Trump Explained: The Long View

June 8, 2020

Photo of Donald Trump

Written by guest blogger Bruce Tucker.

I graduated in American History at the University of Toronto in 1970, the year that the Canadian Review of American Studies (CRAS ) began publication. In 1970 radical movements such as feminism, resistance to imperialism and war in southeast Asia, and the civil rights and black power movements were transforming American culture and society. Fifty years later, after a career as a history professor and university administrator, I am still fascinated by the political culture of a country facing possibly its greatest domestic crisis ever, led by a president with a boundless ego and profound  ignorance of science, history, the Constitution and political process. The need for critical American studies is just as acute in 2020 as it was fifty years ago.

Donald Trump may seem an aberration, a strange departure from the usual politically experienced presidential candidate with a record of public service, and much journalistic commentary has focused on his childish personality, hypersensitivity to criticism, and readiness to take revenge on critics. How could such a man—with no political or governmental experience, who boasts about groping women, who encourages violence and racism and lies daily—become president of the United States?

Looking back, we can see that Trump emerged from long-term transformations in the Republican party set in motion by its opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which greatly expanded government’s role in the lives of ordinary citizens. During World War II, wealthy entrepreneurs, whose descendants remain active today, started funding right wing efforts to cut back that expansion. Since then, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on think tanks and right-wing media outlets to promote their ideology and on political campaigns to elect officials promising to lower taxes, reduce services, and roll back environmental protections.  Thus, in 1980, Ronald Reagan asserted that government was the problem and should get out of the way. These policies, in addition to the “off-shoring” of well-paying, unionized jobs, have exacerbated inequality in the distribution of wealth and income underway since the Reagan era. Republicans have pitted themselves against the redistribution of wealth and have reduced the ability of government to deliver good quality health care, education and social services to ordinary Americans.

In response to this rightwing campaign, Democrats let Republicans set the terms of the political discourse and failed to create a principled opposition.  In the election of 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to the racism of white voters angry about African American gains, especially voting rights. After three straight Republican presidential victories, Bill Clinton followed, moving right and embracing implicitly racist “tough on crime” and anti-welfare rhetoric to regain disgruntled white voters who had deserted the party.

More recently, such voters have turned to the right again after many lost homes and income in the Great Recession of 2008, adding their voices to those of the well-off who continued to support right wing policies. After the incoming Obama administration failed to respond vigorously to the collapse, these constituencies were ready in 2016 to respond to Trump’s blaming, divisiveness, and racism. From the perspective of the last fifty years, Trump was hardly an aberration.

Bruce Tucker is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Windsor. He received his BA from the University of Toronto in 1970 and his PhD from Brown University in 1979. He has published widely in American cultural and intellectual history. He is co-author with Priscilla L. Walton of American Culture Transformed: Dialing 911 (London 2012).

His latest article in the Canadian Review of American Studies entitled “Introduction—Fifty Years of American Studies” is free to read for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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