Sean Wilentz: Trump Ushers In the Age of American Paranoia

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The new wax figure of Donald Trump at Madame Tussauds, January 18, in Washington. Sean Wilentz writes that Trump’s propaganda singled out for attack the corporate beneficiaries of free trade arrangements and a supposed dark conspiracy of internationalist bankers and financiers (all of those identified being Jewish)—the latest moneyed, cosmopolitan bogeymen of the paranoid imagination. Mario Tama/Getty

Exactly a year ago, writing the introduction to a book I'd just finished on the history of American politics, I contended that the Great Crash of 2008 had led to the resurgence of a long-dormant egalitarianism, "compelling Republicans as well as Democrats to decry the massive and growing divergences between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the country."

Discontent over economic inequality clearly was roiling the impending presidential nomination contests inside both major parties.

No one, though, could have envisaged how those contests would turn into two more-or-less hostile takeover bids, and how the success of one of these bids would lead to the election of Donald J. Trump to the White House.

Nor could anyone have foreseen the unprecedented events of the 2016 campaign that pummeled basic American democratic norms.

There had been, to be sure, singularly dirty, bitter and irregular races before. These included four elections, in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, in which the winner of the popular vote failed to carry a majority of the Electoral College, thereby clouding the legitimacy of the incoming administration.

But no previous election had seen direct interference by a major adversarial foreign power commensurate with the Russian Federation's systematic computer hacking and related online operations in support of Trump—operations that Trump, on the campaign trail, at one point loudly encouraged.

Never before had an FBI director gratuitously ignored official regulations and guidelines and harmed the reputation of one candidate, as James Comey did publicly with respect to Hillary Clinton and her email server, even as he remained silent about his agency's investigations of grievous wrongdoing by the other candidate.

Whether these startling interventions actually turned the election, as many of Clinton's supporters insist they did, is impossible to know for sure and probably always will be.

Without question, though, these actions, amplified by the sensationalizing effects of social media and the sheer vitriol of the campaign, were brazen assaults on the integrity of democratic politics.

Related: Sean Wilentz: We are witnessing the degradation of democracy

Aside from the wrenching anomalies, the election did in some respects affirm the continued importance of partisanship and the egalitarian tradition in American politics, albeit in odd, sometimes distorted and deeply ironic ways. As ever, the parties became at once the chief battlegrounds and main vehicles for expressing all sorts of political distempers.

On the right, the real-estate mogul and reality-TV star Trump successfully commandeered a large portion of the long-frustrated, hyper-polarized Republican Party base by demonizing illegal immigration from Mexico along with international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

On the left, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, self-described democratic socialist running as a Democrat, aroused support among younger voters, especially on and around college and university campuses, by attacking the same trade deals as Trump did, as well as unregulated campaign contributions by large corporations and billionaire donors.

Although Sanders considered running as a third party candidate, he, like Trump, decided that contending inside one of the two major parties would do far more to advance his candidacy and his cause. Post-partisanship appealed to neither man, even though both of them vilified establishment politics as usual; instead of eschewing the parties, they would try to take them over.

To the astonishment of the political pundits and Trump's Republican rivals—16 in all—Trump won the Republican nomination handily; and in time he won the endorsement of most of the GOP leadership, including some men he had humiliated and others who had called him unfit for high office.

Sanders, by contrast, failed to capture most Democratic base voters, roughly two-thirds of whom cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, but he gained a passionate following among independents who in numerous states were eligible to participate in the Democrats' nominating process.

The Sanders insurgency rattled Clinton, especially in caucus primary states, and pushed her marginally toward some of Sanders's own positions, notably on trade policy. It also persuaded millions of voters that she is a corrupt lackey of Wall Street, a tag that, despite Sanders's endorsement of her in mid-July, severely hobbled the Clinton campaign in the general election.

Harping as they did on international trade gave both Trump and Sanders a wedge issue inside their respective parties, where different versions of liberal trade policies had taken hold as common-sense approaches to a globalizing economy.

Bashing freer trade became a simplified, even demagogic but highly effective way for the self-designated outsiders to appeal to white working-class voters as well as enthusiastic, idealistic so-called millennials.

In truth, the hollowing out of much of traditional industrial America had begun decades before NAFTA and other liberalizing trade agreements had been put in place. Economists generally agreed that changes in the terms of international trade, intended to create new jobs, had had little to do with further depressing certain sectors of the industrial workforce compared with more important factors, automation above all.

But by singling out trade policy and especially NAFTA—"one of the worst deals ever made of any kind signed by anybody," according to Trump; "a disaster for the American worker," according to Sanders—the challengers provided a focus for popular insecurity and outrage that implicated the much-derided establishment of both major parties.

