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The Political Rise of Donald Trump: A Historical Perspective

Updated on March 15, 2016

A Story of Change and Fear

Donald Trump, on many levels apparently, is a larger than life individual. To explain his remarkable and unexpected success thus far in the presidential campaign, it is therefore necessary to tell a big story. So in this larger than normal blog post, I will be digging deep into American history to explain the political rise of the Donald. For rather than representing something brand new, Trump is capitalizing on changes that can be traced back to our early years, changes which have produced throughout our history some very familiar fears and frustrations.

The history of the United States has paralleled one of the greatest economic transformations in the history of the world: the industrial revolution. More has changed economically in the past 240 years than in the preceding thousands of years, and the pace of change has only accelerated as time has passed. These changes have produced many benefits, and few modern Americans would like to go back and live in the late 18th century. But this transformation from a world of family farms, craftsmen, and small stores into a world of factories, huge cities, and large corporations has also created new problems.

One of the most profound problems created by these massive changes has been obsolescence. As the industrial world took over, the United States simply did not need as many farmers, and craftsmen and mom and pop stores were swept aside by factories, department stores, and grocery stores. Like it or not, many people were then compelled to move to the cities and take jobs for large corporations. For centuries, people had grown up assuming that they would be farmers or craftsmen like their parents. Most people were family farmers, knowing that if they worked hard they would at minimum have enough to eat. Now, these ways of life that had been so common for centuries were being swept aside, and for many, there no longer seemed to be any guarantees. And the older you were, the harder it was to face the fact that you had become obsolete. Suddenly, you had to start over in a world that you did not recognize any more.

Today, many would argue that we are living through a transformation comparable to the industrial revolution. This digital age of the internet, smart phones, computers, automation, and robotics has just begun to change the world even more quickly than was seen in the industrial age. And while this is creating tremendous opportunity for many, others are finding themselves swept aside. Certain types of traditional businesses like book stores, music stores, and even department stores are struggling to compete with technologies and businesses that make it possible to stream entertainment and to shop for so many things online. Automation, when combined with the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs that has been taking place for decades, has been wiping out the factory jobs (and some service sector jobs) that at one time had displaced the craftsmen. Like those farmers and craftsmen brushed aside by the industrial revolution, those who had been dependent on industrial age employment are finding themselves obsolete. And the older a person is the harder and scarier it can be to start over.

In the 19th century, luddites would sometimes destroy the machines that they believed were ruining their working lives. Today, you would be hard pressed to find many American luddites. In a country as entertainment and technology addicted as ours, few are going to smash their Iphones in an effort to fight back against the digital age. So some Americans, particularly older Americans, go looking for other scapegoats, and Donald Trump has done an effective job of providing plenty of them. He tends to get the most attention for his nativist (and many would say racist) statements, a topic I will address momentarily. But he gets less attention for a topic that he discusses more than any other: jobs. In addition to offering the generic Republican panaceas of providing generous tax cuts and of kicking out illegal immigrants who (supposedly) steal jobs, he spends a great deal of time talking about foreign trade and outsourcing, accusing Washington DC politicians of letting China beat us up economically. So in this sense, he is not just another free trade Republican, and he has found a very effective message at a time when so many are feeling left behind economically (and are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession).

This economic transformation, however, is only one of the changes feeding the fears that politicians like Trump often capitalize on so well. There is also the longstanding, deep-seated fear that this nation is becoming less American.

Even before independence, the English colonies were quite diverse. Many of the people who came to the English colonies were Dutch, French, German, or Irish. As time passed, and as certain people had roots in the colonies that went back for a couple of generations, colonists began to develop an identity separate from the homeland. They weren’t sure what it meant to be an American, but they had a sense that something new was being created here. After independence, this notion that there was something called American culture grew even stronger.

The United States became even more ethnically diverse in the mid-19th century when the first huge wave of immigrants began arriving. Most came from northern and Western Europe, with the largest number coming from Ireland and Germany. The Irish – escaping the potato famine by the millions - were probably viewed in the most negative light of any immigrant group in American history. They joined gangs, were willing to live and work in horrible conditions, drank too much, and, worst of all, were Catholics. True Americans were worried that the Irish would drag this newborn country down, and reformers looked to Americanize them as fast as possible.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the melting pot became even more complex as an increasing number of people from southern and Eastern Europe began arriving. These Poles, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Romanians, and Bulgarians, with their strange customs, languages, and religious traditions, seemed even more foreign than the Irish. “True” Americans, some of them (ironically) descendants of the Irish, were once again worried about the polluting influence of these foreigners. But these European arrivals, wherever they might come from, had one distinct advantage over the Asian and Latino immigrants who were more prominent in the Western United States: a white face. So after a generation or two, once the descendants of these European immigrants were fully Americanized, they were able to join the mainstream. But anyone with a non-white face would continue to be perceived as foreign and ethnic, a “hyphenated” American at best.

