Discover more from A User's Guide to History
How did he do it?
The puzzle of Donald Trump
When future historians write about the first quarter of the 21st century in American history, their foremost task will be to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Nothing in the annals of American politics before then suggested that any individual could seize control of a major party and shape it to his desires as Trump has — and do so without receiving anything close to a mandate from voters. Trump, who failed to win a popular majority in either of his elections, has more control over the Republicans than Franklin Roosevelt had over the Democrats after his landslide re-election victory in 1936. Trump has more control than Ronald Reagan had over the Republicans after his landslide reelection in 1984. Roosevelt could never bring Southern Democrats into line, and Reagan faced a revolt from his right wing for getting too chummy with Mikhail Gorbachev. Republican leaders in Congress live in terror of Trump, refusing to call out his disregard for facts and evidence, his trashing of political norms, and his assault on the Constitution.
Those future historians will have a simple but profound question to answer: How did he do it?
The answer will begin with the observation that Trump has an extremely loyal following within the Republican party, a following that can be counted on to vote as he directs. This group is not close to a majority of the electorate as a whole, but the Trump loyalists are zealous and numerous enough to carry Republican primaries. They don't always defeat incumbents Trump has targeted, but they do so often enough that other incumbents do whatever is necessary to avoid Trump's wrath.
This is straightforward enough, but it leaves the question of how Trump has been so much more effective than any of his predecessors in this regard. Roosevelt tried to purge conservative Southern Democrats in the Congressional elections of 1938 and failed miserably. Dwight Eisenhower, another popular Republican, tried to move his party to the middle in the 1950s, and got nowhere.
A partial explanation is the rise of social media. Trump's Twitter presence gave him a direct line to his followers, unfiltered by editors or even his own handlers. But Trump didn't invent Twitter, and the tools of social media were available to every other politician of the same period.
Trump articulated an inchoate sense of grievance in American politics. In this regard, he was most like Huey Long during the 1930s and George Wallace in the 1960s. Perhaps if Long had not been assassinated and Wallace not been badly wounded in an assassination attempt, they would have made more of their grievance-mongering. But probably not. The political parties had a firmer grip on the nomination process in those days than the Republicans did in the 2010s.
Which suggests a further part of the answer. The political parties are not what they used to be. The weakening began in the early 20th century with the adoption of preference primaries in races for president. Eventually the results of primaries became binding on the national conventions, and the career pols who served as gatekeepers were circumvented. A key to Trump's victory in the Republican primaries in 2016 was the large number of states with open primaries requiring no previous Republican affiliation for voting. Suffice it to say that the Republican bosses who denied Theodore Roosevelt the 1912 nomination, despite the defeats he delivered to incumbent William Howard Taft in the primaries, would not have let someone like Trump anywhere near the GOP nomination.
Yet another part of the explanation reflects the abdication by Congress of much of its independence of the executive branch. During the Cold War, Congress began to defer to the president on foreign policy matters, some of which required quick decisions better made by one person than a committee of 535. Harry Truman committed the United States to war in Korea without consulting Congress, and the habit caught on. In time Congress gave way on other issues: trade, immigration and anything else that might fall under the rubric of national security. The legislative branch, which had been designed by the framers of the Constitution to be the dominant of the three national branches, retreated to the shadow of the presidency, where they remained during the Trump years.
Still more of the answer involves the abandonment by the Democrats of the white working class. The takeover of the party by a coastal intelligentsia obsessed with cultural issues unconnected to the lives of most Americans left those blue-collar white folks easy picking for Trump’s anti-elitist schtick.
The future historians will have an advantage over us today. They’ll know how the Trump phenomenon played out. Did he choose, perhaps in the face of indictment, not to run in 2024? Did he run and fail to win? Did he run and win handily? Did he run and win a contested vote? Did the country dissolve into armed violence?
To frame the matter succinctly: Did Trump's election in 2016 prove to be an anomaly, or a portent of things to come? Did the anger that motivated his supporters burn itself out? Or did it burn down America's democratic institutions?
The historians of the future will know the answer to these questions. The rest of us will have to wait and see—and do our part to get the answer we want.