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Putting the 2016 Election into Historical Context

How can we understand the 2016 presidential election in a broad context of American history? This is a question that many Americans, pundits, and historians have been thinking through for the past month. To address it, we assembled a panel of experts.

Our panel included Wendy Wall, an Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Matthew Lassiter, Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Jonathan Bell, Professor of U.S. History at University College London, and Lila Corwin Berman, Professor of History at Temple University.

There has been quite a bit of discussion over the last year about the uniqueness of the 2016 election. If this is one of the most unusual elections, how can historical precedents help us understand it?

Wall: No historical precedent is perfect and scholars have suggested plenty of alternatives: 1800, 1824, 1876 and 2000 were all years when the vote in the electoral college was tied or didn’t align with the popular vote; 1860, because of the degree of national polarization; and 1968, which featured one candidate who was an economic populist and undisguised racist and another of whom many in the party had wearied. One election that has received less attention, but that offers some interesting parallels, is 1928. The campaign came at the end of a decade marked by xenophobia and religious bigotry, a decade when urban dwellers were prospering but when many rural areas were economically depressed. The Democratic candidate, Al Smith, was (like Hillary Clinton) a kind of insider-outsider. As a four-term governor of New York who had campaigned for the nomination four years earlier, he had deep political experience. At the same time, he was America’s first Catholic nominee. Urban immigrants, inspired in part by Smith’s opposition to prohibition, flocked to the polls to support him; many registered to vote for the first time. Meanwhile, those who opposed Smith’s election, including conservative Protestants and members of the Ku Klux Klan, blanketed the country with disinformation, much of it virulently anti-Catholic. (One widely distributed photo of New York’s newly completed Holland Tunnel claimed it was a secret passage being built to transport the pope between Washington and Rome.) In the end, the election exemplified some of the same splits that helped propel Trump into office. Rural areas voted heavily for Herbert Hoover, the Republican nominee, and Smith lost every Midwestern industrial state, including the liberal state of Wisconsin. Of course, the Republican dominance didn’t hold, and many of the immigrants first mobilized in 1928 became founding members of the New Deal coalition.

Taylor: I think one could argue that the uniqueness of this campaign begins and ends with Donald Trump. Not in terms of his ideas, but this is really the first time someone with no previous political experience has ascended to the office of the presidency. In that sense, Trump has not adhered to what has been established as the norms of political discourse and political campaigns. I do think it is important, however, to not conflate the uniqueness of the form of his campaign with its content. In other words, Trump has leveraged racial resentments and elevated scapegoats to explain economic inequality in such a way that has been a normative feature in American politics at least since the Johnson-Goldwater contest in 1964. In fact, Goldwater and perhaps George Wallace—who was never a Democratic nominee but challenged to be in 1968 and 1972—are more appropriate examples than even Nixon or Reagan, both of whom certainly tapped into racial resentment but did so with the dog whistle. Trump, instead, has bellowed racial invective at Mexicans and Muslims while casting African Americans as “other” with his repeated conflation of “inner city” with the “the blacks.” All told, what is happening is not unique, but the open appeals to bigotry hearken back to other periods in the American past.

Lassiter: Donald Trump’s direct attacks on racial and religious minorities, in particular but not only Mexican and Muslim immigrants, associated his campaign with white nationalism in ways that had seemed no longer within the acceptable boundaries of mainstream politics in modern America. There are definite precedents—the anti-Asian politics that culminated in the complete ban in the Immigration Act of 1924, the deportation of one million Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens during the 1930s, and more recently Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign against undocumented immigrants and the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Trump’s law-and-order platform also paralleled the racial backlash campaigns of previous Republican nominees, including Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. But the latter at least adopted a nominally color-blind rhetoric that praised the multiracial American electorate and attacked liberal policies and radical protesters more than minority groups themselves. And while Nixon had authoritarian tendencies, he did not campaign as an authoritarian savior (Trump at the GOP convention: “I alone can fix it”). Other precedents for Trump are more recent and outside the American political tradition—the demagogic and authoritarian celebrity politics of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, the combination of economic dislocation and nativism that has fueled right-wing movements in Europe, and populist revolts such as Brexit.

Bell: The election was certainly was of the most unusual in terms of the background of one of the nominees: Donald Trump has never held elected office or served in the military before becoming President. It is not unprecedented, however, for a larger-than-life, vastly wealthy media magnate to run for the White House. William Randolph Hearst gave it a shot in 1904, though he did not win the Democratic nomination. The overt racism and bitter partisanship of the campaign also marked it out as particularly jarring for the twenty-first century, but hardly unprecedented in the context of a larger history of the United States. Angry populist uprisings that fused class and racial resentments have proven a regular feature of the American political landscape, though rarely have they triumphed over established political party hierarchies in the way Trump did. Unsettling for political commentators now is the difficulty disaggregating economic populism aimed primarily at white working class voters, robust Christian moral conservatism, and right-wing appeals to anti-government, small state neoliberalism, which seem to have coalesced around the Republican candidate in ways they might not have done had the candidates of both parties been different. And the extremely parlous state of the Democratic Party at the state level has helped give the GOP a commanding advantage over national politics it has not seen since the 1920s.

