Trump in historical context

Love this piece from Jamelle Bouie.  Just going to quote at length:

the truth is that Trump comes out of a long tradition of American illiberalism, from the 19th-century “Know-Nothings” who raged against the influx of Irish and Catholic immigrants, to the Reconstruction-era vigilantes and “redeemers” who terrorized black and white voters and overturned elected governments in the postwar South.

These authoritarian currents are always strongest at times of disadvantage, tremendous social change, or both. The America of the 1920s, marked by incredible inequality and a new influx of truly “foreign” immigrants, produced a proto-fascist mass movement of alienated whites, in the form of a new Ku Klux Klan, which claimed 2 million members (including a U.S. senator) at its height in 1924. Trump isn’t a herald for a new nativist fraternity, but his xenophobia, racism, nationalism, and clear disdain for democratic cooperation mark him as a fascistic figure.

But even more than that, he is a classic American scaremonger tapping into recurrent white American anxieties. And while Trump has borrowed his “silent majority” rhetoric from Richard Nixon, the man he most resembles is that era’s id, a demagogue who fed on the fear and anxiety of the 1960s and ’70s—George Wallace.

[great extended analogy between Wallace and Trump]

Which brings us back to Donald Trump. Everyone’s assumption, including my own, is that Trump will fade before voting begins. It’s a strong case. Trump’s popularity rests on his novelty as much as anything. He plays to the cameras, aware that politics loves a sideshow. But if the media goes away—if Trump can no longer titillate—then his appeal goes too, and he’ll leave the presidential race like every other vanity candidate.

The Wallace analogy, however, suggests a different path. What if Trump is more than just a clown? What if he’s unleashed a real constituency for nativist, authoritarian politics? Then it’s not hard to imagine how Trump, riding on his own wealth, keeps the show going into Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. And while our political system is fractured enough to deny him an ultimate victory, that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t matter. For the GOP—much like the Democratic Party in the 1960s—a successful Trump would force a reckoning. Either Republicans cut him out of the party, even at the risk of losing in a three-way race, or they follow Nixon’s example and co-opt his basic message for the party’s use, shrinking his base enough to win if he runs an independent campaign.

In which case, by leaving the mark of white nationalism on the Republican Party, Trump wins regardless of his ultimate fate.

Either way, we can’t just dismiss Trump as entertainment. Like Wallace, he is an eruption of the ugliest forces in American life, at turns authoritarian, like the Louisiana populist Huey Long, or outright fascistic, like the Second Ku Klux Klan. And like all of the above, he’s brought the background prejudice of American life to the forefront of our politics, and opened the door to even worse rhetoric and action.

Everybody is always looking for historical analogies for Trump.  While Wallace isn’t perfect, of course, I think Bouie’s case for Wallace is the best I have read so far.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Trump in historical context

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Trump’s tax plan will win him some supporters that so far haven’t fallen under his spell. It is progressive, significantly raises taxes on the Wall Street big gamblers, and says everyone is getting a tax cut. What’s not to like? Well, we’lll see how it stands up with objective analysis.
    It’s a much more serious and realistic plan on the surface than Paul Ryan’s.

    • R. Jenrette says:

      OK – the detail about abolishing the inheritance tax, which only taxes estates valued at over $5 million. We would be creating an aristocracy and we already have too much of that. Who is it that thinks democracy is served with more millionaires and billionaires accumulating huge wealth which they pass on to their children? Only the very wealthy. Next they’ll want primogeniture laws passed.
      That detail is enough for me to give the whole plan no further thought,

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