It’s been said that history repeats itself. Take, for example, the supposed freakish parallels between the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Abraham Lincoln was first elected to Congress in 1846. John Kennedy followed exactly 100 years later. Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. After their deaths both were succeeded by southerners named Johnson. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot Kennedy, were themselves shot and killed before they could come to trial. Booth committed his crime in a theater and then ran to a barn. Oswald fired his rifle from the window of a warehouse and ran to a theater. Both Lincoln and Kennedy were shot on a Friday. Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater. Kennedy was shot in an automobile made by the Ford Motor Company— a Lincoln. Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln.
Kinda spooky, ain’t it? Not really. There are more dissimilarities than similarities. We tend to focus only on the similarities while ignoring obvious dissimilarities. For example, Lincoln was assassinated in April during his second term as president. Kennedy was assassinated in November before completing his first term. Lincoln was taken to a house after he was shot. Kennedy was taken to a hospital. Lincoln was a Republican, Kennedy a Democrat. Eight people were convicted by a military court for helping John Wilkes Booth murder Lincoln. As of this date, the assassination of Kennedy remains a conspiracy of one.
History doesn’t really repeat itself. There are no cosmic forces linked to unseen cyclical currents of impersonal energy moving us fatalistically through time. What we see as repetition is little more than the actions of sinful men acting out their worldviews for better or worse. Those who share similar worldviews perform similar acts. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald (notice the use of three names) shared, in principle, a similar worldview. They believed that they could get the best results by attacking the most powerful symbol of authority that stood in the way of their deranged goals.
This brings me back to the Lincoln that was made by Ford. Henry Ford, if you recall, developed the automobile assembly line and the five-dollar per day salary scale. What few people today know is that in 1922, during the Harding administration, Ford was considered a serious populist choice for president. His rags-to-riches story and his abilities as a Mr. Fix-it made him an attractive choice for tens of thousands of Americans. “A survey done by Collier’s Weekly in July 1923 . . . showed Henry Ford defeating President Warren G. Harding by a straw-poll vote of 88,865 to 51,000.”1 The polls showed Henry consistently beating every likely opponent.
By the spring of 1923 the New York Times was declaring that “Ford looms today a powerful and enigmatic figure on the political horizon”; that fall the Washington correspondent of the New York Herald asserted that “the astonishing growth of popular sentiment for Ford for President is causing deep concern to Democrats and anxiety to Republicans.” Senator King of Utah predicted that in an immediate election Ford would sweep the nation, and the first returns from a poll taken by Collier’s Weekly bore him out.2
A similar phenomenon is presenting itself in 2011 with the candidacy of Donald Trump. While Ford voiced his desire for the high office of President of the United States, the real strength of his candidacy came from a groundswell of popular support. “‘Ford For President’ clubs were springing up everywhere . . . [T]he clubs appeared to have genuine local origin, and . . . they had enlisted reputable citizens who, with no special axe to grind, greatly favoured Henry Ford over Harding.”3 A similar trend has happened with Trump supporters. Because Trump is a successful businessman, many assume that he will be equally good as commander-in-chief.
In the minds of many hard working Americans, Ford was like them and a good deal more. “To millions Ford had a Lincolnian quality. . . . [There was] the persistent belief that he was a magician who could solve any problem whatever.”4 Trump, like Ford, is perceived as a “genius” who can take his business acumen and can-do entrepreneurship into the political arena and fix the mess created by career politicians who have grown fat and lazy on government perks.
