Mark Twain is credited with all sorts of things he never said or wrote. He did not say “history never repeats itself but it rhymes.” That exact line, as best can be established, stems from a 1970 poem by Robert Colombo, though the sentiment dates back at least to the nineteenth century.
To the nineteenth century is also where we need to look in order to make sense of the populist moment that by 2016 has erected a threatening proscenium in the political theater. The background of this play has been decided upon, the players cast, the lighting rigged. What is unclear is how many acts it will have, and which trajectory it will follow, though Donald Trump’s many not-likeable qualities surely combine into a hamartia worthy of any Greek protagonist.
History is not an exact science. It is a narrative view of the world, and as such can attempt to explain things that otherwise defy explanation. It does this by referencing itself, but also by turning to ever new methods of discovery and to ever new frames of analysis. The frames of analysis drilled into me as a student of American history were those of race, class, and gender. Along with economic concerns, this trifecta is one of the most useful ways of understanding changes in the United States. Look at one of them, or at several of them in combination, and you can see how the pieces move across the chess board. Knowingly or unknowingly, these four categories define every American voter. It is their intersection that is always hard to assess, and impossible to quantify.
Bill Clinton in 1992 made “It’s the economy, stupid” one of the catchphrases of his run. Hillary Clinton in 2016 did no such thing. She appealed to gender, and to racial minorities, but neglected the racial majority, and class. Lower-income whites, in a country with a changing demographic, are feeling threatened. The depth of this feeling was constantly underestimated. Part of the problem is the conversation in progressive circles that points to real economic benefits to some, but more seldom to real and also imagined, but just as important, feelings among the “basket of deplorables.” Deplorable they may be, but they vote. The Trump victory, as Van Jones rightly pointed out on CNN, is a “whitelash.” It is a screaming “We’re here, too and we don’t like what’s happening!” from working-class whites who may not think of themselves as racist, but clearly are. And of those who have no shame in calling themselves racist.
This, however, is not enough to explain Trump’s appeal. Racism has been rampant throughout American history. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court is part of this story, as is everyday racism and sexism. Would the election have turned out differently if a male candidate had run against Trump instead of a woman, even if everything else had been the same? To expect that women will automatically vote for a candidate because she is a woman is just as patronizing as to expect that men will not. It is impossible to ignore that a large number of Americans appear to be casually fine with Trump’s sexism, but it is uncertain in how far sexist backlash motivates voters.
Which narrative, then, are we to pick to explain the Trumpian moment? It is a narrative that encompasses all four aspects; race, class, gender, and the economy. It’s a story that goes back further than the many comparisons to Weimar Germany, Agrarian populism, and the early and mid-twentieth century in general that are sure to emerge as frames to measure the 2016 election.
Our story connects to the contentious election of 1800, to the vitriol a partisan media slung and the media space in which this occurred: one of partisan newspapers. Democracy, in order to function, needs, as the ultimately successful contender in that election, Thomas Jefferson, pointed out, a “well informed” electorate. How well informed the electorate was at the beginning of the nineteenth century is certainly debatable. But today, in a media sphere in which facts have become optional and in which bubbles have led to people assuming most others think like them, it is even more so.
The movement that helps explain Trump’s success is the movement behind Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and 1830s. Jackson was a “self-made man”, a political outsider, a populist, an irrascible figure and a shrewd operator in the arena of politics. He demonized the Alexander Hamilton-created banking system (as close as the Early Republic got to a “Washington Consensus”), he appealed to hatred of the other (the Trail of Tears reverberates in its inhumanity through the centuries, and the rhetoric directed against Indians as enemies of the republic has an eerily familiar tone to it as well), and he lashed out against personal enemies.
What I have earlier called reparticularization – the dissolution of a generally trusted mainstream journalism into a fractured mass of many small media outlets not bound to any ethical standards – has provided fertile ground for similar grassroots movements in the past decades. Trump, with his masterful use of new media, especially Twitter, has capitalized on this new media landscape. He is not the twenty-first century’s Andrew Jackson. But he sure as hell rhymes with him.