Sean Wilentz
Sameer A. Khan

Less than three months in, 2016 is already shaping up to be the most tumultuous year in American politics since 1968. In the aftermath of pivotal primaries in Florida and Ohio, PAW asked Professor Sean Wilentz, the Bancroft Prize-winning author of seven books, including The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics, which will be published in May, to assess the topsy-turvy race so far, and where it might go from here.

Hillary Clinton seems to have the nomination sewn up. Can she bring the Democratic Party together in the fall?

I think she can. Much of the opposition she has faced reflexively dislikes her and has been interested in sending a message. Sanders’ supporters succeeded in that. If Clinton campaigns well, though, they will see that, though different, she is far closer to them than they may have thought. And the prospect of a Trump presidency, or any Republican presidency, ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully.

Where does Bernie Sanders fit into the American political tradition?

Sanders is a socialist senator who nominally became a Democrat last year in order to contest for the Democratic nomination. If chosen, he would need to gain support from what he has sneered at as “the establishment,” which is in actuality the Democratic Party. It would be an odd situation which did not bode well either for Sanders or the party.

How about Donald Trump?

There has been nothing like him in American presidential politics, ever. He is truly outside politics, let alone party politics. The Republican Party has been hollowing itself out for 40 years by serving its donor class while whipping up a frustrated right-wing base, so it became ripe for this sort of hostile, even violent, takeover.

What do you make of Ted Cruz ’92, a politician who is running against politics?

Cruz has his admirers, but he is the most disliked man in the Senate – and that’s just among Republicans! He owes nothing to all but a handful of his Republican colleagues, nor they to him. But he unlike Trump is from inside the party. For some Republicans, this makes Cruz’s campaign the last ditch against Trump. But to others, it makes Cruz more dangerous: If Trump were to lose the general election, they surmise, he will go away, whereas Cruz will not go away. But no matter the candidate, win or lose, the Republican Party is in great danger of splitting up, which would be truly extraordinary.

Is there any way Trump can still be denied the nomination?

I don’t think so. Even if Trump doesn’t win a majority of delegates, I can easily see him and Cruz – both “anti-establishment” hell-raisers – making some sort of deal, and that would be that. Admittedly, though, that would be normal politics, and it’s been an abnormal year – so we’ll just have to see.

Would you care to venture a prediction of how the election is going to turn out?

Even before the rise of Trump, this loomed as a historic, pivotal election. If the Republicans win – no matter whom they nominate – the Supreme Court will be very conservative for a very long time, and the GOP will control every level of government, from the state legislatures to all three federal branches. Dominated by what used to be considered the hard right, the Republicans then would do all that the liberals have feared they would do, and more.

If Hillary Clinton is her party’s nominee, the chances are good the Democrats win the White House and also regain the Senate. Then the Supreme Court would become much more liberal. Everything would be different. Those are the choices.

Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83