No, we’re not talking about Donald Trump. During a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I was struck by just how many parallels there are between Lyndon Johnson and Trump. Liberals knew all about Johnson’s faults in the 1960s. But it was a different, more respectful media era, and his faults were underreported. The media were also willing to overlook them until Vietnam became a fiasco, because reporters liked his domestic-policy priorities in civil rights and his new government spending. “Would America have been better off without Lyndon Johnson in the Senate? And, consequently, without Lyndon Johnson as president?” asked historian Torsten Kathke, writing at his blog Thus, History! “It is a question of means and ends. Any answer can only be uncomfortable, but that is, precisely, the ground on which politics thrives.”
The answer that 91 mostly liberal historians gave for CSPAN’s new Presidential Historians Survey is clear. Despite all of Johnson’s character flaws and the Vietnam disaster, he was ranked as the tenth-best president. LBJ lost ninth place, by a historian’s hair, to Ronald Reagan, despite the Gipper’s manifestly greater integrity and honesty. Where Johnson excelled was in the category “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” There, he barely lost out to Abraham Lincoln, taking second place but still outscoring third-place finisher Barack Obama. In other words, Johnson’s ends canceled out his means.
With President Trump, conservatives are having to make similar calculations. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill are appalled by Trump’s bouts of pettiness and near-paranoia. But they also believe that they’re worth tolerating if it means that tax reform will pass, Obamacare will be replaced, and U.S. military strength will be restored.