At S-USIH Blog: Herbert Croly, Unleavened Bread, and Progressivism in the Age of Charisma

In which I explain how I arrived at a fresh interpretation of Herbert Croly’s progressive philosophy

Over at the S-USIH blog, I have a post on how my reinterpretation of Robert Grant’s novel Unleavened Bread led me to a fresh take on Herbert Croly’s important book of progressive philosophy, The Promise of American Life — and to realize that The Promise was a book not about intellectual life, but about political charisma. Click here to read the post.

At Nursing Clio: Emotion and Fantasy: Marcus Garvey and a Blueprint for Modern Protest Movements

In which I explain why Marcus Garvey was more popular among American Americans than was W. E. B. Du Bois

I’m particularly proud of my new guest post at Nursing Clio, which argues that Marcus Garvey and Donald Trump prove that emotional appeals and uplifting fantasies are essential for successful political movements.  I’m grateful to the editors at Nursing Clio for their interest in my work.  Click here to read the post.

The Angel of History and the Race for DNC Chair

Walter Benjamin, Ed Miliband, and Keith Ellison have much to tell us about our moment in history.

klee2c_angelus_novusThe philosopher Walter Benjamin, who knew such times as these, wrote in 1940 of “the Angel of History.” The idea came to him while studying Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), a portrait of an angel who is being propelled away from the viewer and who appears stricken by the prospect. This, Benjamin believed, was the personification of history itself. “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin wrote. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” That was how history worked, Benjamin recognized. There is no learning from the mistakes of the past, for even as we try we are making the mistakes of the present, while we are propelled forward in time to meet an uncertain and terrifying destiny. That is why the Angel is agape in horror: his eyes are open to the tragedy of the past, but he has no power to prevent it from recurring, over and over. Continue reading “The Angel of History and the Race for DNC Chair”

At Religion in American History: Charisma and the Sacralization of American Politics, 1870-1940

In which we meet S. B. Morris and his “convicting Power”

Over at the Religion in American History blog, I have a post elaborating on the concept of sacralization as discussed in my book. Why did followers of secular charismatic movements describe their leaders in religious terms and compare them to Moses and Jesus Christ? To find out, click here to read the post. Thanks to Janine Giordano Drake for this opportunity!

For Presidents Who Lose the Popular Vote, A Difficult Path Ahead

History shows they often face substantial opposition — and have trouble getting reelected.

In 2016, Donald Trump became the fifth candidate in American history to gain the presidency without winning the popular vote. Let’s take a look at what happened to the other four:

– The first time (1824, John Quincy Adams), the candidate who won the popular vote (Andrew Jackson) alleged a “corrupt bargain,” ran again four years later, and crushed Adams by 13 points.
– The second time (1876, Rutherford B. Hayes), Gen. George McClellan threatened to raise an army and conquer Washington for Samuel Tilden, and the candidate was only allowed to take office after he essentially surrendered his entire platform to the other party by agreeing to end Reconstruction.
– The third time (1888, Benjamin Harrison), the losing candidate (Grover Cleveland) kicked up a ruckus about ballot-stuffing that led to the nationwide mandating of the secret ballot — and ran again and won four years later.
– The fourth time (2000, George W. Bush), we were subjected to a month of legal wrangling and two sets of recounts before Al Gore finally conceded — and many liberals still rejected Bush’s legitimacy during his first term.

If history is any guide, Donald Trump shouldn’t get too comfortable in the Oval Office.

It’s difficult for a candidate who’s lost the popular vote to claim any sort of legitimacy or mandate. George W. Bush was able to do so because of 9/11, which effectively reset the political landscape; the others, not so much. So don’t be surprised if Democrats fight the Trump administration from the first day to the last, just like parties who win the popular vote and lose the election have always done.

Let’s also look at the elections immediately following these instances of popular vote losers taking office:
– 1828: the losing candidate (Jackson) ran again and crushed Adams by 13 points. (He had won the popular vote by 12 in 1824, so there was little change in the outcome except for partisan consolidation.)
– 1880: neither candidate from 1876 ran again four years later, but nevertheless, in the closest popular-vote election in American history, the party that won the popular vote four years earlier came within 10,000 votes of winning it again. Democrats eventually won the presidency in 1884, in another close election.
– 1892: the losing candidate (Cleveland) ran again and beat Harrison by three points, despite the Populists taking eight percent of the vote out of Cleveland’s Midwestern flank.
– 2004: despite considerable popular good will left over from 9/11, Bush won reelection by only three points.

If history is any guide, Donald Trump shouldn’t get too comfortable in the Oval Office. Democrats will put up a strong candidate against him in 2020 — John Kerry’s three-point loss in 2004 was the worst post-popular-vote-loss performance of the four, and he still kept it close — and odds are, barring a 9/11-style reset, Trump will face a difficult reelection.

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.

At “Experiencing Billy Sunday”

Experience a Sunday revival through words, images, and sounds.

I’m proud of this web essay I wrote for The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, offering an immersive experience of a Billy Sunday revival, and aimed at a general (or classroom) audience. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it was like to see Billy Sunday and experience one of his revival meetings, this is just about the closest you’re going to get. Thanks to Chris Nichols for commissioning this!