The administration of Ulysses Grant, 1868-1876, marks the beginning of America’s first Gilded Age, an era in which corruption was rampant throughout federal and state governments and a select few ruthless individuals—primarily white males—accumulated enormous fortunes, while incomes in general polarized and inequality of wealth increased. Over a relatively short period, business interests grew to dominate the one party that ruled both houses of Congress and held the presidency. At the same time, the southern states that had unsuccessfully tried to leave the United States experienced a secondary civil war engaged by white racists against the claims of citizenship and full participation in economic and political life of the newly freed black slaves. Violent guerilla attacks throughout the former Confederacy on blacks and whites who supported black equality combined with the vilest sort of racist propaganda in both north and south about the superiority of the white race and the relative backwardness of others.
Kind of sounds like today.
The difference, of course, was the president, Ulysses Grant versus the current occupant of the oval office.
First and foremost, on matters of race, Grant was the polar opposite of the white supremacist Trump. As Ron Chernow’s recent 900+-page biography of Grant details, our 18th president ardently fostered and protected the rights of African-Americans. Against the growing opposition of his own party, which grew tired of re-litigating the Civil War in southern states, he stood steadfast in supporting both the goals and the methods of Reconstruction. He gave an inordinate number of African-Americans jobs in his administration. He sent troops to a number of communities to fight the Ku Klux Klan and their allies. He never wavered in the respect he gave to African-Americans and the African-American people. Chernow studs his book with many examples of Grant’s generous and open-hearted support of African-American causes. When arguing about what white person did the most to help blacks in America, Grant should rate at the very top of the list with Lincoln and LBJ. In this sense, he was the anti-Trump.
(Not to get sidetracked, but on Native Americans, Grant’s attitudes were not as admirable, maybe equivalent to that of the “I believe in civil rights, but don’t move into my neighborhood” centrist bourgeoisie. He sympathized with Native American tribes, but wanted them to integrate into American society or live a non-nomadic life style on reservations. His desire to see the west settled was greater than his empathy for the peoples being displaced.)
While Grant ruled over a corrupt administration, he was not personally corrupt, nor did he benefit from the illegal and barely legal machinations of certain cabinet members and others in government. He established the first civil service commission as a temporary panel and wanted to make it permanent, only to be overruled by a Congress dominated by practitioners of an earlier form of crony capitalism. The Civil War had created an upsurge in government activity and governmental control of the economy: governments gave land usage rights and awarded large contracts. Without the constraints of a merit-based civil service system and adequate corruption laws, business moguls were able to buy legislation and administrative decisions. Graft lubricated the Gilded Age money machine.
The forces leading to corruption today—much of it legal or impossible to prosecute—are the privatization movement that encourages crony capitalism and the Citizen’s United decision which has enabled the buying of legislators. But instead of being an unwilling victim and mostly opponent of corrupt practices as Grant was, Trumpty-Dumpty and his family’s many conflicts of interests put him at the very center of the current administration’s corruption.
Another difference is in the execution of foreign policy. With the help of Hamilton Fish, his competent and honest Secretary of State, Grant focused exclusively on diplomacy to solve disputes with other countries (not including the native American “nations”). For example, historians consider the settling of the Alabama Claims by Grant and Fish as one of the most important steps in the development of international arbitration. That agreement got Great Britain to pay the United States for the damages done to U.S. ships by Confederate ships built in British shipyards. Brilliant! After his presidency, Grant took a four-year tour of the world in which he was consulted by the government of every country he visited as a great general and unofficial representative of the growing North American powerhouse that was the United States.
Sounds like the antithesis to Trump, who is tearing up treaties, getting us knee-deep in another shooting war in Syria and has the reputation in virtually every foreign capital as dangerously misinformed, offensive and erratic.
Grant’s background before assuming the highest office of the land has some similarities to but a major difference from Trump’s. Although both failed at every business they tried early in their careers, Trump’s fame came because of the self-promoted lie that he was a business genius, a lie boosted by the scripted reality TV program on which he pretended to be successful in business. By contrast, while he had many stumbles in his first military and his business career, once he returned to active duty at the beginning of the Civil War, Grant experienced unparalleled success, almost exclusively through his own competence. His reluctance to be a self-promoter actually slowed down his rise to the top of the Union armed forces, but made him a more effective general.
(Another diversion: The objections to Grant’s military greatness raised by southern apologists for the tactically sound but strategically hopeless Robert E. Lee all prove to be false. These historians, who dominated university history departments during the first half of the 20th century, aver that Grant won because he was a butcher —yet he firmly established and executed a policy to take from the civilian population only what was needed to prosecute the war. No rape, no senseless destruction. He was generous in his treatment of enemy soldiers who surrendered. Those claiming Grant won because he had a superiority of forces to Lee forget that the prior generals prosecuting the war in the east had a similar edge, but they failed to end the conflict. The claim that Lee was tactically better ignores the fact that Grant won every battle he ever led, typically with daring tactics like creating a safe 40-mile long supply chain through hostile territory to feed hungry Union soldiers at Chattanooga or his frequent use of naval forces to transport soldiers to the other side of enemy armies.)
The question is not whether Grant is the greatest general in U.S. history, but whether he is the greatest general in the history of organized warfare. A similar question could not reasonably be asked of a man who sent six companies into bankruptcy, has had a long string of failed businesses and has been involved in thousands of business lawsuits.
Observers all agree that the best words to describe Grant were modest, honest, disciplined and a man of his word. Another way that Grant is the anti-Trump, or Trump the anti-Grant.
Chernow’s book did reveal one similarity between the two men. Grant was and Trump is a true believer in strict pro-business orthodoxy in economic matters. Grant’s first administration enjoyed boom times, fueled by the rapid construction of new railroads. But Grant agreed with Congress that it was necessary to fight inflation by ending the policy of coining silver and helped to pass an 1873 law that essentially put the U.S. on a gold standard and deflated the currency. There was now less money around, which meant less money for railroads to borrow. The houses of cards which were the financial structures of most of the railroads toppled, starting with the Panic of 1873. Deflating the currency had a similar impact in 1873 as the 1929 stock market crash and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 did. All led to a rapid decrease in the money circulating in the economy. Some historians say that the ensuing world-wide depression started in 1873 lasted only six years, others say it went on for two decades!
Trump and the GOP have already set into motion the next major recession or depression through the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill of 2017. Because most of the money being taken from the government in this tax cut will be given to the ultra-wealthy, it will leave the economy and instead be invested in dead assets. A bubble will form in one or more assets. After it bursts, the hard times will come.
All of our presidents have been flawed. All have been products and reflections of their times, captive to the prevailing myths and enthusiasms of the ruling elite that identified them as appropriate candidates for national election. There are many examples of presidential actions reflecting the zeitgeist or their party: Grant in his obsession with the gold standard; Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting and his imperialistic foreign policy; LBJ with his escalation of Viet Nam; Nixon with his opening of relations with China; Clinton with welfare reform and mass incarceration policies; Obama with his continuation of Bush II’s wars. To a large degree, presidents are acted upon as well as actors.
It’s in that context that we have to consider the phenomenon of Donald Trump. He is the apotheosis of the narcissistic politics of selfishness and the gaudy materialistic and anti-intellectual culture of consumption that has dominated the Republican Party and America since the late 1970’s. If Trump is our great national shame, it is not because he is an outlier, but rather because he is a symbol of the times.