History teachers will soon begin to think about how to incorporate the 2016 election into their surveys. What themes or narratives about American history might this election help to illustrate?

Wall: Although pundits have described 2016 as the first post-truth election, both the intentional spread of blatant falsehoods and Trump’s use of Twitter and Facebook to end-run traditional media outlets are simply the latest incarnations of long-term trends. As far back as the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s Federalist opponents painted him as a Jacobin atheist who would confiscate and burn Bibles once elected. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the new media of his age, the radio, to bypass conservative newspaper editors and speak directly to the people. At the same time, Trump’s campaign marks a sharp departure from a politics of civility that has dominated the political mainstream for decades. While modern politicians have not abandoned racist, sexist or religiously bigoted appeals, they have generally used “dog whistles” rather than open insults. Finally, the Democratic Party’s failure to stem Trump’s populist tide reflects both the weakness of American unions and the party’s increasing abandonment of class issues since the New Deal. Ironically, the decade that has seen the widest income gap since the Great Depression also brought the U.S. its first billionaire president!

Lassiter: The main reason for the instability of contemporary American politics is the failure of either party to provide remedies for the economic situation of the poor and working class, especially declining wages and increasing inequality since the 1970s, and the accurate perception of tens of millions of voters that a bipartisan elite consensus favors Wall Street over Main Street. Obama tried to address inequality, especially with the Affordable Care Act, and he did face extraordinary Republican opposition. But Trump’s victory also reveals the costs of the continued Democratic tilt away from the labor unions toward upper-middle-class professionals. Obama’s succession by Trump further confirms the ebb and flow of racial progress and backlash in American history and once again demonstrates that the forces of racial conservatism in the United States are fully national rather than exceptionally southern. The increasing rural-metropolitan split is more important than the regional and state-by-state breakdown of America’s divisions so misleadingly highlighted by the winner-take-all electoral college system and the red and blue coded election maps. It’s important though to question conventional wisdom about the country’s deep divides, because many undemocratic features structure polarization into the political system: gerrymandered House districts, the malapportionment in favor of small states and less demographically diverse areas in the Senate and by the electoral college, and the ability of organized interest groups (and now media-fueled candidacies) to manipulate the interminably long primary process. The two-party system often fails to produce outcomes that reflect the policy preferences of a majority of Americans, and it is crucial to remember that a supermajority of voters in 2016 expressed discontent and even disgust for both candidates.

Bell: The obvious narrative is the power of race in shaping American history. Immigration has also been a massive point of contention since the mid-nineteenth century, often linked explicitly to prejudices voiced against particular ethnic and racial groups. Although the right in the US had long learned to use coded language to frame its political appeals after the various civil rights movements of the twentieth century made the overt racism of the Jim Crow era unsustainable, Trump’s campaign simply made plain again what was already a staple of American political discourse. 2016 has also seen much talk of a struggling “white working class,” a term that has proven both contentious and also hard to pin down. Although there were a number of counties in places like Michigan and Indiana that had heavily white, poor populations and which switched from Obama to Trump this time, many heavily industrial regions historically the home of a white working class, like the coal belt of West Virginia, had been moving to the GOP since the 1990s at least. The place of global capitalism in the history of modern American politics will also be a central question for historians of this election.

Berman: Since Election Day night, I have been wondering what happens to broken historiographical truths. One of the truths of my field—American Jewish history—is that antisemitism in the United States has never held the political sway that it held in Europe. Indeed, this truth is the basis of my field’s fealty to American exceptionalism. While some scholars have raised a skeptical eyebrow, none has sought to rewrite American Jewish history entirely absent this claim. This semester, I am teaching a course on the Holocaust and antisemitism. The day after reports broke that Trump had appointed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, I had to deliver my lecture about antisemitism in the United States. My old lecture would not enable me to account for this political appointment any more than it would allow me to explain why white supremacy was so well and alive in the most powerful channels of American life. I am realizing now that a broken historiographical truth reveals the fissures that weakened it long before it broke.

Can the study of history offer us a sense of what comes next in American politics?

