The word itself repels most Americans –It sounds totalitarian, fanatic, vicious and violent. For most, it conjures up the horrific spectacle of a presidential assassination. We have been there too often.
Our history haunts us. Four American presidents have been assassinated with another twelve attempted or foiled attempts against incumbent presidents, stretching from Andrew Jackson in the 19th century to Barack Obama in the 21st.
Five of these attempts were close calls during which the president could have died. Another two presidents, (Zachary Taylor and Warren G. Harding) were widely believed to have been poisoned, but persuasive evidence is lacking in both cases. Altogether, more than one in every three presidents has been the victim of assassination or attempted assassination.
Recently, a Missouri state legislator, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal discovered how repugnant the specter of assassination could be when she posted to her Facebook account, “I hope Trump is assassinated.” Public outcry was immediate and almost uniformly excoriating. She was removed from all her legislative committee posts amid strident calls for her resignation or expulsion from office.
Our bloody history doubtlessly influences our swift denunciation of anyone foolish enough to call down violence against a president. And that is any president, no matter how unpopular, controversial or despised that president may be. It’s a moral judgment, but also a political judgment, that removing a president by other than constitutional remedies are un-American, anti-democratic and wrong.
But, American aversion to political assassination should also be rooted in the compelling lesson from history that even “successful” assassinations usually don’t achieve the assassin’s goals.
Historian Miles Hudson’s book Assassination uses the ideas of sociologist Alfred Hirschman to explain why assassinations miscarry. Hirschman, who considered political assassinations a “fool’s errand,” believed assassination had three possible outcomes – all bad: “perversity,” “futility,” or “jeopardy.”
Perversity outcomes yield near opposite results from those intended by the assassin. In world history the assassinations of Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand are significant examples: Caesar’s killing, intended to save the Roman Republic, instead led to its end. Gandhi’s killer unwittingly brought about the caustic Indian-Pakistani enmity he intended to defuse, and the Archduke’s death spurred on a cataclysmic World War that imposed unimaginable suffering on the assassin’s own countrymen.
Equally perverse was the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler by German army officers in 1943 hoping to bring about an acceptable peace for the Reich. Instead, the would-be assassins were executed, Hitler became more unstable, and the German people endured even more suffering and loss.
Hirschman also believed most assassinations are “futile,” arguing they rarely result in any real change or “make a dent” as he put it. There are no “great men” in history, and simply removing someone from the scene makes no long-term difference.
The final argument against assassination is “jeopardy,” which points to the “unintended consequences” often unleashed by assassination. In world history, the assassination of the Romanov Czar Nicholas II is an example, as is the execution of French monarch Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
American history is rich in examples of assassins’ penchant for bringing about what they most hoped to avoid. Of the four presidents assassinated – (Abraham Lincoln (1865) James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963) – Lincoln and Garfield are prominent cases. But all four assassinations resulted in massively unanticipated consequences that transformed public policy and politics.
Lincoln is the quintessential example. John Booth’s killing of Lincoln was intended to help the South obtain a more advantageous peace; instead, it removed a president who intended to treat the former enemy with dignity and compassion, replacing him with a weak president unable to stop the Radical Republicans from imposing a tougher reconstruction on the defeated Confederacy. In assassinating Lincoln, Booth struck the South a blow greater than any of its enemies.
Garfield similarly illustrates the perversity of assassination. Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled job seeker hoping to exploit the then entrenched “spoils system,” shot Garfield after being rejected for federal jobs he sought. But instead the killing unleashed a massive public backlash against the spoils system, prompting a once recalcitrant Congress to pass the Pendleton Act, instituting civil service reform for federal jobs.
McKinley’s assassination in 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz highlights the boomerang effect many political killings produce. Czolgosz was almost certainly deranged and hence his motives are obscure. He advocated anarchism for fighting “oppressors,” such as McKinley. But, McKinley’s killing crystalized a massive backlash against anarchists, leading to the deportation of prominent anarchist Emma Goldman and widespread loss of support for anarchism.
John Kennedy’s death in 1963 remains mired in mystery because the motives of the apparent assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, have never been conclusively determined. But Kennedy’s killing nevertheless precipitated enormous unintended consequences. Succeeding President Lyndon Johnson used the outpouring of public grief to launch the “Great Society” programs, still the foundation for much American domestic policy.
Across all these examples, Hirschman’s characterization of assassination as a “fool’s errand” rings true. And the fruit of a fool is always failure. Assassinations don’t work and assassins don’t succeed. That’s the clear lesson across the thousand of assassins and attempted assassination in recorded history.
Remembering this seems like a good idea!