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The Republican Warren G. Harding became the 29th US-President
Dr. Volker Mittendorf / Political Sciences
Photo: UniService Transfer

The specifics of presidential systems

In 1920 the Republican Warren G. Harding became the 29th President of the United States. His party colleague Donald Trump faces a re-election 100 years later. A conversation with the political scientist Dr. Volker Mittendorf.

The presidential elections in the USA are scheduled for 3 November 2020. Almost exactly to the day (02.11.1920), 100 years ago the Republican Warren G. Harding was elected as the 29th President of the United States. Many parallels connect Harding with Donald Trump. As a successful newspaper publisher he was very talented in public appearances, his period of government was accompanied by numerous scandals and an illegitimate affair was condemned to silence by bribery. How can the career of such men be explained?

Mittendorf: That is a specific feature of presidential systems.  Power is concentrated on a single person and that is of course a completely different system than here in Germany. We have a parliamentary system in which power is distributed among several people also in the cabinet. We also have the distinction between president and chancellor.  This means that this personnel factor is somewhat reduced and there is no extremely strong concentration on these charismatic personalities who have an effect on the population at large. In order to hold such an office, they also need the absolute will or the feeling that they like being the centre of attention. In a presidential election campaign, you have to like to stand and talk in front of people. There is a certain personality structure, a certain narcissism, which has to be particularly pronounced in order to aspire to such an office. You have to be able to put up with a lot of criticism or, as we see with Donald Trump, you have to react to it in a certain way so that the motivation to be president is not attacked by it.

In addition, Harding was a successful newspaper publisher, Trump is a successful contractor or comes from a successful family of contractors. You almost can not get into such a position in the US without a huge amount of own resources. That was the case in the 1920s and at least since the presidency of George Bush Senior this fact has increased significantly. From that time onward, the American legal system has de facto set almost no limits to private campaign financing and accordingly there are always rich people involved, people who have good connections in this area. It is rather unlikely that anyone from middle or lower class families can get into such a position.

Harding pursued and this too has been repeated, a policy of isolationism now known as "America first" and immigration restrictions (Trump's Wall Plans). Did the Americans forgot that?

Mittendorf: It was a different time. The difference is plain and simple: Shortly after the First World War, which also claimed many victims in the USA, military restraint had a high level of approval among the population. Isolationism at that time actually also meant turning away from a gunboat policy (assertion of economic and power interests). The USA and this can be seen somewhat less from an European perspective was in the second half of the 19th century of course very successful in converting military power into economic power when you look at the Pacific region. For example, Japan, among others, was forced to open itself up to American goods. It was against this kind of economic policy that Warren Harding turned. This has a different connotation than the alliance policy we have today, which we had during the Cold War or afterwards in a liberal-oriented alliance policy against which Donald Trump turns. Harding, unlike Trump, was a very liberal person. He had the image "All humans are equal".

In 1920 women were entitled to vote for the first time and Harding campaigned for their rights. He received 60.3% of the male electoral votes and achieved a landslide victory. What did he have that others lacked?


Mittendorf: He strongly supported the right to vote for women, which set him apart from the other candidates. And he had a high appeal in public. His appearances show that he knew how to present himself well. In addition, this war defense attitude was very well received by the population. So he was popular amongst women and amongst people who wanted peace.

Another parallel: Harding had a strong affinity for the media and was very open to the beginning of radio. A radio receiver still operated by the navy was installed in the White House. Donald Trump explains himself today unfiltered on Twitter. How important are the media for an election success?

Mittendorf: Innovation in media use, that is what distinguishes American presidential election campaigns again and again. You have to make yourself very well known in a relatively short time. In Germany we have a stronger party image-oriented electoral attitude. John F. Kennedy took the chance of the TV-media-duel very strongly for himself and was able to score against Nixon, Barack Obama was very successful with microfunding, i.e. with small donations as well as with community-oriented direct addressing of undecided people through volunteers and Donald Trump used Twitter very well. The USA is also much more open to innovation it is a more innovative culture than here in Germany.

Harding's speeches often contained verbal mistakes or errors of meaning. However, he insisted on writing his speeches himself. Critics accused him of terrible, faulty English. We know this from the acting president as well. Why are politicians in such leading positions not more careful?

Mittendorf: Because they don't have to. They don't have to be more careful. The American feeling "there is one of us", that is something both of them were able to convey very well. Trump can also convey this very well although he does not come from the working class. But through his habitus, his appearance he gives the impression that he is like one out of the white American middle class who has had success as one would like to have it oneself. This impression is reinforced by his bad rhetoric. It was probably not different with Harding. He seemed like one of the people who simply talks like he has grown a beak and therefore seems authentic. He also comes from the Progressive Movement, which partly emerged from the so-called Populist Movement.  And in this context, he has very strongly appropriated this turn to address the people. It is the attitude: We against the elites up there! That has become very strong today again. The elites in Washington, who express themselves in such a way that one cannot understand them at all. And then there is someone who talks like us. That is a different form of rhetoric from the one we know from Cicero, who made very intellectually sophisticated speeches, who thought very carefully about how to deliver a speech. The authenticity of American presidents comes precisely from the fact that they speak the language of the people.  Not only are slip-ups legitimate but they appear particularly sympathic and authentic.