Henry Ford could make cars and fix just about anything, including, many believed, what was wrong with America. He would demonstrate his abilities in grand style by revitalizing a series of unused nitrate plants and deteriorating dams in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a $100 million leftover from World War I. Ford had plans of turning Muscle Shoals into a southern version of Detroit, a seventy-five-mile-long city connecting the dams and hydroelectrically powered industries that he would string along the Tennessee River valley. “Muscle Shoals was tailor-made for Henry Ford’s increasingly messianic ambitions, for it enabled him to present himself to the nation playing his strongest part: getting things done, mechanical things. . . . [H]is mechanical achievements spoke volumes, and here was a vast, practical project to which the Great Tinkerer could turn his talents.”5
We saw a similar type of candidate in Ross Perot. Newsweek said of Perot, “As president, he promises, he would be the national auto repairman ‘under the hood’ of gridlocked government.”6 Garry Wills wrote, “He will stick his head under the hood (no danger of getting grease on curly locks here) and save the contraption.”7
Trump, like Ford, wants America to believe that he is running as a true political outsider. Many historians like to point to 1912 and the first Progressive party dominated by Theodore Roosevelt as the model for today’s political quagmire. The Progressives — also known as the “Bull Moose Party” because Roosevelt boasted that he was as strong as a bull moose — were a factional division among the Republicans. But Roosevelt was still a political insider. He had been president from 1901 to 1909. Ford had no party squabble since he had never held political office. His popular appeal was generated by his ability to take a fledgling idea and novel business opportunity — the automobile — and turn it into a multi-billion dollar mega-conglomerate. He was viewed as a true political independent who — like Perot and Trump — used government when it suited his purposes and could make him a pile of money at the same time.
What’s the point in all of this? First, there is little that’s new in politics. We’ve seen the Perot and Trump phenomenon in Henry Ford. Promised messianic figures come and go. But who remembers? Maybe Ford was right, history might be more or less bunk. The way it’s taught in school today seems to give one that impression, unless it’s revisionist history. Of course, the Bible is a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness of American politics. Israel wanted a king riding on a white horse in a man named Saul (1 Samuel 8), even after God told the people that he would be a tyrant. No matter. They wanted a Mr. Fix-It king and got a tyrant instead.
Second, political saviors rarely work out. America is still living with the nightmare programs of the New Deal era. Americans gave extraordinary powers to Franklin Roosevelt to save them from the effects of the Depression, an economic foible brought on by an intrusive federal government. As time has passed we’re beginning to see that the cure may have been worse than the disease. Consider that our present Social Security System is modeled after the one proposed by Otto Von Bismark of Germany. P.J. O’Brien, in Forward with Roosevelt, writes, “Social Security is not a new idea and it’s the more to our shame that we have delayed these many years before moving to oppose these economic reverses. Other nations of the world are far ahead of the United States in battling his important economic problem. Von Bismarck, the founder of the German Empire, nearly fifty years ago launched a plan of social security.”8 William Shirer, the chronicler of Hitler’s Reich government, writes of Bismarck’s policies and Hitler’s attraction to them:
To combat socialism Bismark put through between 1883 and 1889 a program for social security far beyond anything known in other countries. It included compulsory insurance for workers against old age, sickness, accident and incapacity, and though organized by the State it was financed by employers and employees. It cannot be said that it stopped the rise of the Social Democrats or the trade unions, but it did have a profound influence on the working class in that it gradually made them value security over political freedom and caused them to see in the State, however conservative, a benefactor and a protector.9
Adolf Hitler also received inspiration from Bismarck. Hitler writes in Mein Kampf that he “studied Bismarck’s socialist legislation in its intention, struggle and success.”10 Germany under Bismarck’s iron rule, Shirer writes, “was the Germany which Hitler resolved to restore.”11 All the talk about “fixing the system” is simply the advocacy of more government to fix what more government messed up.
Third, messianic politics feeds on the cry of the people to “do-something.” “The idol state uses the language of compassion because its intention is a messianic one. It finds the masses harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, needing a savior.”12
We don’t need a Mr. Fix-It President. We need civil rulers who understand the limits of civil government and their own limitations as governors. The people who wanted Saul as their king were the problem. They wanted a superman to save them from their own desires for a caretaker State.
- Albert Lee, Henry Ford and the Jews (New York: Stein and Day, 1980), 8. [↩]
- Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill, Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933 (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 302. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1986), 213. [↩]
- Nevins and Hill, Ford, 301. [↩]
- Lacey, Ford, 212. [↩]
- Newsweek (June 15, 1992), 20. [↩]
- Gary Wills, “The Power of the Savior,” Time (June 22, 1992), 41. [↩]
- P.J. O’Brien, Forward with Roosevelt: An Authentic Narrative of His Life, Aims, and Ambitions, and a Graphic Story of His Endeavors for Social Security (Philadelphia, PA: The John C. Winston Co., 1936), 84. [↩]
- William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 96n. [↩]
- Quoted in Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 96n. [↩]
- Quoted in Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 97. [↩]
- Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Washington, DC: Regnery/Gateway,  1991), 185. [↩]