May 21, 2019

Trump has remade the bully pulpit

Roosevelt campaigning

Photo: Bettmann/Getty

JFK went on a public tirade against steel companies, as did Harry Truman. Woodrow Wilson nationalized the railroads. Dwight Eisenhower went after the "military industrial complex." And Teddy Roosevelt and FDR were aggressive populists.

Reality check: But President Trump may eclipse all his predecessors in terms of tapping and stirring public anger in service of his policies, historians say.

What's happening: Last week, the White House opened a web portal and urged people to use it to lodge complaints of censorship and political bias. The backdrop is a claim by Trump and other conservatives that the big social media platforms are prejudiced against them.

  • There is a long, colorful history of presidents leaning on the "bully pulpit," as Teddy Roosevelt called it.
  • But I wondered how common it has been for them to mobilize public opinion on behalf of their pet peeves.

Meg Jacobs, a Princeton professor, tells Axios that prior presidents have stirred public action in support of their policies, "but mostly at times of war."

  • Teddy Roosevelt famously whipped up public antipathy toward oil companies, railroads and the meat industry on behalf of his cases against trusts. He was not asking the public to do anything.
  • But "under FDR, the Office of Price Administration recruited half a million housewife volunteers to make sure the local butcher, etc., were complying with price controls. If not, this 'gestapo kitchen' brigade as its enemies called it, could report businesses to local OPA boards," Jacobs said.

"TR was willing to mobilize the public for the creation of new government agencies to then regulate business," Jacobs said. "Today, we have government agencies, but Trump is not actually interested in using them or empowering them as much as doing this kind of PR stunt."

The big picture: Richard John, a professor at the Columbia University Journalism School, said presidents routinely attack industrial sectors (including the media), and "jawbone" against companies not in their favor. But Naomi Lamoreaux, a professor at Yale, said such episodes often are simply not recorded. "I often find that things like this drop out of the standard accounts and so get lost to historical memory."

Read this: One thing that Trump has not done is to detail or jail corporate targets.

  • Under FDR, Sewell Avery, head of Montgomery Ward, was carried out of his office by the National Guard.
  • Under Eisenhower, seven electrical equipment executives served 30-day jail sentences for price fixing.

Go deeper: Trump bullies the refs

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