A large-scale corruption scandal involving his advisors' staff put a strain on Harding's term in office, Trump is still accused of election manipulation in the Ukraine affair. Why do scandals like this not put an end to a government?

Mittendorf: You might think that a democratic population tends to say that people have to be particularly honest or whatever. But is that true? Who has not failed to declare something at the tax office? It is all about a feeling! The (president) can get something done, he knows how to do it and then maybe it is okay. In Bavaria they then say: A dog is he already! This feeling he is already a bit devious, but he does the right thing. You can ask yourself whether Donald Trump really wants the right thing because there are quite a few politicians in the Republican Party who are currently saying that he is actually someone who is following the will of Russia, i.e. not acting patriotically at all. For a long time, he has lived on the fact that he is simply assertive. And once one or two scandals have been dealt with one is considered to be assertive and that counts for more than the morally reprehensible. It can also be attractive to the public if someone uses dishonest means to achieve something for others - and supposedly for oneself.

Harding was close to the Ku Klux Klan, Trump said during the election campaign with regards to Latinos, "When Mexico sends its people, they do not send the best. They send people with a lot of problems and they bring those problems with them. They bring drugs, they bring crime, they bring rape." Despite repeated racist statements, half of the American citizens are still standing behind him. What are the reasons for this?

Mitt
endorf: Obviously something has changed in the USA. But this is also due to the fact that Trump's policy is not working very well during Corona. But it has worked for a long time. From what I have read, I am not sure whether Harding was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. What speaks for it is that the re-founding of the KKK took place around 1920 in his home state of Ohio. But many of his speeches are more likely to argue against it. The time was very racist, but his speeches were not. Harding's other decisions were also very much in favor of the separation of powers. They are the exact opposite of Donald Trump, who in principle sees the president as being above all institutions and considers himself superior to all others. Harding also made liberal, power-sharing, democratic decisions in the appointment of the federal judges, who fell into both terms of office, whereas Trump made anti-liberal decisions.

Harding died suddenly of a heart attack after three years in office. Trump is up for a reelection. What do you think his chances are?

Mittendorf: In April I would still have assessed them as very well. Now I am not quite sure anymore. It is because of his inactivity in Corona politics that the own electorate is hitted very hard. At the beginning there was obviously a feeling that it is more likely to affect the big cities, which vote democratically anyway. In the meantime it hits exactly those parts of the country where it has become a political attitude not to wear a mask. There, you now realize that this policy is not effective. Nevertheless, you cannot write off someone like Trump because, contrary to all predictions, he has always been better off than the election forecasts indicated. I still believe that the chances are there, even though no longer as great.

The weakness of the democratic party is also very obvious. The pre-selection mechanism has not been very effective. The party is extremely divided. The structural crisis in the United States consists above all in the fact that the former social mainstay, namely the white American middle class, is becoming extremely impoverished. At the same time there is no real strengthening of the immigrant classes, i.e. the Latinos, the Afro-American population.  This widening gap in income and wealth, which is now also affecting those who previously regarded themselves as the mainstay of society, makes the conflict so incalculable. The fear of the middle class of relegation and no longer being the elite has been a source of concern in America for more than 25 years.

"The positions of the parties are extremely divergent; in fact, in parliament, in congress, the party lines do not usually play such a big role. This can be understood very well through history. There have only been two extreme phases of polarization. One was in the 1850s and it led to civil war and today we have a historically strong polarization under Trump, although it started before Trump. There is relatively little that can be done to address these structural problems of inequality again and that is a negative prognosis for the post-election period.
So there are still a lot of explosive issues until the autumn and it still goes on."

There are many discussions in the US that point to a weakness of the American Constitution, namely that the transfer of office is not really well regulated and the problems when elections cannot take place. Currently, in the Corona crisis, the American Constitution does indeed allow the respective state parliament to send the electors to the Electoral College. And accordingly, it could simply be that the elections are declared unworkable. Then some republican states would simply appoint their electorates. And if that happens in the Swing States, then Trump might stay president and that would be a form of cold coup. It could also be, the transfer of office is not really regulated, the president must acknowledge the defeat. Someone like Donald Trump does not acknowledge a defeat no matter how obvious it is. Then the question is how do you get him out of office? This is a discussion that is being conducted very openly in the US at the moment. And if you look at the fact that the president is already sending the Homeland Security to democratic cities, you can think about what actually happens if he loses the election? Explosive issues that are not only discussed in the jurisprudence. These are problems that can certainly be taken into account due to Trump's personality structure.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 24.07.2020)


Dr. Volker Mittendorf is Academic Councilor at the University of Wuppertal (BUW). He is deputy director of the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research (IDPF) at the BUW. His fields of research include the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany, local political research, participation, effects of direct democratic procedures and argumentation patterns in election campaign communication.