Few events in American political history have inspired more fear, dismay and anxiety than the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president. Never since the 19th century have so many Americans (and non-Americans too) regarded the outcome of a presidential election as illegitimate, or viewed the successful candidate as morally or intellectually unfit to hold the office.
Thomas Mulcair, the leader of Canada’s NDP, has even called Trump a fascist, a label that is unsuitable for several reasons. Fascism was a movement of young men (Mussolini took power at 39, Hitler at 43) who rose from obscurity in the aftermath of a world war, who founded new parties and whose followers dressed up in coloured shirts and fought brawls in the streets against communists and socialists. In countries with many Jews it was anti-Semitic. Its foreign policy was based on territorial expansion and imperialism; fascists claimed that their country needed more space to accommodate its population.
Trump, by contrast, is an elderly millionaire who became the presidential candidate of a long-established party. His followers don’t wear uniforms or fight brawls in the streets. His favourite daughter married a Jew (who is an important adviser to the President) and is herself a convert to Judaism. Trump’s foreign policy promises were isolationist rather than expansionist (although in practice his foreign policy has not been as radical a break with the past as some people expected), and his vast country has plenty of room for a population that is growing rather slowly.
That Trump is not a particularly nice man may be conceded without attaching an exotic label to him. His crude speech and behaviour rival those of Lyndon Johnson, who had a strange obsession with the word piss and forced members of his entourage to watch him sitting on the toilet. Judging by his first few months, Trump will not be a great president, but he will probably be no worse a president than the sad consecutive trio of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan, who dithered their way into the Civil War, or than Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln. In the 1920s the mediocrity of Harding and Coolidge inspired H.L. Mencken to write that maybe European countries had a better idea when they chose their heads of state by hereditary succession rather than allowing the people to elect them.
Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” which seems to alarm some people although I find it perfectly innocuous, has echoes of Lyndon Johnson (“The Great Society”) and John F. Kennedy (“Get This Country Moving Again”). His views on policy also have roots in American history. Anti-Mexican sentiment goes back almost two centuries to the siege of the Alamo. Hostility to immigration led to the “Know-Nothing” party in the 1850s, and later to the quota system that virtually ended immigration from Europe and Asia between 1920 and 1965.
Economic protectionism was Republican Party orthodoxy for almost a century after the Civil War; the Smoot-Hawley tariff act of 1930 carried protectionism to a level unlikely to be reached in any conceivable future. Isolationism, meaning a lack of interest in Europe and its problems, was a sentiment shared by most Republicans and many Democrats until the 1950s. Even Trump’s cosy relationship with the Russians, although genuinely disturbing, has a precedent in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, in which sentimental Russophiles like Harry Hopkins and Henry A. Wallace, and even card-carrying Communists like Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, held important positions.
Donald Trump is a populist, and the President whom he most resembles, Andrew Jackson, is often considered the founder and prototype of American populism. Like Trump, Jackson was a wealthy man who posed as the tribune of the common people and the enemy of elites. Like Trump he was already elderly when first elected president. Like Trump he was hot-tempered and impulsive, and seemed to be perpetually angry about something. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States during Jackson’s administration, was not favourably impressed by Jackson and would probably not be surprised by the emergence of Trump.
William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1896 at the young age of 36, was another populist who left a mark on American history, although he never became president. The most flamboyant and colourful American populist of the 20th century, and perhaps the most dangerous, was Huey Long of Louisiana, the model for Buzz Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here. In the novel, Buzz replaces Franklin Roosevelt as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1936, wins the election and establishes a dictatorship. In a very Long-like gesture of contempt for the elites, he offers his predecessor the post of ambassador to Haiti, which is politely declined. In real life Long, who had established a virtual dictatorship within his own state and was contemplating a run for the presidency in 1936, was assassinated in September 1935, just before the novel was published.
