Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Election of 2020 is the Most Significant Since 1940

Apr 30, 2020

The Election of 2020 is the Most Significant Since 1940

tags: Donald Trump,2020 Election

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.

Every Presidential election in American history appears at the time to be the most significant election ever to have occurred.

But, in reality, very few elections are truly turning points in American history, moments when the future of the nation is at stake.

When one surveys all 58 Presidential elections from 1789 to 2016, it seems clear that four of those elections were crucial to the survival of the nation and its protection from long term harm.

And now, the Presidential Election of 2020 will, in this author’s and scholar’s estimation, join the other four in an all time list of turning point elections.

So which four elections were the most crucial, and why is 2020 so significant is the topic of this article.

Chronologically, the first election that tested the ability of the nation to survive was the 1860 election, when Abraham Lincoln faced three opponents—Stephen Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell—and won the Electoral College with 180 electoral votes, by winning the entire Northern free states except for a divided electoral vote with Douglas in New Jersey.  Lincoln also won 39.8 percent of the national vote, not winning any slave states. He came to office in a divided nation that was on its way to the Civil War, which raged throughout his term, except for the first six weeks and the last six days. The challenge of how to preserve the Union, and how to wage a war in which the South had tremendous advantages on military leadership, made the job of Abraham Lincoln ever more difficult, along with the divisions in his own Republican party on goals and strategies during a war that lasted four years.

The following election, that of Lincoln against his fired General George McClellan, as the Democratic nominee in 1864, was also crucial, as had Lincoln lost, there was no certainty that the Union would have won the war, since McClellan seemed willing to negotiate with the Confederacy,  rather than pursue a war that had reached a turning point toward ultimate victory.  In many ways, McClellan showed the disrespect for the Commander in Chief that General Douglas MacArthur later exhibited toward President Harry Truman during the Korean War in 1951. So McClellan running against Lincoln in 1864 was a crucial moment in a personal way as well as for the nation.  

It led to Lincoln deciding to remove Vice President Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate for reelection, in favor of Andrew Johnson, who sadly came to be seen as a disaster in the White House after the Lincoln Assassination.  Had Lincoln been able to realize that he would win easily over McClellan, he might have retained Vice President Hamlin, and the Reconstruction history of the South might have been different, in a more positive way. As it worked out, Lincoln won all but three states, and a massive Electoral College victory 212-21, and 55 percent of the popular vote.

Once the Civil War was over, while many elections certainly mattered in their outcome, it would be in 1932, in the worst moments of the Great Depression in the administration of Herbert Hoover, that an election would truly take place in a crisis atmosphere on the level of the Civil War.  Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the alternative of the New Deal, as the American capitalistic system was collapsing, and he would win an easy victory with 57.4 percent of the popular vote, an Electoral College victory of 472-59, and 42 of 48 states. Many scholars have asserted that the nation would likely have been in a revolutionary mood had Hoover remained in office, and the economic conditions could have become even worse in such circumstances.

While the New Deal did not solve the issue of the Great Depression, economic conditions did improve, but by 1939, the danger of Fascism and the Second World War presented a new challenge to FDR. The threat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan helped to promote a strong isolationist movement in the United States, a reaction to the disillusionment of the US engagement in the First World War. So by 1940, the America First Committee, the most powerful pressure group in American history at that time, formed, backed by many prominent people in politics, business, entertainment, and public life.  

As Nazi Germany began the bombing of the United Kingdom after the defeat and occupation of France in June 1940, FDR came to feel that he needed to remain as President. There was no constitutional limitation to prevent a third term, but the idea would cause great division in the nation.  Most of the candidates interested in the nomination for 1940 were promoting isolationism, and lack of concern for the survival of the UK, and that became the major issue.  The nomination of businessman Wendell Willkie as the Republican nominee in 1940 led to the issue of experience vs a newcomer to government, and the nation voted for FDR with 54.7 percent of the popular vote, 38 states to 10, and 449-82 in the Electoral College.  

A year later, the nation was in World War II, as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the nation, despite the earlier divisiveness, united, and the Great Depression was finally over. And while Wendell Willkie united in support of FDR and went on missions for him during the next few years, one has to wonder what would have happened had Willkie won, as he died in October 1944, a crucial time after D Day in June 1944 and weeks before the Presidential Election of 1944.  Further, his Vice Presidential running mate, Oregon Senator Charles McNary had died before him in February 1944, and there was no provision before the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967 for a replacement Vice President.  So FDR’s victory in 1940, was more urgent and significant than likely anyone at the time realized.

Now we are coming to the Presidential Election of 2020, as President Donald Trump, highly controversial and divisive, faces a reelection contest in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the greatest health crisis in American history since the Spanish Flu Pandemic under Woodrow Wilson in 1918-1919. As the First World War was ending, and the Versailles Peace Conference was in process, Wilson suffered for two weeks in Paris from the flu. He recovered, but it possibly affected his behavior and actions.

Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, present the oldest combined age of any pair of Presidential opponents, with Trump 74 and Biden 78 this year. With the nation deeply in an economic collapse that clearly is the worst since the Great Depression 90 years ago, and both men being senior citizens, the group seen as most likely to be victims of the COVID-19 virus, the nation is in crisis.  This reality, along with the alarm felt by tens of millions about the actions, policies, utterances and behavior of Donald Trump in this crisis, and his controversial record, including an impeachment trial and fears of his desire to wield absolute power and defy the Constitution and rule of law, make this election the most dangerous and profound election America has faced in the past 80 years.

So this upcoming election is crucial in so many ways to the survival of American democracy and the preservation of our Constitution and the revival of economic prosperity.

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