Donald Trump elected president: the historians’ verdict

What is the historical significance of Trump’s election to the White House? Four historians of America offer their views…

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night party at the Hilton Midtown hotel in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a repudiation of the political establishment that jolted financial markets and likely will reorder the nation's priorities and fundamentally alter America's relationship with the world. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“It is one of the greatest shocks in US electoral history”

Donald Trump’s victory and the Republican retention of the House of Representatives and the Senate mark a historic election of considerable potential significance. It is one of the greatest shocks in US electoral history – on a scale greater even than Harry S Truman’s surprise re-election in 1948.

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The 2016 outcome could mark the end of a long period of divided party control of national government dating back to 1968. The Republicans now have a clear claim to be the majority party in the US given not only their strength in Washington but also their power at state level, where they hold a majority of the 50 governorships and state legislatures. The last comparable era for the GOP was the 1920s. They are reaping the benefits of their considerable investment in party development from the state-local level upwards since the 1980s.

The Democrats, by contrast, are paying the price for having neglected to build the party beneath the presidential level. The reaction to Trump’s victory from liberal pundits in America and virtually all the capitals of Western Europe is one of dismay that is very reminiscent of the concern felt about the election of one of his Republican predecessors, Ronald Reagan in 1980. However, Reagan was experienced in government, having been governor of California for eight years, and was guided by a strong political philosophy. Trump lacks any experience in government and appears not to have core convictions identified with any ideology.

What he will discover, like every president before him, is that operating the presidency requires a different skill set to the one that underwrote his successful campaign to win it. If Trump thinks he can operate his office as if he were a CEO, he is in for a shock.

Iwan Morgan is professor of US Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London.

“We are in uncharted territory”

Politically this may be seismic, but historically it follows some patterns. The most common is the reversionary tendency – better known as “kick the rascals out”. It has always been hard for a party to retain the White House for a third consecutive election. The last time was 1988.

It also can be compared to elections like 1980 when many pundits believed Ronald Reagan was not intelligent enough to be president, whereas the mass electorate wanted ABC (“anyone but Carter”). This year there were many ABC voters determined to elect anyone but Clinton.

But in other respects we are in uncharted territory. Trump’s relationship with his own party is so fractious that it surpasses the unease some Republican moderates felt with Barry Goldwater in 1964.

A final thought: the great presidents like Washington and Roosevelt had longer names than the Adams, Polk and Bushes. Trump may come up short in the end.

Peter Ling is professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a concession speech after being defeated by Republican President-elect Donald Trump, as former President Bill Clinton looks on in New York on November 9, 2016. / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a concession speech after being defeated by Republican president-elect Donald Trump. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

“Living up to his own high standards of leadership will be Trump’s ultimate challenge”

Donald Trump accomplished something on Election Day that no Republican has done since the 1980s: appeal to voters in the so-called “Rust Belt” states, where manufacturing jobs have migrated overseas and service industries have yet to fill the vacuum. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, Trump turned reliably blue states, red. It probably should not come as a surprise. This is exactly what Trump promised. Yet polling never raised the public expectations of such a seismic shift in voter attitudes, and as a result the Trump victory appears a landslide. Republican congressional victories also contribute to this perception. Not since 2005, when George W Bush was re-elected president, did the Republicans control the presidency and Congress.

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that the popular vote was close – less than three-tenths of a percent separated Trump votes from Clinton votes. In living memory, only the infamous 2000 election was closer, a fact that demonstrates just how deeply divided the nation is. Trump’s post-election appeal to unify the electorate is as likely to irritate as it is to inspire. In the short-term, the Republicans are riding a high tide of electoral success, and they will be able to consolidate gains by nominating at least one conservative justice to the Supreme Court, roll back on President Obama’s landmark healthcare legislation, and entertaining the wildest anti-immigration measure: an extensive wall along the Mexican border.

In the long term, Trump will need to deliver on a laundry list of promises made during this campaign. In four years’ time the electorate will return to the polls, and if Trump is on the ballot, he will not be a novel outsider. It might be too early to think about 2020, but the next presidential election will be a referendum on just how “great” Trump made America, and living up to his own high standards of leadership will be Trump’s ultimate challenge.

Michael Cullinane is reader in US history at Northumbria University.

“It will take far more than a few emollient words to heal the painful divisions in American society”

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is a victory for American populism: a fusion of ordinary people’s economic grievances and their feeling culturally under threat. Populism has a long history in the US, but its earlier expressions have been less potent: while in the past it has captured state houses and local government, it has never won the presidency.

Economic populism – as in the late 19th-century’s attack on trusts and financial power – was co-opted by the reform programmes of the main parties and fizzled as the American economy prospered. The cultural defensiveness of earlier times, which prompted intense hostility to Irish and German immigrants in the 1850s, and eastern and southern Europeans in the 1890s, for example, never became the majority sentiment: openness to the world and pride in the nation as an asylum remained the dominant self-image of many Americans.

Trump’s victory comes after two decades during which the living standards of “blue-collar” Americans stalled. It points to the alienation of older, less well-educated white males whose jobs have been sucked out by automation and globalisation. The American economy used to benefit this segment of the population. Women’s greater economic and social power; an African American president and the promise of a new racial order; the millions of recently arrived Latinos – these give ordinary Americans a sense of being left behind and ignored. The Cold War provided a cultural glue across parties. That has gone and exposed bewildered responses to the Islamic threat. It will take far more than a few emollient words to heal the painful divisions in American society.

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Richard Carwardine is a professor of history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, specialising in American history between 1776 and the Civil War.