Is this the greatest political shock in American history? If by shock you mean unexpected, yes it is. Of course, there have been other surprise presidential election results (“Dewey defeats Truman”, or not, as it turned out) but nothing on this scale. In thinking about precedents, I’m reminded of the extraordinary upsurge of the so-called “Know-Nothing Party” – an anti-immigrant secret society in the 1854 state elections. Pennsylvania Democrats who had been used to running the state for decades suddenly found themselves booted out of office by people they barely realised were running against them. To this day, historians debate whether the Know-Nothing revolt was more about economic discontent or cultural politics, just as commentators are doing with Trump’s astonishing success. Both were certainly about wanting to overturn the status quo. Both used fear of an Other that was disrupting their world to mobilise a “silent majority” – that phrase was not Nixon’s invention but was used in the 1850s too.
More importantly, this election is a shock in a more profound sense: a political revolution that looks likely to upend the old order. Trump’s election resembles Thomas Jefferson’s in 1800, Andrew Jackson’s in 1828, Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860, Franklin D Roosevelt’s in 1932 or Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. As in all those cases, the winner represented himself as an insurgent change-maker who would go to Washington and (as Trump has put it in the hashtag discourse of 2016) to #draintheswamp. In each of these cases, the old order was seen by its opponents as elitist, “out of touch”, entitled. And in each case, there was a measure of economic discontent that fed into the anti-establishment mood.
We do not know now what a Trump presidency will do, but we know that he will have relatively unfettered power – he can mould the Supreme Court to his will, has a pliant Republican majority in Congress cowed, at least at first by his stunning success. So it is reasonable to assume that his presidency, based on everything he’s said in the campaign, will define itself in opposition not just to the Obama presidency but to most of what the last two Republican presidents did too.
Trump’s open courting of the white nationalist vote and his evident disregard for democratic norms, illustrated by his promise to jail his opponent if he won, are not new phenomena in America. The “last, best hope of earth” as Lincoln called it, the land that was the refuge for the tired, huddled masses of the Old World, which has been the source of so much inspiration and hope to so many for so long, has always also contained illiberal and even authoritarian impulses. The Trump supporters I’ve been talking to in the last few days see him as a redeemer, who, through the power of his will, can bring back jobs, expel 11 million undocumented migrants, prevent anyone of Islamic faith from entering the country, and built literal as well as metaphorical walls around America. Those impulses to protect and defend led in the 19th century to those insurgent, if short-lived Know-Nothings and later to the Chinese Exclusion Acts. After the First World War, a period of repression closed American borders to almost all non-white people and imprisoned political dissenters like the leaders of the Socialist Party. In fact the exclusion and repression of minorities has not been the exception to the general rule of freedom and tolerance in American history but an integral part of it. Egalitarianism – for white people – has been based, for most of American history, on the exclusion of others.
American government is founded on the conceit of popular sovereignty, but often “the people” have delegated that sovereignty to a tribune on their behalf. There was an inherent authoritarianism in that faith that drew people to Jackson or Roosevelt, just as it draws people to Trump. And, after all, the American presidency was intentionally designed as a quasi-monarchical institution. The change-maker presidents of whom Trump belongs typically offer to rule on behalf of the people, but they are not of the people. Thomas Jefferson was a connoisseur of fine French wine but such “elite” affectations mattered not a jot to his sans-culottes supporters, any more than Trump’s billionaire lifestyle is an obstacle to him voicing the anger and resentment of “ordinary” people.
Trump’s victory is shocking, but it is not something new. And so it should not be surprising.
Dr Adam Smith is a senior lecturer in history at University College London (UCL) who writes about the United States in the mid-19th century. His most recent book is a short biography of Abraham Lincoln and he is currently completing a book called The Stormy Present: Conservatism and American Politics in an Age of Revolution, 1848–1877.