(Note: this article was written and published in 2016. Information and opinions therein are relevant to the time of application).
One of those aphorisms that surfaces quite frequently, largely because it’s right, is that ‘history never repeats, but it rhymes.’ Indeed, one of the more interesting and entertaining aspects of History is the hair-splittingly complex process of comparing events, individuals and decisions across time and place. If it’s happened, it can happen again, provided you agree on what ‘it’ is; but then again, just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t, unless of course it’s physically impossible. More often than not, evidence can be accumulated on both sides, and then the argument plays itself out over dinner, or in the pub, or in volleys of abuse on Twitter.
Surprised commentators have been scrabbling around in attempts to explain the Trump candidacy. As you’ll know, Donald Trump is running for (and at time of writing conceivably may win) the Republican Presidential Nomination, despite being neither a conservative, which isn’t entirely required, or even much of a Republican. Commentators have seen this, with some justification, as representing the ‘conservative crack-up.’ The invaluable Walter Russell Mead, writing in The American Interest, described it as the resurgence of Jacksonian populism; which, in shorthand, is represented by the sort of Americans that people who don’t like Americans, which includes plenty of Americans, think all Americans are like. If you talk to Ivy League Americans, they will be at pains to distinguish themselves from Jacksonian populism.
In much the same way, it was a risky move amongst educated types to admit to sympathy for UKIP. Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says in Much Ado, but it’s not too much of a stretch to see the same appeal to a similar demographic.
I am informed that the typical UKIP voter, to over-simplify the matter, was a white male of or above middle age, whose occupation is sufficiently valuable to be a level above entry jobs but which either has a low ceiling or is endangered by technological advance. In other words, the exact demographic that has shared – at least from its own perspective – in none of the gains of the past twenty years; moreover, feels strongly that gains of others have come at its expense.
The same phenomena are, unsurprisingly, at work in the US. The Jacksonian feels that America is no longer ‘his’ America; that nobody asked him for his opinion and, when he gave it, ‘they’ ignored it.
In the same way that it was far too simplistic to label UKIP a ‘right-wing’ movement, so it goes for the Trump phenomenon. After all the warnings, it just didn’t turn out that you voted UKIP and you got Labour; the ‘right-wing’ vote, such as it is, didn’t fracture as did the centre-left vote in 1983. Similarly, those who back Trump are right-wing only by some criteria; they are, clearly, not bound by any easily-identifiable ideology.
To return to the first paragraph, this is a prime example of trying to find a suitably pleasing precedent. Donald Trump certainly isn’t a revenant Andrew Jackson; but, in terms of finding characters that fracture the convenient consensus, there are other plausible candidates. The election of 1912 has been mentioned more than once and, at face value, it looks like a solid example: the energetic Theodore Roosevelt, a man for whom tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough, tired of his replacement as Republican President, William Howard Taft, and ran as a ‘Progressive’ third-party candidate, commonly known as the Bull Moose Party from Roosevelt’s assertion that he was ‘as strong as a bull moose.’
Tempting though it is to see this as the textbook precedent, given that Roosevelt and Taft neatly split 50% of the vote, thus permitting Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win with a plurality, it is misleading. For one thing, Roosevelt really was running as a Progressive, dependant on state direction and activity; activity being one thing Roosevelt really was good at, unlike the more naturally conservative Taft. Wilson was a proto-technocrat, who, like Roosevelt, believed in a strong presidency. A line could easily be drawn from Wilson to the 2016 Democrat nominee, but Trump and Whomever simply don’t fit these roles. The contentious issues of 1912 do not translate well to today.
A likelier possibility is 1992, when billionaire businessman Ross Perot launched his Reform Party bid, addressing the same fears of economic slowdown and a global shift in the centre of prosperity; he referred to ‘the giant sucking sound’ caused by jobs leaving the US as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perot racked up nearly 19% of the vote, claiming the support of those who, above all, wanted somebody to at least appear as though they would ‘tell it like it is’ and would break the habit that legislators fall into, whatever their political stripe: when they reach the centres of power, everybody plays by the same rules.
The desire for someone – anyone! – to represent those who feel excluded by the governing class largely informs the effect of the Trump candidacy. In consequence, the election 2016 more closely resembles is that of 1968, in which the former Democrat Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ran on an ‘American Independent’ ticket of states’ rights that arguably cost Vice-President Hubert Humphrey the election. This was a direct appeal to the Deep South, the segregationist South, who had never really got over losing the Civil war and were damned if they were going to have equality in their states.
There was certainly racism in the appeal, but we have to be rather more intelligent about these phenomena instead of dismissing them as the whoops of Neanderthals. We have to comprehend a substantial sub-stratum of the population who don’t have the skills, don’t have the voice, don’t have the professional clout to fight back in the channels we (dear reader) would employ. They feel dictated to by those above, even by those whom (they fondly imagined) were on their side. The key word to recall is ‘populism’: the appeal to a body of the electorate that feels disenfranchised and warms to a rhetorician who promises to do something – anything! – about it.
Not, I hasten to add, that Trump’s support is comprised of card-carrying segregationists. There are some dubious fringe characters, but more could be attributed to envy and resentment – which is why several commentators have noted the overlap between the appeal of Trump and that of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Socialist running for the Democrat nomination. Feelings of inequity + feelings of exclusion + populist appeal of ‘outsider’ = Wallace and Trump and Sanders. Populist demagoguery will occasionally get you quite far in politics; sometimes as far as actual power. And that, of course, is when the real fun begins.