storied career plundering for an imperial United States and referring to himself as “a gangster for capitalism,” told congressional investigators the plan was that he would be given an armed force of some 500,000 men with which to take over the government and install a dictator. The alleged plotters in this bizarre tale were none other than Wall Street financiers including J.P. Morgan and the Du Pont corporation, among others. Ultimately, the plot went nowhere; rather than play along, Butler revealed everything, a congressional investigation confirmed the general outline of the plan, and then did nothing. Just like that, the plot and memory of it fizzled. Although, those tensions remained, albeit subsumed in World War II which began in 1939. In any case, the Great Depression and New Deal exposed divisions within America over the role of government, the military, corporations, and working people that remain with us today.
So, we’ve been here before and it wasn’t pretty then either. I’m not suggesting these two events are the same. Indeed, differences abound. However, it might be worth taking stock of the fact that we have long lived with tensions over who holds and wields power in this country, over the role of the government, the military, and corporations. Times of great uncertainty and economic hardship have tended to expose these tensions. It is also worth continually reminding ourselves we live in a constitutional democracy and that, of the three of these power brokers in our society, only one is constitutionally of, by, and for the people.