An incumbent President faces nearly impossible odds for his re-election bid. This certainly describes the state of the presidential race in 2020, with the brash outsider, Donald J. Trump, against the establishment favorite Joe Biden. Yet it also recalls an earlier contest, 72 years ago, which resulted in the Chicago Tribune prematurely declaring: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
“Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Hot off the heels of a resounding Republican Congressional midterm victory in 1946, the Eastern Establishment—the Eastern-based political elite representing the professional and business class of the East Coast (also described as “Protestant patricians,” and referring to what would come to be known as the Rockefeller Republicans)—and the Republican Party thought they had the 1948 election in the bag. Thomas E. Dewey, the respected son of a newspaper owner who came to be Governor of New York, seemed like an unbeatable challenger. Democratic incumbent Harry Truman, who assumed office following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was seen as little more than a lame-duck whose policy preferences were overruled by a Republican Congress hostile to his agenda. Republicans remarked, “To err is Truman,” and the President’s approval rating plunged to 32%.
Many of Truman’s detractors blamed him for everything that went wrong during his first term. A slew of hiccups and hitches held back the process of converting the American manufacturing base from producing munitions and military vehicles back to a peacetime economy. There was the great strike wave of 1946, in which miners, railroad workers, steelworkers, and other unionized workers launched crippling strikes, leading to shutdowns of entire cities. Furthermore, high postwar consumer demand for beef in the United States led to Truman reinstating price controls, causing a meat shortage.
Globally, just as soon as one foreign policy challenge subsided, with the Allied victories in World War II, the threat of global Communism loomed. The Soviets ascended to become America’s rival on the world stage prompting the President, on March 12, 1947, to unveil a strategy. Known as the Truman Doctrine, the approach sought to contain the spread of Communism by providing assistance to anti-Communist forces worldwide. Despite these efforts, the civil war resumed in China following the end of World War II, leaving Mao’s Chinese Communists with the upper hand.
“Truman was blamed for just about everything that followed World War II. His saving grace was that he simply didn’t care what people thought. And he told them so.”
A quickly shifting geopolitical context, and the economic crises at home, would have presented a challenge to just about any occupant of the highest executive office in the land. Keith Runyon put it best in a 2016 column: “Truman was blamed for just about everything that followed World War II. His saving grace was that he simply didn’t care what people thought. And he told them so.”
Nonetheless, Truman won, attending his second inauguration in January 1949—which also happened to be the first-ever televised nationally.
On the surface, Harry Truman and Donald Trump would appear to be polar opposites. One was a Democratic, self-made haberdasher from Missouri, who began in politics as a young age during the 1900 Democratic Convention. The other is a Republican from Queens who inherited his father’s real estate business and won his first political office in a rough-and-tumble Presidential election at the age of 70.
Yet there are many parallels between their styles of communications and campaigning, their appeal to working-class Americans who feel left behind by an out-of-touch Washington elite, and the extent to which political professionals portended inevitable electoral defeat for Haberdasher Harry—as well as The Donald.
TRUMAN AND TRUMP: UNLIKELY SIMILARITIES IN COMMUNICATION STYLE AND CAMPAIGN SUBSTANCE
Today, Donald Trump’s penchant for incendiary off-the-cuff remarks and tweets towards his opponents is just one of the reasons he is frequently described by major media outlets as “norm-shattering.” There’s no shortage of nicknames that the President will use to describe a political opponent. Take President Trump’s March 27, 2020 Twitter admonishment of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as ‘Gretchen “Half” Whitmer,’ an obvious play on her surname and the stock insult “half-wit.”
“You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America. Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.”
President Trump’s tendency to send out retaliatory tweets, and the criticism of Trump’s statements by other candidates, dates as far back as 2015 during his first serious campaign for President. On December 11, 2015, Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal tweeted to Trump: “You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America. Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.” Trump responded: “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.” A few days later, during a Republican primary debate hosted by CNN, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush famously quipped to The Donald: “you can’t insult your way to the Presidency.” (He was wrong, of course).
In September 2017, one professor in political rhetoric from the University of Kansas stated that Trump “is unscripted in an entirely different sense than any president I’ve ever seen.” Despite the suggestion of experts and other politicians, however, that such behavior by a U.S. President is unprecedented, it turns out that the 33rd President beat him to the rhetorical punch roughly seven decades earlier.
When Senator J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, requested that President Truman resign, in the wake of a paltry 32% approval rating amidst a crushing 1946 midterm loss, Truman indicated that he cared little for what Senator “Halfbright” had to say. On another occasion, President Truman referred to Fulbright as an “overeducated Oxford S.O.B.”
