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.