President Donald Trump has called Democrats “treasonous” for not clapping during his State of the Union address. He’s mocked the minority leader of the Senate as “cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” And he’s tweeted that actress Meryl Streep is “over-rated.”
Still, Republican strategist Karl Rove said Thursday, the political discourse has been more “nasty and mean and vicious” in America’s past than it is now. Trump, he suggested, is not the worst this country has seen.
Speaking at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, where he studied for two years, Rove offered his take on historical partisanship that has caused deeper rifts.
“We have been in places where the American people soured on what was going on before,” he said. “We’ve been in places before where it seemed like the government didn’t work. And yet we look back and we gloss over those moments.”
That’s not to say Rove, who served as the senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush, supports Trump’s leadership. He’s called the president “graceless” and “a complete idiot.” And he said Thursday that “the trust in the presidency is back to where it was during Watergate.” But, as a history buff and an author, Rove recalled other eras more brutal and divisive in his speech titled “If you think it’s bad now, think again.”
The obvious ones are the Civil War and the Vietnam War, he said. The Civil Rights Movement “split this country.” There was also that time in 1798 when one representative attacked another with a pair of metal tongs on the floor of the U.S. House.
In the late 1800s, too, the House was at such an impasse that Democrats refused to respond to roll calls so Republicans wouldn’t have a quorum to pass legislation. One representative, William Harrison “Howdy” Martin, would sharpen a bowie knife on the sole of his boot in front of the speaker to intimidate him.
“I don’t remember Nancy Pelosi doing this with her stilettos,” Rove joked. About 50 people scattered through the auditorium laughed, including former Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
The brief government shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare and the one this year over immigration, Rove said, also don’t compare to the 107-day stalemate for the House to select a president after Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the election of 1800.
And don’t forget about William Jennings Bryan, he said, the three-time presidential candidate who disparaged most of the East Coast and argued the case for the prosecution when a Tennessee teacher was charged with breaking the law by talking to his students about evolution. (It’s worth noting that Steve Bannon, in his time as White House adviser, compared Trump to Bryan, saying the two are examples of great public speakers.)
So while “things are not what they ought to be” with Trump, Rove softly defended, “we’ve been here before.”
“We’ve been broken before. And we’ll be broken for awhile,” he said. We’re not going to get fixed in the next couple of years.”
But, he hopes, like in the past, the deadlock and divisiveness will end.