Two historians discuss the 2016 election

David Vogin

Among the Alumni Day events this year was an unmoderated and lively discussion about the 2016 election between two Princeton historians: Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse. The two professors educated and entertained the crowd in McCosh 10 for more than an hour. A video is available at alumni.princeton.edu; their conversation, which has been shortened and adapted for print, follows:

A historian whose subjects have ranged from Andrew Jackson to Bob Dylan, Professor Sean Wilentz has written major books on Ronald Reagan and U.S. politics since Watergate, the role of political parties, and the emergence of New York City’s working class. His 2005 book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, received the Bancroft Prize, among the most prestigious awards for history writing.
Peter James Field

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. 

Professor Kevin Kruse studies the political and social history of 20th-century America and has particular interests in race, civil rights, religion, and modern conservatism. His most recent book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, examined the rise of American religious nationalism in the mid-20th century and its legacies in American political and religious life.
Peter James Field

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of ... for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

SW: All right, but let’s move it a little further up. You know, the Reagan election of 1980 changed the playing field a great deal. I look back at 1994 as a big year in all of this. After the Republicans lost the White House in 1992, they returned in 1994 with a roaring, big comeback. It was the Contract with America election, you’ll remember, led, above all, by a Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich. I think the polarization really began there.

KK: Yeah. Gingrich really is a key figure to take into account here. Gingrich, who had been a backbencher throughout the 1980s and had been considered a fringe figure, found a way to first take over the Republican Party on behalf of a very hardcore set of conservatives, and then to use that Republican Party to take over national politics. And the tool for that was partisan attacks on your opponents — not seeing them as the gentleman across the aisle, the gentlelady across the aisle, but seeing them as the enemy. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, famously had a memo — “Language: A Key Mechanism For Control.” And the key to this was to refer to Democrats, he said, as people who were sick, people who were out to destroy the country, people who were traitors, to use that exact term — that they were traitors. 

That was something, I think, not entirely new. We’d basically seen this with Joe McCarthy, but it had largely been discredited. What you saw with Gingrich was that language was embraced by his party as a way back. And it was fueled by changes that happened in media, too. And so we have, at the same time Gingrich is coming to power, the demise of the so-called Fairness Doctrine in media, which had said that with any issue of a public controversy, you needed to have both sides: You’ll have a conservative and a liberal debate these issues, and we’ll present both views, and the public can decide. Well, with the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 by the Reagan administration, and the rise of first talk radio and then the internet, you have a very fractured media landscape in which you don’t have to offer both sides. You instead press one point of view very aggressively. And so you had the rise of Rush Limbaugh, the rise of Matt Drudge. You had the creation of, then, Fox News. And there were efforts on the left to try to counter this. They were never as effective as those on the right. But you see the media landscape start to fracture, and so politics becomes incredibly polarized. 

You add in political reforms like gerrymandering, in which large numbers of members of the House never have to deal with a mixed electorate, and are instead dragged further and further to the political poles. They have no incentive to compromise at all — in fact, compromise is what ends their careers.

David Vogin

SW: Let’s continue. So, 1994 was a big deal, but it wasn’t determinative. What happened after that? The way I read it is, there was a process of radicalization going on. It wasn’t just that the Republicans shifted in 1994; it was that all of politics was getting much more radical. Gingrich is replaced by Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. They are a very different kind of Republican than even Gingrich was. It’s almost like the French Revolution without Thermidor. It just keeps on going, you know, more Jacobin, more Jacobin, more Jacobin, and now — I’m not saying we have the Reign of Terror, but nevertheless ... 

The Democrats have their problems, too, God knows. The divisions that were there from the late ’60s between one wing and the other seem to have persisted. They’ve gotten nastier and angrier. It really goes back to 2000, when a portion of the Democrats actually left the party and voted for Ralph Nader [’55]. There was a division within the Democratic Party: What should progressive politics look like? A dynamic has taken over that has led to a radicalization of both parties so that neither party’s really a party anymore. 

KK: What do you mean, not a party?

SW: In the sense that the middle is gone. I mean, political parties historically in American history have always been filters. They’ve always been coalitions, and they act as a stabilizing force in American history. We’re Americans and we’re never going to agree about everything, and there ought to be conflict in politics. But up till now it had been run by parties that had coalitions which, in effect, helped stifle some of those arguments before they became part of a general election. That has fallen away. You had a party structure in the last election on the Republican side that collapsed in the face of a challenge from outside. Say what you will about the president, he was not a Republican particularly before he ran for president. He was able to take that party’s base and move it elsewhere. That’s unthinkable, I think, in a party era. 

