Interestingly, there are some odd similarities between Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) and the only Democratic president elected in the second half of the 19th Century, Grover Cleveland (D-New York).
Notably, Trump could think he can repeat Cleveland’s greatest triumph. Cleveland was the only defeated U.S. president to win reelection four years later.
In 1888, Cleveland lost the Electoral College vote to Benjamin Harrison (R-Indiana) by a margin of 233 to 168. However, Cleveland won the popular vote by a margin of 5.54 million to 5.440 million.
Why Trump wants to be Cleveland
In 1892, Cleveland won a rematch with Harrison by a margin of 277 to 145 Electoral College votes. Additionally, Cleveland won the popular vote by a margin of 5.557 million to 5.176 million.
No other defeated former president won reelection in American history. In fact, the two who tried; Martin Van Buren (D-New York) in 1848 and Millard Fillmore (W-New York) in 1856, could not win their own parties’ nominations. Both men had to make third-party runs.
Despite the history, Trump is pondering a 2024 presidential run, Axios speculates. Trump could win 53% of the vote in a hypothetical 2024 Republican presidential primary, a Politco/Morning Consult poll claims. Note: I consider these results meaningless because we do not know who Trump’s opponent will be and what conditions could be.
However, Trump; similarly to Cleveland in 1888, is still a powerful force and a popular figure in his party. Thus, Trump is an automatic front runner in the 2024 Republican presidential contest.
In contrast, Cleveland was comparatively young, he turned 55 in 1892. Trump, however, will be 78 in 2024. Thus, health could prevent the Donald from running in 2024.
Cleveland vs. Trump
The similarities between Cleveland and Trump are fascinating.
I can consider both Cleveland and Trump racists and white nationalists. Much of Cleveland’s support came from the Democratic Solid South. Indeed, you can consider Cleveland’s two elections as a reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Notably, Cleveland’s two terms coincided with the rise of the Jim Crow apartheid system in the South. Jim Crow stripped African-Americans of most constitutional rights, the vote, and political power.
For example, in 1890 the Louisiana state legislature passed law banning whites and blacks from riding in the same railcars. In 1896, the US Supreme Court upheld that law’s constitutionality in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Most historians regard Plessy v. Ferguson as the legal foundation of Jim Crow.
Cleveland, similarly to Trump, was the champion of a conservative and traditionalist America. I think Cleveland’s election was a reaction against industrialization and modernization in America.
Trump and Cleveland
In terms of foreign policy, Cleveland opposed expansion and colonialism and American attempts to annex Hawaii. Much as Trump claims to oppose wars in the Middle East.
Trump, like Cleveland, is continuing traditionalist policies to the bitter end. For example, Trump’s administration could hold six federal executions in its last weeks in office, Voice of America (VOA) speculates.
Thus, Trump broke with a long-standing tradition of delaying executions until the new president takes office. The last president to break with that tradition was Grover Cleveland in 1889, VOA notes. Significantly, President-Elect Joe Biden (D-Delaware) could end the federal death penalty.
Finally, Cleveland was a champion of a traditional economy and big business, much as Trump is. Most of Cleveland’s support came from the middle-class, small-town merchants in particular, who viewed the traditional American economy as the basis of their lifestyles.
Notably, the Associated Press credits small town America for Trump’s 2020 Election Day Surge.
How Trump Compares to Cleveland
There are some significant differences between Trump and Cleveland. Trump is a flamboyant business operator many people consider corrupt. Cleveland was a squeaky clean reformer and crusading lawyer.
Cleveland preferred the small-city pleasures of Buffalo and his native New Jersey countryside to the bright lights of the Big City. Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who has spent most of his life in Manhattan.
Oddly, both Trump and Cleveland have displayed a curious fondness for New Jersey. Cleveland spent his vacation in the Garden State and retired there. They interned his body in Princeton.
Incredibly, Trump appears to be the only person who vacations in New Jersey in the 21st Century. The Donald spends many of his vacations at his golf club in Bedminster.
There are similar political differences between Trump and Cleveland. Cleveland was a lifelong deficit hawk. In fact, the 24th President said, “it is a plain dictate of honesty and good government that public expenditures should be limited by public necessity, and that this should be measured by the rules of strict economy,” in his Second Inaugural Address.
In contrast, Trump is a lifelong Keynesian who once told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, “I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt.” Conversely, Trump filled his administration with deficit hawk conservatives who tried to cut welfare programs to the bone.
