Tuesday, December 29, 2015
December 29, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Trump
[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
How history reveals what’s not new about the presidential hopeful, what is, and how to stop him.
As I wrote in this piece for Talking Points Memo, the longtime adoration for Donald Trump among many Americans (an attitude without which his current run for the presidency would have been unthinkable) is inextricably linked to a far more longstanding American narrative: our equation of wealth with success, and thus our admiration for the very wealthy (or often, as in the case of Trump, those who can appear very wealthy whether the facts bear out those appearances or not). I wasn’t trying in that piece to equate Trump to Ben Franklin, and of course the ever-increasing bigotry and ugliness of Trump’s campaign makes clear just how much he is not like that flawed but still very admirable founding American. Yet at the same time, there’s a national throughline between the two men, and it’s what Franklin called “the way to wealth.”
On the other hand, I would argue that Trump does represent something new under the sun—not in his familiar and all-too-American exclusionary and bigoted rhetoric, but in the 21st century forces that have created a built-in, sympathetic audience for even his most extreme ugliness. As I wrote in the piece for The Conversation at that last hyperlink, from the earliest moments of his candidacy Trump has found a vital base of support on Fox News, the network on which he had appeared for years as a candidacy. Josh Marshall of TPM has called Fox News Trump’s Leni Riefenstahl, and I couldn’t agree more with the analogy; not because Trump = Hitler, necessarily, but because at no prior point in American history has there been such a perfect symbiosis between a propaganda network and a political figure. Fox News and Trump’s 2016 candidacy represent, to my mind, something different from any prior presidential campaign—and that’s a very worrisome shift indeed.
Studying American history doesn’t only reveal those longstanding and new sides to Trump’s popularity and campaign, though. It also, and most importantly, reveals how to stop him: voting. In the years immediately following the Civil War, African Americans and their allies voted in elections throughout the South, and African Americans were elected to offices with regularity. With the subsequent rise and dominance of Jim Crow and white supremacy in those states, denying the vote was a vital way through which the worst bigots and bullies kept their power. And when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed and African Americans were finally able to vote once more, many the worst such leaders (such as Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama) were voted out of office. No amount of public scholarship or journalism or activism in other arenas could come close to achieving, in opposition to Trump and much else of the current extremism, what widespread voting can and will do. Fighting for that right for all Americans remains one of the most American and vital battles for the year ahead.
Next 2015 story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?