U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Donald Trump and the Lessons of History

[The following post is lightly adapted from a Facebook post that I wrote earlier this week.  Its appearance here both reflects its popularity there and some of the limits of my own reaction to recent events. At the moment, I don’t have that much more to say.  Though pretty formal and essayistic for a Facebook post, I fear it may be a bit informal for this blog. Many apologies if it seems out of place here — Ben Alpers]

compromiseMillions of Americans from all walks of life have been filled with fear and dread by the election of Donald Trump. But American historians have been, I think, among the most upset. I obviously can’t speak for my fellow American historians, but I think I can put into words part of my particular concern as an American historian.[1]

With the arguable and partial exception of the period of Reconstruction (roughly and generously 1865-1877), between 1787 and 1964, the very basis of our nation’s unity was a bargain with white supremacy.

That began to change in a major way with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while we have not come close to banishing racism, the history of the last half century or so has been a struggle over how this country might continue on another, more racially egalitarian basis. And the hope has been alive that we might actually achieve a measure of racial justice in the United States.

So when a candidate gets elected to the presidency running on a white supremacist platform and begins appointing white supremacists to major positions of power, the reason so many of us are so insistent on not compromising whatsoever with him or his administration is not that such a compromise is impossible, but rather that, judging from American history, it is all too possible.

It is entirely possible that the experiment of the last fifty years could be brought to an end, and that the United States might, once again, return entirely to being a Herrenvolk democracy. For centuries, non-white-supremacist Americans of European descent compromised with, and built our nation on a partnership with, white supremacists.  Just yesterday, Robin Marie reminded us on the blog that, as late as the 1950s, many white, liberal intellectuals chose to remain silent on issues of race and the American past.  Today, the President Elect designated as his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Senator whose record on racial issues is so bad that he was turned down for a federal judgeship by a Republican Senate Judiciary Committee during the Reagan years because of his racism.  We cannot afford to take any more steps backward, toward once again becoming the country we were before the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Though all the signs are terrible, none of us actually knows how bad a Trump Presidency could get when it comes to the civil rights of Americans of color, LGBTQ communities, women, and members of religious minorities (among others). But though none of us can tell the future, Americans – including the historians among us – are faced with a kind of political Pascal’s Wager: If we assume the worst, fight tooth-and-nail against the Trump administration, and we’re wrong, the cost is much, much lower than if we “wait and see,” if we don’t assume the worst, and it turns out we should have.


[1] This post is strategy-free, in part because I don’t honestly have a clear idea yet what the way forward is.  But here are a couple thoughtful takes from historians Tim Snyder and Mike Davis.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ben: Like LD, I appreciate you bringing this here.

    For my part, most historians who care about the history of conservative politics (ideas and the movement) have long known that overturning New Deal and Great Society programs were an essential part of the movement’s long game. What hadn’t dawned on me, until the past six months, was that overturning the Civil Rights Movement was also a quiet but significant part of the agenda. I had often interpreted many anti-CRM actions by conservatives as discrete, or isolated and unconnected—as minor, not major, parts of the conservative agenda: opposition to affirmative action, overturning the voting rights act, opposition to all forms of reparative economic actions, opposition to busing, etc. The vociferous denials of racism by conservatives had me fooled. – TL

    PS: I shared Ben’s FB post with my friends, and the above comment was my gloss.

  2. It’s true enough, as Robin Marie puts it, that in this group, “race and racism itself, as a subject deserving of extended analysis and attention, went nearly completely unexamined.”

    At the same time, it’s worth noting that these topics were not totally absent, but were treated in terms of more general, sometimes theoretically grounded concepts such as prejudice, status anxiety, cultural politics and identity, the new right, pseudo-conservatism, etc. “Race and racism” implies alternative framings; but it already generalizes and abstracts from the particularities of black experience and history in America.

    Perhaps part of what sounds like silence here is a different way of speaking.

    • Excellent point, though I don’t think the terms of discussion are insignificant. At some level, understanding race as a problem of social psychology takes one away from understanding it as a political or structural problem. Though of course the two things intersect. The Brown decision was deeply grounded in social psychological understandings of racism.

      • Ben – Can’t disagree that race and racism are/were often viewed through social-psychological lenses, or that it’s not insignificant. That was exactly my point. I wasn’t recommending any particular conceptual description.

  3. Ben, I’d like to pick up on your last point about the Brown case and social science. The Trump victory is only the most dramatic example of the decades-long decline of respect for professional expertise. One reason Trump already appears to be the captive of the conservative-Republican establishment is because his lack of qualifications for the presidency are so glaring that he has to turn elements of the job over to those who had spent their lifetimes in the game—despite running as an anti-politician who will drain the swamp. The reality that a candidate with no prior government experience or even a record of engagement (or even familiarity) with public policy issues (who, for example, claimed to know more than the generals about Isis) could be nominated by a major party, let alone win, goes beyond merely a liberal-conservative divide and instead speaks to a deeper abandonment of reason and competence (Trump is a symptom the nation’s increased tendency to ignore facts, reality, and intellectual rigor).

    • I disagree about your assertion that Trump’s political rise “speaks to a deeper abandonment of reason and competence (Trump is a symptom the nation’s increased tendency to ignore facts, reality, and intellectual rigor).”

      Answer me this question, name a problem that our political elites have solved during the last forty years. Regardless of your political affiliation. Is the level of terrorism lower? Man made global change being solved? Has deindustrialism been reversed? Income inequality been ameliorated? Are we at full employment? Student debt been relieved? Are we at peace or are we conducting military operations in multiple countries? The only thing our politicians are good at is siphoning off money to their billionaire campaign contributors. A successful politician’s skill is pleasing oligarchs and crafting policies and “reforms” that contribute to the oligarchy’s bottom line.

      The average person realizes this and took tremendous joy out of watching him destroy the Bush and Clinton dynasties. I have no illusions on Trump’s desire and ability to deliver on his promises to the economically precarious in this country. they might not have read Sheldon Wolin’s thesis of “inverted totalitarism” but they have felt the effects of unfettered corporate power under the Republican and Democratic administrations of the past forty years. In 2006, the voters stated throwing out the Republicans, and in 2008 they elected an African-American president named Barack Hussein Obama who promised “hope” and “change.” They voters got more of the same and voted for the other party. Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats at all levels of government for six years now. Happens all the time in American history. Since the adoption of the 22nd amendment, only once, in 1988, has a party held the presidency for three consecutive terms.

      Also Trump is just the latest in a line of right wing strong men arising all around the world in the wake of neoliberalism’s failures.

      Sometimes a fool sees things the best. Warning NSFW language.


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