Eisenhower was tough on immigration, revamped American infrastructure, and took on corruption in Washington.
A Republican president who never held elected office wins by running against waste and corruption in Washington, carrying states GOP nominees don’t normally win — then deports illegal immigrants, takes American infrastructure to new heights, rattles defense contractors and fills his Cabinet with former CEOs and generals.
That Republican president was Dwight Eisenhower.
Rather than touting, “drain the swamp” and “crooked Hillary,” Republicans in 1952 attacked Democrats with a slogan of “Communism, Korea and Corruption.”
Supporters of President-Elect Donald Trump have routinely compared him to President Ronald Reagan, particularly since winning. Then again, Republicans compared President George W. Bush to Reagan. Reagan is a knee-jerk comparison, given that he was the most successful GOP president of the 20th century — reviving the economy and winning the Cold War. But he isn’t an apt comparison to Trump.
For one, Reagan was a doctrinaire conservative. Trump, like Eisenhower, defeated a doctrinaire conservative to win the Republican nomination. That’s not a knock on either Trump or doctrinaire conservatism, but simply a point that then-Ohio Sen. Bob Taft and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hewed closer to Reaganism than Eisenhower or Trump.
To be sure, there are plenty of differences. Everybody liked Ike, or close enough to everybody. As impressive as Trump’s 306 electoral votes were, Ike carried 442 electoral votes in 1952 and 457 in 1956, numbers you might expect from a guy who won World War II. Needless to say, he also won the popular vote.
While no politician, Eisenhower wasn’t a government outsider, having excelled in the military as supreme allied commander, and NATO commander. He could have boasted that everything he did was a tremendous military success — but he had a different temperament than Trump. Eisenhower was also an internationalist, while Trump wants to halt nation building, one area where Trump is probably closer to Taft Republicans of the 1950s.
So, this is not to argue the former president and the president-elect are clones — only to say that if you want to find an adequate comparison among past Republican presidents, Eisenhower would be it for a number of reasons.
Rather than touting, “drain the swamp” and “crooked Hillary,” Republicans in 1952 attacked Democrats with a slogan of “Communism, Korea and Corruption” to demonstrate failures at home and abroad. Democrats used to own the South, so it was significant when Eisenhower won Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia, just as it was a big deal when Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
While illegal immigration wasn’t a cornerstone of Eisenhower’s campaign, no other president has taken such strong action since.
In the 1950s, the country contained roughly 3 million illegal immigrants, which seems like chump change today — but Ike took it seriously. The federal government at the time projected about 1.3 million were removed under the Eisenhower administration’s immigration enforcement program. The number was likely smaller; nevertheless, with aggressive enforcement came self-deportation.
Politically connected ranchers and farmers often asked federal immigration supervisors to turn a blind eye, while leading politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson opposed border enforcement, the Christian Science Monitor reported. In 1954, Eisenhower put retired Gen. Joseph Swing in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Swing transferred entrenched immigration officials away from the border and the operation began in June.
Political resistance was strongest in Texas, so the effort began in Arizona and California. By the end of July, about 50,000 illegal immigrants were detained, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and another 488,000 in those states fled the country to avoid arrest. The INS estimated by September 1954, it had taken 80,000 into custody in Texas and up to 700,000 fled. Two ships, the Emancipation and the Mercuria, carried tens of thousands from Port Isabel, Texas, 500 miles south to Vera Cruz, Mexico.
During a 2015 Republican primary debate, Trump vowed to make deportations under his administration more humane than Ike’s.
Trump wants to rebuild American infrastructure, which is making some Republican budget hawks a little squeamish. In 1956, after failing a year earlier to get a national highway system through Congress, Eisenhower was finally able to sign the Federal Interstate Defense Highway Act, that would be 90 percent directly federal funded, and the rest paid for through taxes on fuel and tolls. The interstate highway system was indeed a major government project, but one that revolutionized the country and the economy. Trump is talking about improving roads and dilapidated airports, not a quantum leap like the interstate. Still, infrastructure — if done right, not as political payoffs — could boost the economy and Trump could seek private dollars to help pay for it.
Many conservatives were frustrated that Eisenhower didn’t seek to roll back the New Deal, while Social Security actually expanded under his watch. Similarly, Trump’s heart doesn’t seem to be in entitlement reform or major scaling back of big government. Rather, he wants to manage it more effectively.
Just as Trump will be nominating an oil CEO as secretary of state, Eisenhower nominated former General Motors CEO Charles E. Wilson as his defense secretary. But Eisenhower didn’t give Wilson the military budgets he requested. Much of the Left prefers to remember nothing about Eisenhower before his farewell speech that warned of the “military industrial complex.” Eisenhower wasn’t a dove, but did apply fiscal conservative principles to the military budget. Trump has taken on Boeing over the cost of Air Force One and Lockheed Martin over the cost of the F-35 planes. Trump is no dove either, and pledges to rebuild the military. Like Ike, he wants a good deal and to keep military contractors accountable.
There is no precise comparison between any two presidents, but as the Trump presidency unfolds, it will likely be worth monitoring some uncanny parallels with the great general who served as the 34th president of the United States.