Friday, October 14, 2016

History: Long ago, and more recently

I thought it was finally time to take a break from checking Nate Silver every hour on the hour and to put some real thoughts on screen (read: it's the end of fall break and the gerbil wheel has slowed just a bit).

I'm curious if my historian friends out there also find themselves re-thinking their approach to U.S. history based on the current election. I know I am. I'm sure one of my historian friends named Daniel is thinking now, "C'mon, I could have told you what a reactionary group Americans make when I was living in the ghetto for SDS in the 1960s!" But here's the thing, I don't think to date I've had any illusions about the power or racism and misogyny in American politics. When I teach slavery, I make sure to disabuse students of their notions based on Gone with the Wind (ok, so millennials probably haven't seen Gone with the Wind) by showing them a video about the rampant sexual assault of slaves, as well as such humiliating practices as muzzling them. I rush through the Civil War to focus on the tragedy of Reconstruction. My students don't leave my survey without knowing that America closed its immigration gates for the middle decades of the twentieth century (on top of long-standing exclusion of Asians), in fact explicitly and successfully making a whiter America that many older voters today remember. And I never claimed that the quest for women's equity ended in the 1960s. Beyond the base-line racism and sexism in American society, I also understand that American politics have always been tribal, from the Democratic Party's embrace of Irish immigrants in the 1840s to the the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party in the 1850s, to say nothing of the century-long allegiance between African Americans and the Republican Party or the gender gap that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. And yet somehow, whether Trump loses or wins, I still underestimated the current power and force of tribalism and downright hatred in American politics.

Now let me offer some important caveats. The election is about more than racism and misogyny. The college-educated wing of the Republican Party (and yes, that last clause is unabashedly elitest) offers some legitimate critiques of the regulatory state, some of which I share. (We'll save some of Trump's truly dangerous ideas -- see trade -- below). I realize that Hillary is a deeply flawed candidate. And this election also reveals the continued power of party identification. (One of the myths out there is that because many millennials have declined formal membership in one of the main parties, somehow the parties are fading. If Trump can get 40% of the vote, I think a yellow dog with "GOP" on his back would get 30%.) Party strength aside, I also realize that many millennials/Bernie supporters are sitting this out, though I think it's getting harder and harder for them to muster their Tweedledee/Tweedledum argument about the two main candidates. Finally, it's crucial to remember that the Trump phenomenon is part of a global story. In the past generation, the only demographic in the world that has seen its incomes decline is middle income earners in the wealthy developed nations. In other words, the anti-globalization Trumpenproletariat. Er, check this out: the chart actually makes an elephant!!

But these caveats aside, I just can't wrap my head about the fact that Trump can explicitly run on the strategy of fomenting racial and religious bigotry, and brag about sexual assault, and dabble with proto-fascism (or at least banana republicanism) by threatening to jail his opponent and calling for his henchman to intimidate voters on election day, and still be projected to receive 42% of the vote. And this doesn't even address the Kafka-esque matter of his campaign truly embracing a post-factual world. It's a micro example, but how can he get away with tweeting that he won "every poll" after the second debate, when it fact he lost according to most non-internet-click-bait polls? It's just surreal.

Trump did not come out of thin air. The GOP base chose him, and GOP elites made him. Every time party elites refused to say "no" to the birther movement, for example, or whatever other racist conspiracy theory the base was dabbling in at the moment, and every time party elites refused to call a halt to the near-Apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of elected officials, to say nothing of the average talk radio listener, the establishment created the climate that allowed Trump to win, its faux claims of shock and horror this season aside. My friend Jim summed it up well on FB a few days ago. He's a historian, too, partly of Native Americans -- so he knows all about the history of racism in this country. When he ran for Congress, he encountered remarkably explicit racism in the field, e.g, someone asking him "Do you support that "n----r" president?" And yet even Jim still says that something feels different this time around. (And it's not just an unscientific feeling; studies are showing that white racism has increased in the past several years in the U.S., and whites now argue that anti-white racism is a worse problem than anti-Black racism. I'm happy to meet conservatives half-way here -- there's plenty of anti-white bigotry out there -- but that latter finding is just frightening and patently false, to say nothing of historically ignorant.) No wonder radical Christian terrorists were just arrested in Liberal, Kansas for planning to blow up Somalian immigrants, their families, and mosque on November 9. They called themselves crusaders, and they're Trump supporters.

So I guess the point of this entry is that I'm agreeing with Jim, and that Trump has forced me to rethink my Whiggish, Hegelian notions about progress in this country. Yes, even our very real material abundance for 70% aside (gee, wouldn't it be nice if Hillary would actually talk about hunger and poverty in this country?), things ARE a lot better for many people in the U.S. than they were a generation ago. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates observes as much. But progress is not linear -- ask the women of New Jersey who could vote in 1800, but not in 1820. And although I don't think we're really going to see an actual turn to fascism -- it looks like the party system will contain the hatred and demagoguery this time around -- it would be nice if the unthinking jingoistic folks out there would tone down their chest-thumping a bit and focus instead on how we can improve American democracy (a good first step: actually try to encourage voting instead of suppressing it). Which reminds me, thinking of the birthers, it's amazing how little it takes for a Republican to earn a soft spot with me nowadays. I loved that John McCain -- who rejected a birther claims at a debate 8 YEARS AGO -- called the NFL out on their cheap patriotism for hire. Turns out all those military reunions at NFL games were secretly paid for by the Army ... 

