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What History Tells Us About the Time of Trump

A Boston College historian helps explain how we got to the present moment, and warns of what could lie ahead.

By Tom Jacobs


Front pages from New York City newspapers on November 9th, 2016. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

There is no historical precedent for Donald Trump. “The closest is Andrew Jackson,” notes Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson. “But he had a lot more experience that Trump does. And Trump has a much more powerful government at his command.”

Nevertheless, history provides vital context if we wish to understand what, exactly, is going on in our political system at this unsettling moment, as well as the dangers and opportunities that lie ahead. For more, Richardson, author of the 2014 book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, spoke this week with Pacific Standard.

Do you view Trumpism as a hostile takeover of the GOP, or a culmination of the direction the party has been moving in for some time now?

Both. Trump is not a politician. He’s a salesman. He used the dog-whistle language that movement conservatives have used to hang on to power since Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in the 1960s, and took it to its logical conclusion. He was playing to a population that movement conservatives have been grooming for a generation, but he himself is not a movement conservative.

The people in charge of the Republican Party now are not traditional Republicans. They took over the Republican Party in a coup during the 1980s and ’90s. It worked because they harnessed racism to their determination to end government regulation and social welfare legislation.

So the takeover actually occurred a few decades ago?

The party was taken over by extremists. Traditional Republicanism stood for the concept that America was a harmonious web of economic, social, and political interests. That meant the government had a responsibility to promote equality of opportunity, especially for people at the bottom. When Republicans embraced that vision — most dramatically under Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — the country boomed.

House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, clearly see Trump’s election as an opportunity to get a movement-conservative agenda passed into law. Ryan is even talking about privatizing Medicare. But didn’t George W. Bush propose privatizing Social Security in 2004, only to find the idea went nowhere?

Yes. But the Republicans are looking at a united government, and what they hope is a brief honeymoon in which they can force through things that would otherwise not be palatable. When he talks about “reforming” or “privatizing” Medicare, be really clear: That is the destruction of Medicare. It is changing the principle of what Medicare is all about.

Ryan’s philosophy can be traced back to Herbert Hoover’s pre-New Deal America. It’s the concept that a government that does anything to promote regulation of business or social welfare is anti-American. The lineage of this can be traced from Hoover to Robert Taft, who was leader of the Republican Party during the New Deal; to Barry Goldwater, who relied on the ideas of William F. Buckley Jr.

They argue that the concept of a government that does nothing but promote “liberty,” which is how they frame it, is inviolable. That point of view is opposed to the Enlightenment idea that the best fact-based argument should win. Ryan truly believes that, if you have a government that does anything, it is destroying liberty.

But can he really pass legislation getting rid of a popular program like Medicare, which almost everyone uses?

I do think this group of people is going to overreach terribly. I’m actually from a red town, and I know a lot of Trump voters very well. I don’t think Trump voters want this at all. But the idea is to get this through now and hope people don’t notice.

Historically, when a party overreaches — especially after putting into office a president who loses the majority vote — the devastation is great. This happened in the 1888 election (won by Republican Benjamin Harrison), after which the Republican Party hammered through pro-business legislation. The party didn’t come back until the reform movement led by Roosevelt.

That said, the way you sell this is through people like Steve Bannon. Get the media to look the other way, and argue that these programs only help people of color or women or handicapped people.

The argument that activist government is somehow going to redistribute white people to black people comes straight out of Reconstruction. It’s the language that movement conservatives adopted in the 1950s to sell their program of cutting government regulation and slashing taxes. And it has worked, right up through this last election. Will people now realize that it’s sleight of hand? I hope so. The Trump people I know say that, if he touches Social Security or Medicare, we’ll vote him out at the next election.

To avoid that fate, doesn’t Trump have to live up to his campaign promise to create jobs?

What really concerns me is there is one area that Trump and the right-wingers can get together in a heartbeat, which is infrastructure. Most Americans think of infrastructure as roads, bridges, energy. But you can employ people on infrastructure projects that build a military state. One of the elements in the rise of fascism, historically, is employment that cements people’s loyalty to a certain leader.

What, in your view, would an effective response to Trump’s election involve?

What people can do is focus on the Constitution and the political process. They need to stay really well informed. Don’t follow rumors, on your side or the other side. Check them out. When you see something happen — say, a protestor is arrested — and you are deciding whether or not it’s OK, imagine it’s happening to somebody on your side.

We need to break down this tribalism, where “If my side does it, it’s OK.” And to call it out. What makes America great is we have a body of laws that apply to everyone. All regular people can do is insist on that — and, if we don’t like the laws, work to change them.

I think it’s a deadly dangerous time, but the future is unwritten. Times of extraordinary turmoil are times of great hope. I like to believe that, at the end of the day, Americans are decent people, and we will choose a good future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.