Moreover, Cleveland was a staunch free trader and opponent of the tariff. Trump is 21st Century America’s most prominent critic of free trade and champion of tariffs.
Cleveland’s Second Term could be Cautionary Tale for Trump and Biden
Like Trump, President-Elect Joe Biden (D-Delaware) displays some similarities to Cleveland.
Biden has a reputation as a socially conservative Democrat and a deficit hawk as Cleveland was. In addition, Biden has been a long-time champion of free trade in imitation of Cleveland.
Cleveland’s Second Term and retirement years could be a cautionary tale for both Trump and Biden. The major event of Cleveland’s Second Term was the Panic of 1893 the final act of the Long Depression of the late 19th Century.
In the Panic of 1893, a credit crunch led to widespread unemployment, business collapses, and wage cuts. Those events sparked strikes and labor unrest. Consequently, Cleveland’s second term was a long conflict between the President and labor unions.
Labor battles; such as the violent Pullman Strike of 1894, poisoned relations between labor and management and workers and divided public opinion. Cleveland’s actions such as using troops to break strikes made the situation worse.
One result of the violence was to push labor leaders such as Democrat Eugene Debs into the rising Socialist Party. Another was to convince voters that only Republicans could manage the economy.
Anger at the terrible economy drove a traditionalist and populist revolt in the Democratic Party, led by radical William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska). Bryan was a Trump-like figure who built an enormous following among rural whites with a mix of conservative, traditionalist, racist, white-nationalist, and populist rhetoric and attacks on big business and capitalism.
The Fall of Grover Cleveland
In 1896, Bryan drove Cleveland out of the Democratic leadership.
Democrats nominated Bryan causing conservatives, including Cleveland, to back the reactionary Gold Democrats. Bryan’s radical policies, which included free silver; a euphemism for inflationary economic policies, drove most economic conservatives and workers into the Republican Party.
As a result, Republican William McKinley won the 1896 presidential election with a margin of 271 to 176 Electoral Votes. Cleveland won the economic argument but lost the election.
One consequence of 1896 was that Republicans dominated America’s national elections until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Another consequence is that many reformers, many intellectuals, and some workers abandoned the Democrats for Debs’ Socialist Party.
Thus, Trump had better be careful what he wishes for. Cleveland got his second term, and it ended in dismal failure.
Trump and Biden repeat Cleveland’s Mistakes
I think Cleveland’s Second term could give us a glimpse of a Biden presidency. To explain, Biden; similarly to Cleveland, is a conservative trying to restore economic normalcy in a time of economic, social, political, and technological upheaval.
Similarly, Cleveland’s refusal to acknowledge the greatest problem of the Gilded Age rising economic inequality doomed his second term. Cleveland failed to take on the Robber Barons and push back against rising corporate power made him irrelevant.
I think one of Trump’s greatest failures was his refusal to address income inequality. Trump’s other monumental failure was to tackle rising corporate power. Although the Donald’s administration is making a few clumsy attempts to enforce Antitrust Laws.
I think Trump could have won a Second Term had he waged an aggressive campaign against Income Inequality and Big Business, in imitation of Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York). Moreover, I believe Trump’s refusal to challenge his party’s deficit hawks and fight for more coronavirus stimulus was a fatal strategic error.
How Trump and Biden could become Cleveland 2.0
Strangely, Biden could repeat both of Trump’s fatal mistakes. Biden is silent on the issues of economic inequality and big business, as Cleveland was. In addition, Biden is filling his administration with deficit hawks who will fight any efforts at Keynesian stimulus or welfare-state expansion.
I think both Biden and Trump are setting themselves up for William Jennings Bryan style populist challenges. For instance, Trump could have a tough time fighting a primary challenge from a Republican Keynesian such as US Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) or former Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado).
To explain, both Gardner and Hawley championed a massive stimulus. The charismatic Gardner will be out of work and seeking a new job in January. Since Gardner’s state, Colorado is deep blue, the best opportunity for Cory is the White House.
Similarly, Biden or his successor will have to contend with a populist insurgent challenge from Andrew Yang (D-New York) or a Bernie Sanders surrogate. Hence, I predict the chaotic politics we saw in 2016 will return in 2024 and become more divisive. A probable outcome is that either Trump or the Democratic standard bearer will go down in flames in the 2024 presidential primaries.
Consequently, Grover Cleveland’s presidency offers some lessons for our chaotic age. America’s politics will become more disruptive and divisive as our economy becomes unequal and unfair