But anyway I digress. This is an historically themed entry. And I can think of two examples right off the bat of how I'm thinking differently post-Trump. First, when it comes to explaining the conservative ascendancy in the 1960s, I used to bend over backwards to argue in class that many factors other than race and racism were responsible. The Right had been building a cogent critique of New Deal statism ever since the 1930s, etc. etc. But I don't really buy it any more. We historians love to complicate, but maybe this one IS nearly as simple as the following formula: Democratic Party support for Civil Rights Movement + (bread and butter American racism * misogynistic backlash against the feminist movement) = white males in the South especially move to the GOP.  LBJ was correct after signing the 1964 Civil Rights in saying that he had "just handed the GOP to the South for a generation." Or, he would have been correct if he'd predicted three generations. 

Second, there's no way anyone is going to convince me now that racial anxieties -- or, at the very least, discomfort with the pace of social change writ large -- were not the leading cause of the 2009/10 anti-Obama backlash. The stimulus worked, and the healthcare plan, for all its many flaws, was a Republican idea. I know; Dad promoted the mandate in the early '90s. Ok I love that this link still survives. I'm surprised the American Enterprise Institute hasn't taken down the "In their plan, every American would be required to buy insurance, and tax credits would be available" blurb on Dad's book. 

I understand Hillary just wants to run out the clock, and I'd probably do the same thing, but I wish in the few weeks ahead that she'd talk a little more history. First, she should talk about the Donald's stupid war on free trade, which nonpartisan groups argue could cost millions of jobs, in the context of defending Obamacare. The two are not unrelated. Ever since Andrew Jackson (and really Jefferson), the Democratic Party has been the party of free trade; the Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans, the party of tariffs and other illiberal trade policies. In the early 1930s, after the disastrous ok unwise Smoot-Hawley Tariff (remember your high school textbook?), FDR essentially offered northern workers the welfare state in exchange for freer trade. (Credit for these ideas here also goes to historian Eric Rauchway at UC Davis, who delivered a fine paper on FDR and this trade-off at this past summer's Policy History Conference.) Fast forward 80 years, and the white working class, initially plenty happy to take state largesse, has largely turned against the welfare state, certainly in part because it became racialized in the 1960s. So here comes Trump, offering them the old shibboleth of trade barriers. Hillary should explain that healthcare is just one of many safeguards that all wealthy industrialized nations offer to cushion the blows of the messy unpredictability of capitalism. (Better a single payer system paid for by eliminating Trump's tax loopholes, but you see my point.)

Second, I wish Hillary would nationalize these elections more, and urge people to vote in a Democratic Senate. I understand she is walking a fine line here, and can't alienate the moderate Republicans who support her. Still, she should explain that Trump's attitudes toward women are more than the ideas of one jackass; in fact, they articulate one wing of the Republican Party's deep-seated misogyny, or cultural conservatism, if we are to be very kind. Trump's comments on the bus were horrific, of course (and, to become the millionth guy to make this point, much worse than anything I heard in my high school locker rooms; we objectified body parts left and right, but we never talked about forcing ourselves on women), but it's also horrific that many congressional Republicans believe that women should not be able to abort pregnancies that result from rape. It's horrific that the party declared war on Planned Parenthood (state support for which is truly one of the best ways to reduce the abortion rate), and it's horrific that they were dragged kicking and screaming into renewing the Violence Against Women Act. The American people get the candidates they deserve. 

That's my two cents on the election. Now, there's nothing left to do except drink a lot of beer. Might I recommend Proper Brewing Co's new Oktoberfest Mabon, or perhaps its exquisite new Tripel? Bumper stickers for sale, proudly imported from China low-tariff.


  1. Good post, Derek. I don't have time to say much, but a couple of quibbles: 1) The Smoot Hawley Tariff wasn't a disaster, at least not for the US. Quoting Christine Romer, "Scholars now believe that these policies (Smoot-Hawley and letter protectionist moves) may have reduced trade somewhat, but were not a significant cause of the Depression in the large industrial producers." (I don't have the URL handy.) 2) I don't see why the Dems should rally behind free trade and trade agreements that give intellectual property protection to Big Pharma and the like. TPP isn't such a big deal one way or the other in my book, and NAFTA was no great blessing for the US economy or for significant parts of Mexico's. 3)Besides, I don't think there's much of a consistent ideology of free trade in the Democratic Party's history, and much of what there is came from Southern Dems eager for agricultural exports as a means of preserving their race and class supremacy.
    Well, maybe a little more than quibbles, but in any event, a good statement of our distressing reality and its historic context.

    1. Thanks Daniel and great comments. I am guilty as charged for oversimplifying the trade story ... and I support fair trade, not purely free trade to be sure. Still, if actually followed through on (of course much of what he says is bluster) Trump's plans would lead to a disastrous trade war. I agree Smoot-Hawley was not THE key -- I promise I have written exactly that in print -- but it was still royally stupid. I'm in the neither debacle nor miracle camp for NAFTA, and of course we can't roll back the tape for the counterfactual. But I am simply too good a neoliberal, as you know, to oppose it. AS for your point about the racial origins of support for free-trade in the South ... ok, an excellent and ironic observation ... but I think the nation's agricultural recurring surpluses are the bigger part of the story.