President Trump and his backers have recently drawn a lot of attention — and outrage — by threatening something akin to a party purge: Republicans who don’t sign on to Trump’s agenda won’t be endorsed or funded. The uproar isn’t surprising in that it’s yet another violation of political norms in the Trump era. But it’s not an original tactic.
In fact, in the not-too-distant past, another Oval Office occupant tried to impose his will on his party as part of a broad-based rewriting of political norms that also saw him disregard the other branches of government, make expansive use of war powers and face accusations of being a dictator.
That president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Presidents push at the boundaries of their authority in lots of ways, and they bristle against the institutions designed to constrain them. FDR’s example shows how a president can successfully ignore political norms and break through institutional constraints, but also how institutions and citizens can check that power.
To clarify, that doesn’t mean that Trump and FDR are exactly alike, or really that they’re anything alike. There are obvious differences in demeanor, ideology, policy programs and political experience. And while we don’t have modern polling to tell us how popular Roosevelt was, we know he was elected — with healthy majorities — four times. He certainly has his detractors, but he frequently appears on expert survey lists of the greatest presidents. It’s too early to know what Trump’s legacy will be. But so far he’s less popular than any modern president has been at this point in his term, and experts expressed skepticism about his leadership from the very beginning.
Of course, FDR’s successes with the electorate and his high historical rankings don’t excuse his norm violations, nor should a review of his actions be read as a rationale for Trump to follow suit. But the extent to which Roosevelt was able to change other governing institutions and make them more responsive to his agenda demonstrates how much power the presidency really has. A leader who is determined to use it expansively will have plenty of opportunities to do so. At the same time, not all of FDR’s efforts to strengthen the presidency succeeded.
So what did Roosevelt try to do, and how did the system push back?
1. FDR tried to bring down Democrats who disagreed with him
FDR wanted to remake the Democratic Party from a patchwork party of urban machines…