Leading historians on how 2016 wasn’t a unique election year, but the winner was

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Historians of the future will likely ask how and why Donald Trump’s election victory was possible—as well as why so many supposedly clever people really, really didn’t see it coming.

But while there are never direct parallels with the past, history tells us that the structural factors—namely political discontent and social and economic stratification—that helped propel Trump to the White House are not unique to 2016, even if Trump himself is.

“Americans have elected populists in the past,” says Rhys Jones, a research fellow in history at the University of Cambridge. “What’s unusual about Trump is the unpredictability and contingency of it.”

1900: The impact of structural economic change

Back in the late 19th century, as America’s economy shifted from an agricultural to an industrialized one, there were feelings of disorientation, threat, and anxiety, says Frank Cogliano, a professor in American history at the University of Edinburgh. These, he says, were similar to what many workers have felt with the more recent shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.

The outcomes of the two eras, however, were different. “Where political alienation in the 1890s produced the Progressive Movement, our moment has seen a transnational turn against reform and state intervention,” Cogliano says. “Then, they elected [Theodore] Roosevelt as president as a Republican committed to reforming the excesses of capitalism; today we face the prospect of a Trump presidency seemingly premised on repealing those reforms.”

“For a historian, it’s a very familiar world to me,” says Dr. Adam Smith, at University College London. But, he says, the current moment is scarier than the past. ”Technology, travel, and the global movement of people are now more integrated, it’s even harder to build walls and barriers, so to try to do so now seems to be even more dangerous than it was for the US to do so in the late 19th century when it imposed Chinese exclusion laws.”

And while the structural factors may not be unprecedented, Trump is. “He’s the least qualified candidate ever to win the presidency of the USA, [and the] first person elected who has never served public office or a military post,” Cogliano points out.

It’s also unclear how much the Republican party will be able to tone Trump down, as has happened with previous presidents, explains Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at the University of Cambridge. “In past populist surges, one of the two main political parties was usually able to tame the populist protesters to a certain extent: to bring them into the world of party politics, to get them accustomed to a political world of compromise, to smooth over some of their rough edges—and anger.” However, “[Trump] has bent the party to his will, rather than the other way around. That may be unprecedented.”

1932: The response to the Great Depression

The 1932 presidential election, which Franklin D. Roosevelt won in a landslide, happened on the back of the Great Depression, and the feeling that the political elite couldn’t connect to the people. In that sense there are some similarities with the 2016 election environment.

But once again, the outcome is very different. “One major, major difference is that FDR had clever people around him who had spent years developing policy, and he had good relations, on the whole, with his party establishment,” Smith points out.

Trump has, so far, surrounded himself with a slew of retired generals and deal-making business moguls with little or no government experience. He spent much of the campaign alienating other Republicans, and policies such as his tariff proposals don’t sit well with many of them. Smith explains:

Ultimately, FDR was an insider who wanted to be an insider—he just wanted a more active government to redress urgent economic problems. He was a far more conservative figure than his critics at the time alleged or feared. Trump on the other hand is a genuine loose cannon, with no mooring in ideology, the party, Congress or anything else.

1800: The backlash against globalization

Then there are parallels with the election that saw Thomas Jefferson come to power. Both Jefferson and Trump revelled in “the anti-globalist agenda—the belief that America can be a world unto itself, which it never can—or the credo of anti-elitism, that is, that America should be run exclusively by the people without reference to expertise, and consequences be damned,” Jones says.

Again, though, the comparison ends when we look at Trump himself. When anti-elitist, anti-globalist instincts gained traction in the US in the past, they were largely “directed by rational actors” such as Theodore Roosevelt and Jefferson, Jones says. It’s fair to say Trump doesn’t belong to that bracket. “[His] presidency will be the ultimate stress test on the constitutional architecture of the USA.”

“The lesson is to be completely fearful for the future,” he adds. “It’s difficult to say a lot of things without sounding hyperbolic, [but] 2016 has killed hyperbole to some extent.”

The allure of the populist strongman such as Trump—and his counterparts across the Atlantic—offers a broader lesson, too, says Smith:

We shouldn’t be suckered in by demagogues who promise to fix the system through their singular will. Liberal democracy doesn’t come to an end only with military coups, but with the slow erosion of faith in the messy process of political compromise.

2016: How will it look in the future?

Historians aren’t in the business of predicting the future, but I asked those I spoke to how they might reflect on such a seismic year as 2016 in the years to come.

“Historians will be genuinely fascinated by how it was that so many people of a certain type got it all so completely wrong,” Smith says. “It could be a series of incredible accidents that remind us that that’s what history can turn on.” 

For Herrick Chapman at New York University, the question is whether 2017 will see the strongmen of 2016 amass more power, or be tamed. “We all face crucial choices between retreating into nationalism and various kinds of xenophobia in the vain hope of finding answers to problems that still require, more than ever, a capacity for people to build transnational solidarities and capacities to cooperate,” he says. ”We can’t address climate change, security threats, or global (and intra-national) inequalities by thickening borders.”

But we’ve retreated from globalization in the past, Gerstle says, and we need to be prepared for a similar move away in the future. “I can’t say what the world will look like in 10 years, except there will be a struggle between populist nationalist forces and those promoting globalization… The world in 2026 will depend on who wins that struggle.”