Before the coronavirus pandemic is finally under control, the U.S. economy will undergo its greatest shock since October 1929, when a stock-market crash initiated a Great Depression that lasted a decade. The unemployment rate will likely reach 15 percent by the end of April and could well drift up into the 20s soon after. So it’s natural to speculate as to whether the ignominious political fate of Herbert Hoover, the man who sat in the White House as the Great Depression began, awaits Donald Trump when voters deliver a verdict on his tumultuous presidency in November.
Hoover was elected president by a landslide in 1928, beating Democrat Al Smith by a 58/41 popular-vote margin and losing only six Deep South states. He was defeated by FDR in an almost identically sizable landslide (57/40) four years later, this time winning just six states, all in the northeast. His party proceeded to lose the next four presidential elections, and really didn’t gain any sort of stable parity with Democrats until the 1980s. Hoover’s name was indelibly associated with that legacy of defeat, and Republicans have never quite shaken the reputation for callousness he was thought to have shown as the Depression gripped the country.
The 31st and 45th presidents are similar in a few important ways, beyond a common Republican Party membership. They are the only presidents never to have served in any elected office or in military leadership. They both possessed great personal wealth before becoming president. They both held themselves in high esteem, and were known for stubbornly rejecting sound advice.
The two men also differed significantly in more obvious respects. Hoover was the consummate self-made man; he was orphaned at the age of 11 and performed a host of mentally and physically demanding jobs before he found his destiny as a mining engineer. Trump was the classic silver-spoon scion, and never distinguished himself academically or intellectually. Throughout his life, Hoover was addicted to hard work and believed deeply in science and technical expertise. Trump’s work habits have been erratic, and he famously does not trust experts. Hoover was devoted to his only wife, Lou, and never considered remarriage after her death two decades before his own. Trump was a playboy until well into late middle age, if not later.