Guest post by MJ Lisbeth
History repeats itself.
I was reminded of this while listening to the impeachment hearings. Pundits are referring to Gordon Sondland’s testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee as a “John Dean Moment”: a reference to the White House Counsel whose 1973 testimony before the Senate Watergate Subcommittee implicated his boss, then-President Richard Nixon.
However, Sondland tying a quid quo pro to the man who gave him a job (ambassador to the European Union) for which he had no apparent qualifications—aside, perhaps, from the $1,000,000 contribution he made to said boss’s inauguration—is not the only echo of a scandal from the past. As venal as Donald Trump and his administration have been, there is, sadly, almost nothing new about the kinds of corruption that have marked him and it—or, perhaps more to the point, what has enabled that corruption.
People even older than I am, some of whom are lifelong Republicans, regard Trump’s administration as the most corrupt of their lifetimes. Historians are already comparing him with the most unethical leaders in American history, such as Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.
The latter occupied the White House nearly a century ago. One of the darkest stains on his legacy was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall (such an appropriate name) leased oil-rich Federal lands in Wyoming in exchange for large bribes. For that, he became the first Presidential Cabinet officer to go to prison for a crime committed while in office.
Evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Harding’s election, didn’t seem to care much about the scandal, just as today’s Evangelicals (82 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016) don’t seem too upset that some of his associates, including his former lawyer, campaign chairman, campaign adviser and national security adviser, have pled guilty or been indicted for crimes committed in the service of their boss.
In another bizarre parallel with Trump, Harding had a number of extramarital affairs, including some trysts that took place in the White House. Oh, and some of the Ohio cronies he appointed to prominent positions helped to keep his shelves stocked with bootleg whiskey—after he himself voted for the Eighteenth Amendment (a.k.a. Prohibition) as a Senator from Ohio. Evangelicals, who—along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—supported the Amendment, were willing to overlook Harding’s flouting of the law as well as standards of sexual impropriety, just as today’s Evangelicals excuse “baby Christian” Trump’s two divorces, numerous extramarital affairs and sexual assault of scores of women.
In perhaps the eeriest and most damning parallel of all, Evangelical Christians’ support of two men whose behavior directly affronted the values Evangelicals professed had, at its base, the same essential motive: preserving their idea of a “Christian” nation. Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, helped to build the League of Nations but failed to get his own country to join it. His efforts were of a piece with his refusal to support Congressional efforts to restrict immigration: efforts that would finally succeed a year after Harding died in office, with the Immigration Act of 1924. One reason Evangelicals supported this legislation is that the massive immigrations of 1880-1920 were almost entirely non-Protestant (Catholics? Jews? Oh, my!) and were thus seen as undermining the “Christian” culture of this country. On the other hand, the League of Nations was seen as an attempt to subjugate America to the authority of outside forces that, presumably, would have opened the floodgates to people fleeing poverty, violence, natural disasters and political corruption in all corners of the world
Like the Harding-era policies supported by Evangelicals, Trump’s “America First” policy is an appeal to a yearning for a country based on “godly” American values that are undermined by immigration from poorer, darker countries. Thus, in another parallel with the Harding administration, “Christian” is conflated not only with the beliefs of a few Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but with whiteness and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Moreover, that vision of Christian Nation America is one free of “entanglements” with the rest of the world. That, along with the benefits that accrued to the Trump family and a few others in their income bracket, is a reason why Trump took the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (signed by his predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama) and other international agreements—and claimed that he did so because he was elected to “represent the people of Pittsburgh, not of Paris.” In doing so, he was able to present himself, to his supporters, as a champion of the “traditional” white “Christian” nation of which they were a part.
Such blatantly false appeals lead to the selling-out of the interests of this country. Evangelicals of nearly a century ago enabled the corruption that led to Teapot Dome and other scandals; Fundamentalist Christians of today likewise enabled Donald Trump to use the security of this country’s elections, and potentially of the security of this country itself, as currency in exchange for military aid to a country that, for decades, writhed under the oppression of Russia, its neighbor and former-US-enemy-turned-Trump-client.
History is repeating itself. Gordon Sondland helped to confirm that.