This flood of immigrants slowed in the 1920s when the era of open borders came to an end. As fears of foreign influence increased during World War I, stoked by government anti-German war-time propaganda, the federal government placed restrictions on the number of people who would be allowed to come. But these laws were designed to do more than simply regulate the numbers. They were also designed to ensure that the United States would stay a predominantly Caucasian nation, with more Europeans and Canadians allowed in than Asians, Latinos, and Africans. These racist immigration laws would stay in place until the immigration reforms of the 1960s, reforms that have played a significant part in making the United States a less white nation today than ever before. And if demographic trends continue, people of European descent will cease to be the majority very soon.

Before the 1960s, people could openly express anti-immigrant, racist sentiment without facing any repercussions. But since the civil rights era, all forms of prejudice are generally viewed as a bad thing. This does not mean, however, that traditional fears about the influence of “foreigners” have completely gone away. One of the main reasons why the party of Abraham Lincoln dominates the South today is because the Democrats in the 1960s became the party that was pushing a civil rights agenda that some saw as too extreme and threatening to the social order. As a general rule, Republicans have avoided making overt nativist and racist statements over the past fifty years. But particularly in recent years - in the wake of 9/11 and the Great Recession - many have accused Republicans of capitalizing on the latent fears and prejudices of some of their constituency.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was a clear sign of how much the country had changed. Many celebrated this historic occasion, but others were predictably concerned about the election of a black man with a foreign sounding name. It should not have been surprising, therefore, when rumors quickly began to spread about his birth certificate and religious beliefs. It was bad enough that Obama was a liberal Democrat, possibly even a socialist. He wasn’t even a real American. Instead of strongly condemning these conspiracy theories, some Republicans found it politically convenient for people to believe that President Obama was a Kenyan born Muslim. And Donald Trump, who should have been laughed off the stage for his ridiculous promotion of this “birther” conspiracy, emerged as a kind of leader. Latent fears and prejudices were bubbling more to the surface, and after years of increasingly heated Republican rhetoric about illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, the stage was set for the Trump campaign. With Trump continuing to draw a great deal of support in spite of his inflammatory statements about Mexicans and Muslims, it is clear that traditional prejudices against so-called foreigners are more prevalent than even the harshest Republican critics had previously realized.

These post-civil rights movement, post-immigration reform changes in racial attitudes and in the ethnic makeup of our country are not the only social changes that Republicans have capitalized on over the last fifty years. There was also the 1960s era challenge to traditional family values. With the hippies, feminists, and gay rights activists openly rebelling against traditional Christian social norms, pushback could immediately be seen from those seeking to defend their way of life. It is impossible, after all, to make any sense out of the success of the Republican Party over the past fifty years without understanding the role played by evangelical Christians and other “values voters.”

But this is one part of the story that does not seem to relate to Donald Trump. No one, after all, would ever accuse Donald Trump of being a great defender of family values. But in spite of this, many Republican evangelicals have been voting for him. Apparently, some Republican evangelicals have finally realized a simple truth: electing self-proclaimed Christian politicians has done next to nothing to make America a more Christian nation. This should not be surprising. Few sane people turn to politicians as moral role models, and if they do, they are bound to be eventually disappointed. The silver lining in all of this is that some Republicans have finally realized how much they have been manipulated over the past few decades. At least with Donald Trump, what you see in terms of family values is what you get. And while you may not like his family values, you may at least like his ideas concerning issues he can actually control.

There is a third major change, however, that Republicans have also been pushing back against for fifty years, a change that directly relates to the success of Trump. From the turn of the 20th century until the early 1970s, the federal government grew tremendously in terms of size, power, and its role in people’s lives. In the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, the federal government took actions that regulated businesses in an effort to clean up some of the negative byproducts of the industrial revolution. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the federal government both expanded its regulatory powers and took its first steps toward the modern welfare state with jobs programs and aid for single mothers, the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” expanded the New Deal even further with Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, education programs, and environmental regulations, an expansion that continued under Richard Nixon into the early 1970s.

While many Americans supported and benefitted from these government programs, others became convinced that government had overreached itself. So when Ronald Reagan emerged by the 1980s, he ran as the anti-Lyndon Johnson. It was time for the federal government to stop holding back the economy with excessive taxes, regulations, and wasteful welfare programs. And while Reagan was hardly a religious zealot, he also gained strong support from social conservatives who saw him as a man who represented traditional, pre-1960s values, a man who strongly criticized hippies as governor of California when it was the mecca of hippy liberalism. It was here, under Reagan, that the fusion of social and fiscal conservatism was created that has been such a powerful political force ever since.