KK: We saw the fractures appear in the Democratic Party when they were in charge, and now you’re going to see the fractures in the Republican Party in the same way. The question is: As it’s been said, Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line, right? Democrats always demand purity, right? And so you get this circular firing squad of liberals and leftists angry at each other. The Republicans have been much better at that, and I think you need no greater example than how hard they all fought Trump, and then once he got the nomination, they all marched in line. You’re seeing Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell swallow their pride and fall in line because they’re getting what they want out of Trump at the moment. They’re going to look the other way as long as possible and insist that they’re all on the same team. If his popularity dips, I think we might see the knives come out. 

SW: So where did Trump come from? I mean, how do we explain this? 

KK: Well, we’ve seen all the parts of Trump before. We’ve seen the nativism. We’ve seen the hostility and the use of immigration as a political issue. We’ve seen the nationalism. We’ve seen the conservative populism, the people like George Wallace. I think that what’s really novel here is that these different things that had existed in isolation have come together and really swept away both the conservative opposition that we saw in the primary, and then swept away clean in the general election. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this before, but his success came from putting those together and fueling them in a way that we’d never seen before.

SW: I think that’s right. The question is why did it come together now rather than before? I mean, the Trump phenomenon, people are saying, is not just an American phenomenon, right? There’s Brexit. There’s everything that’s going on in Western Europe. There’s the Russians, always out there somewhere. I’m wondering whether the events of 2008 — the financial collapse — were such a shock to the political system and the ways in which people live their lives that someone like Trump could emerge. 

When Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower, no one thought anything was going to happen. But what I think he understood was that the Republican Party had lost touch with its base. Finally the base turned around and basically flipped them the finger and said, “We’re going with this guy.” The issues that he was talking about — like trade — those are all explicable coming off of 2008. But I also think the political dynamic went back further and that finally ... maybe Trump is Thermidor. Trump is the end of the process. 

SW: So what about the Democrats? Why don’t we talk about them for a while — equal opportunity? I posited that a lot of the divisions that we saw coming up in 2016 were old ones that went back to the division between, should we say, the Johnson Democrats or the Humphrey Democrats back in 1968, and the New Politics Democrats who had rallied first around Eugene McCarthy, then around Robert Kennedy, and then eventually became the McGovern Democrats in 1972. The party remained riven, I think, by those divisions between what used to be the George Meany wing, which became the Reagan wing in 1980; and the New Politics wing, the bicoastal liberals and progressives. Is that what happened in 2016, with the Sanders and Clinton business, or was it something deeper? 

KK: I think the Sanders wing is something that’s really new and surprising. I think what we saw there was tapping into a new wave of resentment, and one from the left against the establishment. In a way, the Republican opposition to Obama paved the way for this, because you had eight years of Republicans screaming that Barack Obama was a socialist. 

Look at any metric for corporate profits, the stock market, the way in which Obamacare was put into effect: It wasn’t what a socialist would’ve done — it was a very conservative approach. But what you have is a whole generation that came to political maturity hearing Barack Obama was a socialist, so suddenly, if they point out that Bernie Sanders was a socialist, they went, “OK, great, more of the same.”

SW: You could say that the Republicans really did the Democrats a lot of damage, then, because it brought out a split in the party that may have cost the Democrats the election in the fall. Screaming “socialist” actually worked, because they created socialists among the young, in particular. But again, I go back to 2008. Do you think that made a difference? I think that it did. 

KK: I think 2008 was a shock, but I think the timing of it was such that it wasn’t enough of a shock. The problem was that the meltdown happened at the very end of George W. Bush’s term and so Obama came in as things were falling apart. It’s as if Franklin Roosevelt had taken power not in 1933 but in 1930, before the Depression had hit rock bottom and everyone realized the old way really is bankrupt and said, “Let’s give the new guy a shot.”

David Vogin with protesters rally photo by Mary Altaffer/AP Images

SW: I think 2008 did change the landscape, especially for the Clinton wing of the party. Hillary Clinton had to run against some of her husband’s actions because the world had changed in 2008. One of the ironies was that Bill Clinton brought a section of the white working class back into the Democratic Party. He took some of those Reagan Democrats back. Those are the people who ended up electing Trump. The irony couldn’t be greater. The Democrats are going to have to figure out again what they’re about.

