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The Populist Presidency vs. The Founders’ Presidency

with Stephen F. Knott

Presidential scholar Stephen Knott talks with us about his new book The Lost Soul of the American Presidency.

Reader Discussion

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on December 04, 2019 at 18:37:51 pm

Well, I have not read this book, but I do read lots of books. And for the first time on this site I listened to a book discussion podcast, leading me to the following observations:
1) "Populism" these days is typically and wrongly considered a pejorative word, as is ''nationalism." But populism (as nationalism) can be very good ( as it has sometimes been in the US) and, in the US, is not necessarily and has not even usually been bad. Some very effective leaders in the ancient world and the new are considered populists, e.g., Julius and Augustus Caesar, Washington, A. Lincoln, FDR and Donald Trump. These 4 presidents I would call good and highly important "constitutional populists," Washington as vital populist definer of the republic, Lincoln (after Antietam) and FDR (after Pearl Harbor) as vital populist defenders of the republic and Trump as vital populist leader of the republic's existential house-cleaning. Hence, one must judge a populist movement and a populist leader in part by judging the conditions that gave rise to populist power and by what was done with that power to address the conditions that gave rise to it.
2) Intrinsically all democracies and all political revolutions against tyranny bear the seeds of populism from which the roots of totalitarianism may grow, especially if populist leaders resort to demagoguery to strengthen, advance and preserve their power. But that isn't necessarily so where the cause is just and its support strong.
3) To pit the just many against the evil few can be said to be good populism. Such is the way of bringing death to oligarchy and tyranny.
4) The unruly passions of the many who have defeated the few must be checked if further tyranny is to be avoided. That is why the Founders designed a constitutional republic, not a democracy, in which all powers are specified in, limited to, divided and constrained by and accountable to the founding document as the people wrote it and may choose to amend it pursuant only to the constitutionally-prescribed procedure.

With that as my premise, in a 2d segment I'll comment on some of the points raised in the podcast

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Fustigate Plumply
on December 05, 2019 at 18:29:22 pm

Well, here I go with my promised 2d segment (which means, probably, that I am writing to myself:)
Rather that taking the effort to organize a reply to the author's and interviewer's arguments, I will simply list my thoughts seriatim as they appear in my notes from the podcast:
1) Hamilton was not an advocate for big government and certainly not for a welfare state, as he has been falsely described. He favored an energetic Executive limited to war and an energetic Congress limited to facilitating interstate commerce in the interest of national security and well-being (An A. Lincoln Whig before Lincoln was born). ( I do not understand why Hamilton's name was raised in a podcast interview about Presidential populism, Hamilton being the original unpopulist. BTW, the false info about Hamilton was generated originally by Democrats as political disinformation/ sabotage, as Professor Knott points out in his excellent book on Hamilton myths, which should be required reading for anyone trying to get a ticket to Hamilton the Broadway musical.)
2) Knott does a takedown of Jefferson (an ongoing, complex, much-overdue historical project these days) for (what I consider his bad) populist faith in the public wisdom (which I think he worked so dishonestly and cunningly to shape) and for his misguided reliance on majority will irrespective of its clear history of abuse in the colonies (not to mention France's descent into political madness and its ongoing Reign of Terror softly applauded by TJ.)
3) Knott suggests that Jackson resorted to populism to harm Indians, disenfranchise free Blacks and in disregard of the economic rights of the minority. (The latter two were true of FDR, as well, who would have steam-rolled the Native Americans too had it been expedient. So much for the history of the Dem's Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner and FDR's Four Freedoms.)
4) TR, Wilson and the domestic FDR were (for me, bad) populists who saw the presidency as the embodiment of the people's will (Shades of Nietzsche, Hitler and Mussolini?) and deployed their office in service to a tyranny of the majority (True dat) in order to remake America. Wilson most notably among presidents (until Obama crawled into office) had contempt for the constitutional architecture of his country. All three (bad) populists succeeded bigly in their goal of democratizing American politics ( I would say, not for the better unless you're a blue state, big city Democrat, support the horrible Seventeenth Amendment and seek, as did Jefferson, to abolish the Electoral College.)
5) JFK brought "rhetoric as leadership," a Camelot of soaring rhetoric and glittering personality (dressed in a morally-empty suit and fueled by a dearth of intellectual substance) that had the unintended? consequence of demeaning the office of the presidency while unduly elevating the public's expectations of it.

More later.

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Fustigate Plumply
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on June 17, 2020 at 06:29:41 am

[…] of America’s Highest Office (2017) can be read as a counterpart to an even more recent book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency. The latter’s author, Stephen Knott, a professor of national security affairs, tries to show […]

on September 15, 2020 at 08:12:47 am

[…] of America’s Highest Office(2017) can be read as a counterpart to an even more recent book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency. The latter’s author, Stephen Knott, a professor of national security affairs, tries to show that […]

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