These examples are exceptions; there have been few populist presidents or even populist presidential candidates. A Republican was likely to win in 2016, since it is rare for one party to hold the White House for three consecutive terms and Hillary Clinton was a controversial candidate for several reasons. But why did the Republicans nominate Trump? The short answer is that none of the alternatives who sought the nomination was particularly inspiring. But their choice of Trump also reflects recent changes in the party system.
The founders of the American republic were suspicious of parties. They devised a system that would dilute the influence of parties by separating the legislative and executive branches of government, and they designed institutions, the Senate and the Electoral College, that would emphasize divisions among the several states. In response, the parties became decentralized organizations that emphasized territory rather than ideology and brokered a variety of interests through compromise rather than adopting a rigid party line. There was no need for party discipline since the president held office for a fixed term regardless of what went on in Congress. As a result there was much overlap between the parties. In the 1950s Democrat Lyndon Johnson helped Republican Dwight Eisenhower get his program through the Senate.
As recently as the 1960s neither “liberal Republican” nor “conservative Democrat” was an oxymoron. In those days “liberals” and “conservatives” (terms rarely used by Americans before the New Deal) had opposing views about taxation, spending and the relationship between business and labour, the issues that had dominated the agenda in the 1930s, but such issues could usually be resolved through compromise. Senators and representatives in Congress could vote against their party colleagues, or against a president of their own party, as long as they looked after the interests of their state or district.
Over the last half century all this has changed. Cultural and “social” issues that appeal to people’s emotions and are not easily resolved through compromise have largely replaced the traditional politics of who gets what, when, how. In response the parties have become more distinct from each other, more ideological and more centralized. A “liberal” nowadays means someone who has no religious faith (unlike Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who were devout Christians), believes abortion is a “right,” thinks homosexuality and lesbianism are normal and is convinced that straight men of European ancestry are the source of all the world’s problems. A “conservative” means the opposite. Most “liberals” live in large metropolitan areas close to the east or west coast and have been to university. Most “conservatives” live in smaller towns, rural areas and the inland states, and have not been to university. As “liberals” and “conservatives” thus defined have little in common with one another, the “liberals” have almost all become Democrats and the “conservatives” Republicans.
The “liberals” fired the first shots in the culture war by using questionable interpretations of the Constitution by the courts to override tradition, custom and public opinion. In Engel v. Vitali (1962) the judges decided that a brief nonsectarian prayer recited in schools at the behest of a local school board was an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” even though the Constitution explicitly states that the prohibition of establishing religion applies only to Congress, not to state and local government. In Roe v. Wade (1973) they used an alleged “right to privacy” to allow an abortion to a woman whose life was not endangered by her pregnancy, although neither privacy nor abortion is mentioned in the Constitution.
The “conservatives,” not getting much satisfaction from the judicial branch, responded by turning the Republican Party into a centralized European-style political machine. The “liberals,” subsequently and less successfully, tried to do the same to the Democratic Party. Both parties nowadays choose their presidential candidates through primary elections or caucuses in which only the ideologically committed are likely to vote, rather than through the traditional politics of brokerage. As the parties have become more distinct from each other and more centralized, the separation of powers between president and Congress has become unworkable. And since the courts seem to be where the action is, judicial appointments have become a tough game in which both parties are willing to play hardball.
In 1992 a precursor of Trump, another populist millionaire named Ross Perot, ran for president as a third-party candidate. He took enough normally Republican votes to deny the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, a second term that he well deserved for his achievements in foreign policy. Bill Clinton won the election with 43 per cent of the popular vote. That must have persuaded many Republicans that (to borrow a phrase from Lyndon Johnson) it was better to have a populist inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.
Having learned that lesson, the Republicans in 2016 found their ideal candidate in Donald Trump, who, unlike Perot, was already a celebrity when he began his campaign. If the hated liberal elites made fun of him, all the better. If his opponent was a charter member of the elites and the wife of a controversial ex-president, better still. In 2016 Donald Trump was just the candidate the party needed.