KK: I think it’s also about how they made their appeal. I don’t want to bash identity politics here, but to some degree they played up not just issues of her being the first woman, but also Trump’s sexism. Rather than play ads about moderate Republicans who couldn’t look their daughters in the eye, they should have been playing ads about working-class contractors that Trump stiffed. It’s what they did with Romney — presented him as the boss who fired you, and everybody could relate to that. And I think if you play those ads in Michigan, that’s going to resonate with people a lot more. 

SW: I don’t think that the candidate used the words “jobs” or “infrastructure” from the convention on, for example. Politically dopey. 

KK: I think you’re onto something. I think they bought into the media frenzy. They got overconfident about that, and they let voters get overconfident. You think back to Saturday Night Live, you know, the weeks before the election — they were treating this as a done deal, you know, that Hillary had this in the bag. 

SW: There’s a fair amount of that. There were also the — how to put it? — other events, which seem to me to be unprecedented. So, speaking as an historian: the hacking, the Russian stuff, and then the FBI director. They just seem unprecedented to me.

KK: They are unprecedented. That’s not a partisan statement. 

SW: I mean Nixon was impeached because the plumbers broke into the Democratic National Committee in 1972, and he lied about it, and da-da-da. This is the Russians breaking into the DNC! This isn’t a bunch of Cuban exiles. This is Vladimir Putin. That’s extraordinary to me. And the way in which, you know, that seems to be even now muddled ... that’s extraordinary. And as for the [FBI] director, I have no idea what he was doing, but I think that it was — what should we say? — it compromised the integrity of the democratic process. Candidates say terrible things about each other all of the time. That’s American political history. But to have an authority figure like that from outside of the process come in and say that, in fact, one of the candidates may be going to jail — that was odd. 

KK: “That was odd.” That’s the understatement of the century.

SW: So where do we go from here? We’re not going to prognosticate, folks. But what are the fields of force? I mean, now that this great hurricane has struck, what does the rubble look like? The Republican Party, as you said, they’re willing to go along with Trump, up to a point. Where will they go if that point gets reached? 

KK: I keep coming back to Nixon. If you look at the Republican Party in the wake of Nixon, again, it was — talk about flash judgments —– it was pronounced dead. One of the activists, Richard Viguerie [a pioneer of direct mail], said, “You’ll never be able to market the term ‘Republican’ again in my lifetime. It’s like the Edsel, or Typhoid Mary.” There was talk about forming a Conservative Party. But they decided against that. They stuck with a label, and they came roaring back in very short order. Six years later, after Watergate has pronounced them dead, they’ve got the Reagan revolution. They did it by rejecting the disgraced president. And this is the question we have now: What happens with the Republican rank and file in the House and the Senate? Where do they decide their interests and his interests diverge, and how much? ... This is where I think the current wave of protest really does matter, as it is giving a lot of those Republicans on the fence some second thoughts. 

SW: And on the other side, what do we see? Did the primary so divide the party, do you think, that there’s not a chance for them to cohere, or do you think that they will?

KK: I think they will. You’ve already started to see this, Bernie Sanders and Organizing for America, the Obama group, have come together on a couple issues. People have tried to make up this false divide in the DNC between [newly elected DNC chairman Tom] Perez as Obama’s candidate and [DNC challenger Rep.] Keith Ellison as Sanders’ candidate. These guys have dinner together. They’re friends. They’re on the same page. Nothing brings together a party more than being in opposition. 

SW: Defeat concentrates the mind wonderfully.

KK: There are going to be House elections in the coming months. If Democrats can mobilize behind those campaigns, I think that’s important. Another thing the Democrats need to do that they’ve neglected is remember that all politics are local, and it’s not just about the president. Republicans have been invested in state and local elections for decades now, and they have reaped the benefits of that. They have taken over state legislatures. They have taken over local city councils. They’ve worked on school boards. Liberals do not understand the importance of school boards. Conservatives absolutely do, not just in terms of effecting local policy, but in becoming a feeding ground for larger politics. 

VIEW the full Wilentz-Kruse conversation from Alumni Day

Virtually every issue, no matter what you care about as a voter, it gets channeled through state politics. The states are in charge of redistricting, which leads to that gerrymandering, which leads to the control of Congress. They are in charge of voting rights, which determines who gets access to the franchise. So even if you just care about national politics, they still go through the state level.