(Trump's attacks on illegal immigrants became another focus, as did Sanders and his supporters' diatribes against Clinton as a neo-liberal epigone of "the billionaire class.") Rebutting these charges would have required arguments more complex than a soundbite or a slogan; in any event, neither Trump's Republican rivals nor Clinton succeeded in blunting these lines of attack.

And so the election concluded in a stunning irony: a campaign whose rhetoric had turned largely on rising economic inequalities, real and perceived, yielded a billionaire president who proceeded to stuff his cabinet with super-rich men and women—the $14 billion cabinet, one source called it—thereby rounding out what loomed as the most plutocratic executive branch ever in our history.

How much that result will change the nation's basic political and constitutional structures is uncertain as Trump takes office—uncertainty whose very existence bespeaks the campaign's disorienting effects.

Had any other Republican candidate won the presidency, and had the GOP retained control of the Senate as well as the House, domestic and foreign policy could have been expected to take a sharply conservative, even reactionary turn, reinforced by highly conservative appointments to the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary. Trump's success seems to augur exactly this sort of turn with respect to most domestic policies as well as to judicial selections.

But Trump's evident admiration of and even closeness to the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, along with his dismissals of NATO and the European Union, breaks not only with long-established Republican positions but with what remains of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that emerged after World War II.

His offhand remarks during the campaign about nuclear proliferation and other touchy subjects have unnerved ordinary citizens as well as experts all across the political spectrum.

His cavalier observations about bedrock constitutional freedoms and longstanding court precedents raises questions about his understanding of the Constitution that he is about to pledge his honor to preserve, protect and defend.

Trump's lax view of possible conflicts of interest with his sprawling and often obscure global business interests feeds concerns about flagrantly unethical dealings and even violations of the Constitution,

The campaign as well as Trump's victory also suggest that the partisanship and egalitarianism that have long shaped American politics may have been, at the least, severely deflected.

Trump is not the only non-politician without experience in elected office who has won the presidency, but the previous examples had been Army generals like George Washington, U.S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served their nation and its government (and in Grant and Eisenhower's cases, their presidential commanders-in-chief) with great distinction.

Trump is a very different sort of figure, a businessman celebrity whose willingness (let alone capacity) to undertake even the most conventional political tasks required of any president is dubious.

Even less clear is the future of the Republican Party, which, although for the moment all-powerful in Washington and in most of the states, remains seriously divided, its fervent base devoted to a professed anti-politician with at best ephemeral party ties.

Likewise the Democratic Party, now shut out of power and recovering from its own rancorous primary fights, has emerged from 2016 battered and without clear direction.

Then there is the state of the egalitarian tradition. The book I finished a year ago, The Politicians & the Egalitarians, discusses different kinds of egalitarianism, including the racist egalitarianism that proved so powerful in the eras of Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s and the so-called Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s.

In 2016, though, there emerged a curdled egalitarianism akin to what the late historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style" in our politics, chiefly on the right but also on the left. That style, according to Hofstadter, proclaims the restoration of a bygone mythic era of national greatness, and is founded on a few key elements:

the idea of a golden age; the concept of natural harmonies; the dualistic version of social struggles; the conspiracy theory of history; and the doctrine of the primacy of money.

The paranoid style has been a perennial element in American political history, sometimes conflated misleadingly with populism. It came closest to winning the presidency, by Hofstadter's reckoning, when Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964.

Goldwater, of course, was crushed by the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson, which some observers took to mean that political paranoia had been repudiated once and for all, and consigned to the political margins. But Hofstadter was not so sure, and he ended up being prescient.

Donald Trump's campaign extolled virtually every element of the paranoid style. In particular, Trump's propaganda singled out for attack the corporate beneficiaries of free trade arrangements and a supposed dark conspiracy of internationalist bankers and financiers (all of those identified being Jewish)—the latest moneyed, cosmopolitan bogeymen of the paranoid imagination.

With the election of Trump, the politics of paranoia, no longer on the margins, will now inhabit the Oval Office.

In the 2016 campaign and election, partisanship and egalitarianism, driving forces of American politics that had long been hidden from historians, were hidden no longer.

The hard, glaring reality on the eve of Trump's inauguration is that the accumulation of abnormalities around those forces has caused a profound break, creating a regime unlike anything previously known in American political history—a presidency born of an authoritarian temper and impassioned appeals to divisiveness that the framers of the Constitution deeply feared and worked intensely to check.

For better or worse, or so it appears, nothing will ever be the same.

Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton and is the author of The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics, published last year by W. W. Norton. The paperback edition, with a slightly different version of this essay as its preface, will appear in May.

Sean Wilentz: Trump Ushers In the Age of American Paranoia | Opinion