Let’s begin with the obvious. Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as President of the United States. He has appealed to the worst instincts of the American people. He has revealed himself to be racist, xenophobic, hateful, and buffoonish. Still, he is no longer a carnival act, he is no longer merely the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. His status is now official. His name will appear on ballots in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. It is time, therefore, to ask, “where did he come from?”
As a historian, I can identify five strands of the American political experience which Trump drew from, magnified, made his own, and has now imposed on the American body politic. The first is the American fondness for conspiracy theories. A penchant for conspiracy theories has, after all, lurked just beneath the surface of American politics for most of our history.
America’s very first conspiracy theory involved money and banking. At issue was the Bank of the United States, chartered by Congress in February 1791, over the substantial opposition of Southern members of Congress. The Bank thereafter remained the persistent target of tall tales and conspiracy theories. Eventually, these conspiracy theories seeped into the “mainstream” of American political discourse with the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, who revoked the Bank’s charter, helping to precipitate an economic depression.
Nor was this the only conspiracy theory to influence nineteenth-century politics. In the early 1800’s, there were deep fears that the Freemasons exerted secret control over the workings of government and were responsible for gruesome crimes and outrages. This conspiracy theory led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party in the late 1820’s, which sought to eradicate this perceived threat from America. And then there were the various Jesuit conspiracy theories, united by a belief that the Pope and the Jesuits were collaborating in the overthrow of American institutions.
Twentieth-century conspiracy theories owe much to this older tradition. The John Birch Society, the great panics over the so-called Communist Conspiracy, the smaller, stranger conspiracy theories regarding fluoridation in drinking water, all trace their origins to these old subterranean fears. The American mind, at least the darker corners of its id, finds this stuff appealing.
And Donald Trump, with his birther ranting, his dark speculation about the assassination of President John Kennedy, and his appearances on the Alex Jones InfoWars radio program, is merely the latest manifestation of these old phenomena. What makes Trump different, however, is that he has mainstreamed the freak show. And he is all the more dangerous for that reason.
Second, there is the con man. In Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’, one encounters the King and the Duke, two old con men who made a living passing themselves off as displaced royalty from Europe. P.T. Barnum, later in the nineteenth century, was another form of confidence man. He was the con man as entertainer. “There’s a sucker born every minute” may or may not have been said by Barnum. But it was early on used to describe his style of entertainment.
Early in his career, Barnum constructed from a collection of old bones the skeleton of a “mermaid,” which he claimed to be authentic. His whole career followed this trajectory, as he moved from one barely reputable idea to the next. And of course, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there are analogues to this literary and theatrical type. Witness the Redford and Newman movie, ‘The Sting’, or watch the charades surrounding reality television.
Trump is at home in this environment. He has spent the better part of the last two decades marinating in this stew. He has dabbled in professional wrestling, and crafted his public persona around reality television. He is now the con man personified. And he is the nominee of the Republican Party.
And then there is the nativist strand of American politics. Nativism first became a force in the 1840’s as portions of the Anglo-Saxon population of the northeast reacted with violence against new immigrants from Ireland. The Know-Nothings, these anti-immigrant groups called themselves, reveling proudly in their ignorance. And in the late nineteenth century, especially on the West Coast, one saw similar political and popular opposition to Chinese immigration.
Anti-Catholic and Anti-Jewish sentiments were aroused in the years around World War I, again as a reaction to immigration. The Ku Klux Klan, which originated in the Reconstruction South as a means of terrorizing newly-emancipated African Americans, expanded its reach in the 1920’s with an anti-immigrant message. Indeed, the Klan reached the zenith of its power during this time, as it exerted strong influence over the state governments of Indiana and Oregon, where it nearly succeeded in outlawing Catholic schools.
In our own time, nativism has emerged once again as a toxic force, thanks to Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions. Once again, immigrants are made the targets and scapegoats. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, did not escape Trump’s wrath. He was seen and denounced by Trump and his ilk as a foreigner, a Kenyan, who had no business in American politics.
But the nativism in the Trump movement has been even more pervasive. He has called Mexican immigrants foul, unspeakable names. He has stereotyped whole groups of people. And Trump is not some hooded Klan leader, shamefully masking his identity. No, he is now the nominee of a major political party.
Closely intertwined with nativism is the racist element of American politics. Again, racism has been a part of the American political scene since the decades before the Civil War. Racism emerged again as a potent force in the South during Reconstruction. It was enshrined in law during the Jim Crow period, stretching from the 1880’s roughly to the early 1960’s.
In the 1960’s, however, right-wing politicians discovered that overt racism was no longer respectable. Thus there emerged the so-called Southern Strategy, an effort by Republican politicians to convert Southern and working-class whites to the Republican Party through coded language about “law and order” and crude stereotypes about welfare benefits and work habits.
Trump, however, has given up speaking in code. Yes, he talks about “law and order,” but his campaign has a much rawer, more vicious feel to it. It is deeply, atavistically racist. Indeed, he has even been slow to disavow the support of white supremacists. And it is not surprising therefore that he has revived and given strength to this most despicable element in American politics.
The final, fifth strand Trump has drawn from is populism. One must be careful in speaking about populism. There is, after all, a healthy form of populism, one which looks to relieve the burdens of the oppressed, that seeks to improve the lot of all people, and that sees the need to balance the economic playing field. These populists — Bernie Sanders is among them — appreciate that justice can only be achieved when there is real equality in bargaining power between persons and classes.
Trump’s populism is not of this sort. Trump’s populism is more reminiscent of that of Huey Long, the Louisiana demagogue who governed that state in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Long was an authoritarian. He was corrupt. He championed the cause of the poor, but he was cynical about it, not sincere. He meant to exploit them, not improve their lives. That is the model of populist Donald Trump is.
Donald Trump is not a well-read man. He certainly did not do any deep reading in the American political tradition. But somehow, instinctively, intuitively, he has brought together some of the foulest elements of the American political experience and transformed these elements into the essence of his campaign. He has created a foul, noxious, toxic stew. And he must be defeated in November. He is manifestly unfit for high elective office.
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