Fulbright was hardly alone in being on the receiving end of Truman’s barbs. One of the President’s biggest targets were members of the Republican Party, who he described as “bloodsuckers with offices on Wall Street.” Like President Trump today, who frequently describes the various situations and tenures of his political opponents as “a disaster,” Harry Truman dubbed the Republican-Controlled Congress as the “worst,” and branded it with the label “Do Nothing Congress.”
Truman’s re-election campaign included a “whistle-stop” tour by train that is very much the forerunner for Trump’s rallies: both candidates firing up crowds across the country. During the 1948 campaign, Truman hammered away at the economic elite, while highlighting his advocacy for working Americans became a major theme of Truman’s campaign. On September 30, 1948, at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Truman gave a speech in which he described his and FDR’s support for labor and working Americans. The President specifically described the Republican Party as being in the pocket of big business, remarking that it was “rubbing its hands in the hope of having another boom-and-bust spree under a Republican administration. They are in the same greedy state of mind that brought about the crash of 1929 and the Hoover depression.” He continued: “Already, the big business Republicans have begun to nail the American consumer to the wall with spikes of greed.”
His opponent Thomas Dewey, meanwhile, was the choice of the patrician “Eastern Establishment,” and was viewed as the inevitable president-elect by the Washington establishment. Paul Duke explained in a 1996 Washington Post article that, “Reporters, lulled into complacency by what appeared to be a certain Dewey victory, took their cues from the polls and stopped doing any real reporting. Accordingly, they ignored the rising enthusiasm for Truman and the huge crowds that he began drawing at almost every stop.”
Throughout the 1948 campaign, Dewey sought to avoid controversy and maintain support from moderate and conservative Republicans, speaking in generic platitudes, and seeking to appear calm and reasonable. Dewey’s polished image clashed directly with Truman’s strident, stalwart opposition to those who the incumbent President thought were exploiting average Americans.
Dewey’s polished image clashed directly with Truman’s strident, stalwart opposition to those who the incumbent President thought were exploiting average Americans.
Dewey ran on a largely generic platform, one that differed significantly from the approach of the more ideological conservative wing of Republicans led by Robert Taft, who Dewey defeated in the GOP primary. His coalition consisted of the northeastern business establishment wing of the Republican Party (what came to be known as the “Eastern Establishment”). As Dewey had previously practiced law with two Wall Street-associated law firms and was serving as Governor of New York, he naturally attracted support from elite financial institutions through his New York base and finance background, in addition to his views on foreign policy. Contemporary financial titans backed Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Biden today.
Union households heavily backed Truman. Labor unions opposed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was approved by Congress over Truman’s veto. While the vast majority of national labor organizations today have endorsed Biden, a handful of labor groups are rightfully wary of Biden’s past (and present) support for trade deals like NAFTA that encouraged offshoring of manufacturing jobs or his support for granting China entry into the WTO. They may also be appreciative of Trump’s pro-manufacturing stances. At a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the Boilermakers Union Local 154 endorsed President Trump for re-election. In addition, the largest American law enforcement officers’ unions, such as the National Association of Police Organizations, have overwhelmingly and enthusiastically thrown their support to Trump on account of his unequivocal stance on police funding and “law and order” rhetoric.
Appealing to African-American voters was also a part of Truman’s campaign strategy, which was ultimately successful due to his work on advancing civil rights. While he began his career as a local Missouri politician as a segregationist, Truman would later go on to desegregate the military after learning that African-American troops were mistreated following World War II. In 1946, Truman was angered to discover that African-American soldiers “were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.” On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the armed forces on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin.”
President Trump’s stance in favor of school choice, securing funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and work on criminal justice reform through the First Step Act of 2018, are three positions or accomplishments that the Trump campaign has similarly emphasized in order to appeal to African-American voters.
Catholic and Jewish voters also backed Truman. While it remains to be seen as to whether Roman Catholics in large numbers will support Trump’s re-election bid, many conservative Catholics may be inclined to back Trump. His nomination of two Catholics to the Supreme Court and reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy stand out as reasons some Catholic voters may give a victory to The Donald. Truman’s support for and recognition of the State of Israel garnered him backing from Americans of the Jewish faith. In the current century, Donald Trump has drawn support from conservative sects of the Jewish faith, in particular Orthodox communities, for his moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and brokering of deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. A recent poll from Ami Magazine found that 83% of Orthodox Jewish respondents would vote for Trump, while just 14% would vote for Biden.
We’ve all heard the old adage, written by George Santayana in The Life of Reason, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat them.” Will history repeat itself in November 2020? Only time will tell. Soon.