History Can’t Explain Donald Trump’s Election

In which I admit the limits of historical understanding

As a historian who writes about leadership and elections, I’m expected to have something interesting to say about major political developments. Students and colleagues look to me for historical explanations of current events, anticipating that I’ll be able to shed some light on them. I’m supposed to say, yes, my book can tell you why that happened. And most of the time, I can.

But here’s the thing: I can’t explain Donald Trump.

Yes, I can explain the emotional fervor of his cheering crowds; they act a lot like the crowds who responded to William Jennings Bryan or Billy Sunday. Yes, I can explain how globalization and its discontents among the white working class caused a political realignment. But Donald Trump actually getting elected? I don’t have any answers.

The fact is that Americans have done something that Americans have simply never done before.

Really, any kind of historical comparison seems inadequate here. William Jennings Bryan in 1896? Yes, but he didn’t actually win the election, and he was a lot more committed to democracy and the American political system than Trump is. Silvio Berlusconi? Despite his various antics, he was also more sincerely committed to his political program than is Trump. The 1852 election in France, in which French citizens willingly chose Louis-Napoleon for what they knew was the position of dictator? Marx said that was history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. What do we call the third time?

The fact is that Americans have done something that Americans have simply never done before. Prior to 2016, only one person with no political or military experience had ever been nominated for president by a major party, and that candidate (Wendell Willkie in 1940) lost the election. Another way of looking at this is through the DW/NOMINATE method, which analyzes politicians according to first-dimension issues (economic liberal-conservative) and second-dimension issues (issues specific to a given time period that fall outside that paradigm, such as free silver or the culture wars). Before 2016, no candidate foregrounding second-dimension issues as, say, William Jennings Bryan did had ever won the presidency. In 2016, that changed; the second dimension became the first dimension, for the first time in American history. Donald Trump broke DW/NOMINATE.

People want to know what’s going to happen next. Well, I don’t know. How can you predict the outcome of something that’s never been done before? If historians dare to predict the future, they do so by comparing it with the past. But Americans have never elected someone like Donald Trump; there’s just no reasonable comparison to be made. I’ve been telling my students that a lot more is going to change in the next four years than they anticipate. What will that change look like? Your guess is as good as mine.

Race, economics, emotions: all those things make sense. But Americans elected a reality TV star as president of the most powerful country in the world. I can’t explain that, and I don’t know what the future holds.

Author: Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is a Washington, DC-based historian and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.

2 thoughts on “History Can’t Explain Donald Trump’s Election”

  1. Is the problem that we’re looking for AN explanation instead of understanding what made the perfect storm to elect Trump? In my classes, I’ve started redirecting students from the Santayana quote about history repeating to the Twain-ascribed “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” As I think about it, I keep seeing echos of 2016. We have to go back to 1988 to find members of the same party succeeding each other. In 1980, 1932, and 1840 we had widespread economic discontent leading to the loss of an incumbent candidate (for argument’s sake, Clinton represented a continuation of the Obama administration for more than a few voters). It seems like 1920 could be read as an example of discontent with the status quo. Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, T. Roosevelt, and Eisenhower were all celebrities of a sort, even if it did stem from their military exploits. I’m also thinking implications that Trump is unqualified are a bit of a stretch as well. For many of his supporters, his experience as a “businessman” is not merely sufficient but actually a compelling feature. While politically experienced, neither Lincoln or Obama had much in the way of administrative experience, something (again according to his supporters) Trump has in spades.
    If anything, it’s the nomination of two individuals so widely disliked for which I struggle to think of an example. I suspect that’s where we’re most likely to find something resembling a single explanation. In Michigan, for example, the Secretary of State’s office reports a voter turnout of 4,873,033 and counts 4,785,223 votes in the presidential election. Understanding there are multiple ways in which a vote for president might not have counted, that’s still a difference of nearly 90,000 people who cared enough to vote but likely didn’t cast a ballot for the president. In 2012, the difference was less than 50,000. As less than 14,000 votes separated Clinton and Trump in Michigan, I suspect understanding these “conscientious objectors” might be the most valuable course of study for those brave enough to pursue the Trump phenomenon.

    1. That’s a good point, Patrick. Although I’d add that looking at conscientious objectors does more to explain why Trump narrowly won than it does to explain why the election was even close in the first place.

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