Lassiter: I’m sure it can, with the important caveat that most historian-pundits have gotten more wrong than right regarding the Trump phenomenon. Although it’s worth recalling that academic experts almost universally disputed the idea that Obama’s election signaled the arrival of a “postracial” America. In the run-up to the 2012 election, I wrote in Dissent that “for the immediate future, Democratic leaders and progressive pundits ought to pay less attention to the Tea Party movement, which is largely made up of the same types of white Republican activists and affluent conservative ideologues who have always opposed redistributive liberalism, and worry more about how to help the working-class and middle-class families who believe that the Democrats care more about Wall Street than Middle America.” While it’s possible that Trump will govern as a non-ideological pragmatist who actually promotes economic policies that help his white working-class base, it seems much more likely that unified Republican government will implement the traditional conservative agenda favored by the party’s economic elites and congressional leaders, although the president-elect’s positions on foreign policy and global trade do depart from GOP orthodoxy and bipartisan norms. During the last century of American history, both progressive and conservative social movements have tended to organize most effectively during Democratic presidencies. But if a Trump administration carries through on its anti-immigrant and racial backlash agenda and fails to address (or actively worsens) the economic prospects for the working and middle classes, that could change.

Taylor: Even though Trump has not yet been inaugurated, it appears that there probably has not been a president like Trump before. From his seemingly unrestrained use of Twitter to speak directly to his followers, as he has explained, to his, perhaps, unprecedented conflicts of interest involving multiple business holdings, this is uncharted territory. At the same time, his administration appears to be filling out with traditional, if not extremely conservative, Republican politicians. The GOP has become so conservative and frankly reactionary in the last thirty years that the people Trump is populating his cabinet with are “traditional Republicans.” Of course, some may be more boorish than, say, Paul Ryan, but let’s not forget that Ryan, himself, wants to privatize Medicare and probably Social Security. He has also tried to winnow away what is left of the food stamps program. Is this less extreme because he says “please” and “thank you”? For those who want to treat Jeff Sessions as an outlier, do we forget that he is an elected official and serves as a chairman of a powerful committee, suggesting that he has both the confidence and backing of other Republicans? It is an extreme and reactionary party and for all of the grumbling that emerged during the campaign, much of it has quieted. The opposition to Trump was never driven by any substantive cleavage in ideology—domestically speaking, at least—instead, Trump upset the forty year norm of using innuendo and codes as opposed to the uncivil invocation of racial slurs and demonization. The protests of Trump were in response to form, not content. Trump looks to govern in the same way; without the platitudes and hollow rhetoric, but with untempered vitriol for African Americans, women, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and low wage workers. Trump doesn’t believe in sugarcoating his truth and so neither should we.

So what we might expect are extraordinary tax cuts for the elite and the continued attenuation of an already fragile and anemic American welfare state. There is a potentially explosive combination of tax cuts that may exacerbate already-existing economic inequality while undermining the public infrastructure intended to guard against or mitigate the harshest aspects of poverty. It will heighten the polarization that already exists. If you fold into this a heightened anxiety created by the unpredictability of deportations and emboldened police forces around the country that will animate racial politics, we may see the kinds of social upheaval of the 1930s and the 1960s. Social movements in the 1930s arose in the midst of depression, while movements of the 1960s unfolded in the midst of affluence, but both were responses to the perception of unresponsive government.

Imagine this blog post as a time capsule to future historians. What might you want them to know about the 2016 election that might not be readily apparent in the documentary record?

Wall: The hardest thing to document will be the tears, the trauma, and the strains on interpersonal relationships that both preceded and followed this election. We are used to thinking of elections as political, not psychological, events. While those on the losing side are disappointed, sometimes severely, they are not generally traumatized by the outcome. I think this election cycle has been different. Many people have past experience with bullying, sexual assault, or other types of demeaning personal attacks. For many of these individuals, Trump’s nomination and campaign behavior reawakened long-buried emotions. (After the Access Hollywood tape was unearthed calls to rape and sexual assault hotlines spiked.) His subsequent election seemed to legitimate such behavior. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the resulting stress has had a profound impact, not only on individuals, but on marriages, friendships, and other relationships. The depth and extent of this trauma might not appear in documents available to future historians, and this aspect of the election might be lost as public rhetoric shifts to talk of either “healing” or “resisting.”

Lassiter: First of all, I would emphasize that the documentary record itself contains so much more information, from so many different forums, than the traditional approach of studying the major newspapers, television newscasts, candidate speeches and policy papers, and polls and exit surveys ever captured. Twitter and Facebook, the information overload, the baseless conspiracy theories, the thin to nonexistent line between truth and lies—even when available in the documentary record it will be harder than ever to locate, synthesize, and interpret the evidence. Second, I expect that the debate over whether racial animus or economic grievances played a greater role in forging the Trump coalition will rage for a long time. Although the most compelling answer is of course a combination of both, scholars have hardly come to any consensus regarding how these variables interacted in previous elections. Third, I imagine that future historians will really need to make a leap of empathy and imagination to understand how Trump could have won with a program of racial backlash and economic populism and defense of wealthy interests, combined with his personal racism and misogyny and authoritarianism and corruption, and not least his rejection of longstanding international commitments and violations of so many norms involving domestic institutions. It’s certainly not an outcome that very many of us in our comfortable college towns and cosmopolitan urban enclaves ever thought possible, even with the raw materials of the future documentary record coming at us from every direction for the last year and a half.