Skip to main content

Putting Trump Into Historical Perspective

A University of Notre Dame historian suspects his movement will dissipate once the billionaire gets bored.

By Tom Jacobs


Donald Trump pumps his fist to supporters in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo: Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images)

In an essay published in December, Darren Dochuk, who teaches American political history at the University of Notre Dame, wrote that “2015 may well be regarded as the strangest in the GOP’s illustrious history.” He now concedes his assertion was premature.

“It turns out 2015 was just a prelude to the Republican apocalypse,” he says. “What was a worst-case scenario back then is very clearly unfolding now, for the party and for the nation as a whole.”

While commentators continually use the term “unprecedented” to describe the current presidential campaign, historians tend to think in terms of cycles. One major event (say, the election of our first black president) creates a backlash (Trumpism), which doesn’t seem quite so surprising in retrospect.

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Dochuk puts the 2016 race into historical perspective, and explains why, for all its internal pressures, the GOP is not likely to crack up.

Is it fair to call Donald Trump’s rise “a hostile takeover” of the Republican party?

Hostile, yes, in terms of the rage that has been generated by Trumpmania — anger and vitriol and ugliness he himself is encouraging. But this has been in motion for a number of years. It has its roots in the rise of right-wing media in the 1990s, which accentuates a polarizing politics built around fear and anger.

What is unique about this situation is what Trump was able to do, which is to hijack one of the major political parties. George Wallace couldn’t do it. Neither could Huey Long. But in this case, it happened.

Historically speaking, do these populist leaders tend to stick around for the long-term, or do they fade fairly quickly?

Wallace managed to stick around for a few election cycles, until he was debilitated by the assassination attempt. He was able to maintain his role as the champion of the white working class for a decade and a half. But he was a professional politician. Most people think Trump is going to get bored with it all (after the election), and maybe make his way to media or something else. I can’t see him returning in four years.

Does this kind of movement need a charismatic leader?

Most definitely. You have to have someone who is willing to step out on their behalf. Someone who draws pleasure and a sense of importance by doing so. Someone who has a personality that can channel people’s anxieties and concerns into something that looks like a platform. And someone who has media savvy. That’s essential. Wallace had it; so does Trump. They realize what cameras can do for you.

So can there be Trumpism without Trump?

I’m doubtful. A person who is larger than life is absolutely essential to generating the kind of grass-roots momentum that we’re seeing today.

Based on historical precedent, what sort of G.O.P. is likely to emerge after this election is over? The Trump faction has largely different attitudes and objectives to the traditional business-class constituency. How do party leaders reconcile these two visions?

The party isn’t split along neat lines; it’s factionalized. Very clearly, there is a civil war between the moderate GOP establishment and the Trump wing, which includes an angry white-backlash constituency. The party may have to do what Lyndon Johnson did (when he effectively pushed Southern Democrats out of the party by passing civil-rights legislation).

There are also a lot of social conservatives, who are in a real conundrum right now. They, too, feel disenfranchised, but they’ll probably feel a little bit dirty voting for Trump. How you put it all back together, I don’t know, but it will require a more diverse and dynamic leadership.

I also hope the Democrats pause to reconsider how they lost the white working class. You’ve got a whole block that feels it has been left behind by everyone.

Still, it’s the GOP that seems far more divided. What is keeping it from splitting into two or more parties?

I think this is a crisis moment for the GOP, but people have a great deal of emotional attachment to their party. Because of that, I think people are going to stick it out, and try hard to put it back together again.

Of all the current Republican leaders, I think Marco Rubio has the best shot (of leading a more inclusive party). He’s playing this well. He may be able to get out of this election less scathed than some of the others. With his appeal to Latinos, he might be in a pretty good position to offer fresh energy going forward. You would hope for their sake that they come to embrace the nation’s democratic changes.

There are more and more reports of overt racist behavior in the United States. It seems the Trump phenomenon has given certain people license to openly express hateful beliefs that they might otherwise have kept to themselves.

This is one of the most discouraging elements of this election. Barack Obama’s election felt like a pivot in American history; it seemed to indicate a pretty remarkable advancement in racial attitudes. Now the demons have been let out. Perhaps the lesson in this is the demons are always there; they’ve just been suppressed or covered over. Now they’re being stirred up again.

But as much as it is about race, it’s about gender. I’m just back from giving a talk in Alabama; it was the bumper stickers that referenced gender that were so upsetting. “Trump that bitch.” These were plastered on vehicles driven by aging white men. They perceive their power and authority is slipping, not just to “elites” and minorities, but also to women.

You’d like to dismiss some of this as the last gasp of a generation, and a constituency, being left behind. Certainly I’m surrounded by young people, both liberal and conservative, who embrace an inclusive global reality. You’d like to think that truly is the future, and perhaps it is. But this election has made me more skeptical.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.