A Princeton historian on how textbooks of the future will explain the madness of the 2016 US election

Certainly memorable.
Certainly memorable.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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The 2016 US election was a transformative moment in US history. There is much uncertainty about what president-elect Donald Trump’s term will bring. But future history books are likely to argue that his victory reflects several key developments in American politics.

First, the election of Donald Trump revealed the powerful reactionary forces pushing back against pluralism, diversity, and social tolerance in the US. American voters threw their support behind Trump for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns about the economy to distaste for his opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But there is no doubt that Trump’s campaign both encouraged and benefited from the resurgence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in mainstream party politics.

The vehemence of this bigotry came as a surprise to some liberal Americans, given the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008, the triumph of same-sex marriage, and other long-term social and cultural trends pushing the nation in a  direction. But historians will remember this election for the way it revealed the strength of white voters’ resistance to these changes, as well as their desire to find scapegoats to explain their economic struggles.

Second, historians will regard this election as a point at which the troubling political implications of new media became apparent. New media has an insatiable hunger for fresh stories, plot lines, and “content.” Trump understood this, and he succeeded in part because he thrived in the rapid-fire, 24-hour world of cable and digital media. He knew how to capture the attention of reporters in this click-bait world with outlandish statements, and he knew how to survive the turbulent swings of the news cycle.

Historians will also regard this election as a time in which the line between fact and fiction became particularly difficult to discern. In 2016, tools like Twitter allowed politicians and their supporters to reach millions of voters without any filter or fact-checking. The era of large print metropolitan papers and a three-network television monopoly is over. In its place is a media-industrial complex refracted through a partisan prism, leaving Americans without strong information gatekeepers or agreed-upon truths.

The election will further be remembered for revealing the profound ways in which the Republican Party had changed. Since the rise of the Tea Party in 2008, scholars including Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have noted a sharp rightward drift within the GOP on a number of key issues, including immigration, taxation, regulation, and public spending. A new generation of Republicans who came of political age in the aftermath of former president George W. Bush believe that their party has moved too far to the center. These conservatives vehemently reject big government and reckless overseas entanglements, and believe their fellow Republicans have become too comfortable with Washington and the trappings of power.

Within Congress, legislators who were once considered right-wing, such as Indiana senator Richard Lugar, are now considered among the few moderate voices in the party.  Of historical interest is not only the fact that the party has moved so far right but that it embraced a smash-mouth, partisan, anti-establishment style of governance—even before the rise of Trump. This is why Trump found a home as the party nominee. His most conservative positions on issues like immigration, bans against Muslims, denying climate change, and attacking “political correctness” resonated with a significant portion of the party, even if some of the leadership felt the need to walk away during parts of the campaign. Many “establishment” Republicans were quick to congratulate Trump on his victory, however, and expressed their support for his campaign.

Lastly, the election will be remembered as a moment in which the Democratic leadership’s embrace of free-market economics came back to bite them. With the rise of the conservative movement in the 1970s, Democrats believed that they needed to shift right or lose support. Starting in the late 1970s with former president Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidents and some legislative leaders have moved closer to the conservative center on economic issues, accepting the primacy of free markets, deregulation, and tax cuts—albeit in a more moderated fashion than their Republican opponents. Early in Bill Clinton’s presidency, for example, he infuriated traditional Democrats like Missouri’s Richard Gephardt by pushing for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But in subsequent decades, the forces of globalization, supported by policies like NAFTA, have allowed entire industries to move overseas to lower-cost areas. Many working Americans have felt economically insecure. Entire communities have seen jobs vanish, and the prospects for their children narrow.

This year, Trump appealed to these voters through a combination of blistering attacks on free trade and appeals to fear and hatred. As Democrats watched Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other blue or battleground states vote for Trump, they were confronted by the electoral ramifications of the policy choices they have made over the decades.

We don’t know exactly how historians will frame all of these developments in the future. But we can see the outlines of the conversation they will have. And all the signs suggest it won’t be a pretty picture.