“If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”
—Donald Trump, November 22, 2016
I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it. Some FAKE NEWS media, in order to marginalize, lies!
—Donald Trump, February 6, 2017
Steve Bannon may be gone from the National Security Council, but he’s not gone. It is a great comfort that “based largely on an accumulation of data” Trump promises that he isn’t “any of the terms we could use,” because the terms I was going to use were “scary AF.” Meanwhile, the administration’s counter-terrorism thinking is still in the mind of Sebastian Gorka, who’s on the hunt for a flux capacitor so he can go back in time to murder my grandparents. And now it turns out that someone named Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, has been lurking around the Seychelles trying to broker a secret deal with the Russians under the auspices of the United Arab Emirates.
Who are these people?
If this were circa 1841, President John Tyler would be able to answer. Tyler is best known for the fact that somebody else died. When William Henry Harrison didn’t survive his first month in office, our young nation faced a constitutional crisis: it wasn’t altogether clear that Tyler, the vice president, would assume Harrison’s duties. So Tyler’s biggest success was simply establishing himself as president and thereby establishing an important precedent. But that didn’t stop his enemies from calling him “His Accidency.”
Accidental or not, Tyler had access to a secret slush fund that he dipped into to send one Duff Green, a man with a checkered past and what we’d now call borderline personality disorder, around the world to piss people off on behalf of the United States. Duff Green played Bannon, Gorka, and Prince to another extremely unpopular president short on better options.
Duff Green first enters the historical record in the summer of 1821, when he was elected to the first ever Missouri State Legislature. On the first day of the first session, he solemnized the occasion by insulting a colleague, dodging a pewter inkstand thrown at him in reprisal, and finally cold-cocking the hurler thereof. Ironically, ink turned out to be Green’s weapon of choice; he made his name as the editor of Andrew Jackson’s official newspaper, the United States Telegraph. It wasn’t quite Breitbart News, but Green’s communications strategy sounds uncannily modern. According to an observer, the paper “teemed with falsehoods uttered with the most positive assertion, as if they were gospel truths…. To contradict them was useless, as the contradiction could never overtake the falsehood, and this no one knew better than the editor himself.”
Most contemptible of God's creatures... The To: line of a letter to Duff Green
Pretty soon, the volatile Jackson broke with the volatile Green and vice versa. “I am no longer a Jackson man,” Green announced. “I am the advocate of truth & principle.” He was also the advocate of shady financial dealings, because he ended his journalism career and started speculating in coal mines and railroads in Maryland and Pennsylvania. It didn’t always go according to plan. Green had to beg President-Elect William Henry Harrison to persuade the repo man not to sell his furniture.
Indeed, when John Tyler took over the presidency, Duff Green was getting ready to sail to England to look for new marks to con into fixing his financial problems. The two men were old friends, united by their hatred of Andrew Jackson and a personal stake in the institution of slavery. Green suggested that Taylor pay him to engage in freelance diplomacy while he happened to be overseas. Evidently, Tyler thought it was a great idea to set a slavery-loving crank loose in an anti-slavery country we happened to be on the brink of war with, so he opened the government’s wallet.
...odious as he is rapacious and monstrous... Henry Clay on Duff Green
Green spent his time as an American agent telling the English that their country was scheming to secure a monopoly on all the raw materials in the world. Part of the plan, he explained, was to destroy cotton production in the American South by stirring up abolitionists with fake moral arguments against slavery. Imagine Rush Limbaugh writing in the People’s Daily that China is propping up Greenpeace with the goal of ruining the American manufacturing sector. (It’s disturbing how easy that is to imagine.)
As Green was impugning the English government’s motives, he was also lobbying it for a $5 million loan. He thought highly of his own progress, writing to his wife that he was “confident” of “one of the most important triumphs that any American citizen has ever accomplished.” Others thought differently. In refusing to publish one of his screeds in its pages, the London Times said that his “impudence amounts to a talent.” In the American papers, he earned the nickname “the ambassador of slavery.”
When Green got home from England, Congress investigated him. Tyler, though, rewarded him with an appointment as U.S. consul to Texas, which was for the moment an independent country. Green split his time between two endeavors—first, trying to convince the United States to annex Texas, and second, starting companies that would make him rich if Texas were annexed. He even tried to incorporate something called the Del Norte Company, which proposed to use 60,000 American Indians to invade Mexico. He offered Texas’s governor a kickback to support the venture; the governor said no; Green threatened a coup (seriously); and the governor revoked his consular papers.
Duff Green continued to pop up here and there, long after Tyler died, in 1862, as a member of the Confederate Congress (and therefore a traitor). In 1865, for example, Green ostentatiously refused to shake Abraham Lincoln’s hand. Lincoln responded by calling him “a political hyena who robbed the graves of the dead.”
Every now and then, Green would come close to confronting his own degradation. Once, embarrassed by his inability to pay his debts, he said, “I sometimes feel as if I were doomed—that it matters not what I may touch, it will fail… I seem a blight on all that I come in contact with.” But these insights were always safely swaddled in his distorted self-concept. “Perhaps it is in this that I have sinned,” he continued. “The fondest wish of my heart has been to be the source of happiness to others, and especially to my dear wife and children.”
Duff Green is not important. He is a footnote to a footnote (Tyler) to a footnote (Harrison). But for three years, he helped devise the country’s foreign policy according to the ridiculous worldview he developed to match the crazy world he constructed in his unstable mind. If he didn’t do any lasting damage, it was only luck. I wonder if we’ll be so lucky.
I have to admit. I kind of like John Tyler. I’m not saying he was a great president, but he was more human and more likable than most. You can learn about him in two very good, short biographies: Edward P. Crapol’s The Accidental President and Gary May’s entry in the American Presidents Series. As for Duff Green, there is one book you can read if you’re brave. It’s dense, it’s weirdly organized, and its analysis is, in my opinion, wrong. It is well-researched, however, so if you want to know about the man for some reason, the privilege can be yours. The book, by W. Stephen Belko, is called The Invincible Duff Green. Though Green didn’t die until age 84, he turned out to be vincible in the end.