There has been a basic problem, however, with this conservative counterrevolution. While often doing well in elections, much better than in the previous fifty years, Republicans since the 1980s have failed to achieve many of their goals. The federal debt keeps piling up, largely driven by huge government aid programs. The tax cuts and reductions in regulations that they did manage to achieve have failed to improve significantly the lives of average Americans. Rather than trickling down, wealth seems to keep trickling up, with wealth inequality reaching historic levels. When banks collapsed, the Bush administration initiated the bailouts. When businesses hire illegal immigrants, there aren’t any significant consequences. When manufacturing jobs flow overseas, nothing seems to be done about it. Even the War on Terror has failed to make Americans feel much safer.

Many Republicans, of course, blame Barack Obama for many of these problems. But electing a wave of Republicans to Congress over the past eight years has failed to bring any major changes. Some Republicans have even been willing to compromise with the hated Obama in recent years to keep the government operating. The problem, therefore, is not the conservative ideology. It must be those establishment Republican politicians. So forget about nominating moderate, establishment Republicans like John McCain and Mitt Romney. It is time to get a new kind of man in Washington, an anti-politician, and Trump seems to fit the bill. He is going to ride into Washington, bust some heads, and finally clean up this federal government that Republicans have been told to hate for all these years.

Much that I have written here, so far, could just as easily explain the rise of Ted Cruz and of the Tea Party in general as the rise of Donald Trump. There is one final historical change, however, that is specific to Donald Trump. For Donald Trump, in the end, is a celebrity. As he has said himself, his most important asset is his name, a name that has become a brand signifying success. Trump is not the first celebrity to find success in politics, with Reagan and Schwarzenegger being the most well- known examples, and he is unlikely to be the last. Celebrities have certain things going for them that many other politicians struggle to attain: name recognition, an image, and performing skills. But most important of all, American celebrities live in a culture that worships celebrities.

When the modern mass media was born about a century ago, the national celebrity came into being, with movie and later television stars being the most recognizable. As Americans saw their standard of living rise and had more disposable income to spend on entertainment, they became increasingly entertainment addicted, often losing the ability to entertain themselves. And in our modern world of smart phones, a device that provides mobile, 24-hour-a-day access to every form of entertainment technology known to man, we are more entertainment addicted than ever. It should be no surprise, then, that we spend so much time obsessing over the lives of the people who give us what we need the most.

It is internet social networking, however, that is the media form most responsible for creating the Trump campaign style. In theory, the internet has a tremendous capacity for bringing people together from all over the world. So often, however, it seems to be a more divisive force than a unifying one. Social networkers seem to seek out people who share their interests and/or share their points of view. Political sites and pages are often places conservatives or liberals sit around (virtually) with other conservatives or liberals and reinforce one another’s beliefs. It is comfortable, after all, to surround yourself with people just like you. And then, when venturing out onto sites where there might be people who disagree with you, the tendency is for these discussions to become insult fests. People will say things online, as anyone who has done any social networking knows, that they would rarely say in person. So when people become accustomed to the kinds of shouting matches that one finds on social networking sites, the antics of Donald Trump and the recent GOP “debates” are not shocking. In fact, they are familiar. Donald Trump, rather than being some polished and phony politician, is just like everyone else.

I am embarrassed to say that I did not see the success of Donald Trump coming. Looking back at American history, it should have been predictable. He is successfully capitalizing on fears and social trends that have been around for decades or even centuries. Over the last several decades, Republicans have done a much better job than Democrats at recognizing and capitalizing on people’s fears. It is possible that they have done too good of a job, and Trump is the red-headed, orange-faced Frankenstein that they now have to deal with.

But having said this, I don’t think it is wise to simply write off Trump as a dangerous manipulator and his followers as idiots. Some of the anger that people are expressing is irrational, but there are also legitimate reasons to be angry. When Trump describes politicians as a bunch of people bought off by special interest groups, he is largely right. When he says that politicians care more about their job security than the people they are claiming to serve, there is definitely some truth to this accusation. Americans today, as always, have legitimate reasons to be worried about their economic situations in the future. Some of the same sources of anger and fear that Trump is tapping into can be found on the Democratic side with the surprising success of Bernie Sanders. When the 2016 election is said and done, regardless of who wins, the best thing that may come out of this is for Washington DC politicians to be scared out of their complacency and to start addressing some of the public’s grievances. Whatever happens, all we can do is keep hope alive, show up to vote, keep letting our leaders know what is pissing us off, and reward politicians who offer up practical, reasonable policies that could make things better.


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