There’s nothing new about an American politician calling for police violence. Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California partly on his promise to crack down on those dirty hippies at Berkeley, a promise he kept. But let’s not underestimate Trump’s fascist thuggery. He’s much closer to George Wallace than he is to Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, both of whom seem restrained by comparison.
How did we get here?
People on the far left, whom I mostly number as my political allies, will say don’t kid yourself. We’ve always been here. The United States of America is a settler colonial nation built on stolen land. President Donald Trump is simply the latest manifestation of our brutal, white supremacist id. While I certainly think the far lest gets closer to the truth than liberal Democrats — who argue that Trump is a foreign, specifically Russian, plant — I don’t think simply pointing out the history of slavery and native American genocide fully explains why the quasi-fascist, far-right completely took over the American government in 2017.
Let’s look at the Trump Administration along three different historical timelines.
The long term: 1607 – 2017
The medium term: 1945 – 2017
The short term: 2001 – 2017
The far left explains Trump mostly along the overall, grand arc of American history. Trump isn’t even the most blatantly white supremacist President we’ve ever had. That title would probably go to Thomas Jefferson, a man who raped his underage slave, Woodrow Wilson, a patron of the second Ku Klux Klan, or Andrew Jackson, who organized the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from the old southeast. Smarter liberal Democrats tend to see figures like Trump and Sarah Palin, not as a Russian conspiracy, but as part of the backlash against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which culminated in the election of the first African American President in 2008, and which produced toxic political movements like the Tea Party and the Birthers. Rick Perlstein, perhaps the preeminent historian of postwar American conservatism, has recently attempted a synthesis of the long and medium term explanation of the rise of Donald Trump. Trump, he argues, is the immediate product of the deep, reactionary undercurrent of “liberal” New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1960s and ’70s New York in which Donald Trump came of age, as much as Klan-ridden Indiana in the 1920s or Barry Goldwater’s Arizona in the 1950s, was at conservatism’s cutting edge, setting the emotional tone for a politics of rage. In 1966, when Trump was 20, Mayor John Lindsay placed civilians on a board to more effectively monitor police abuse. The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — responding, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups and their gripes and their shouting” — led a referendum effort to dissolve the board that won 63 percent of the vote. Two years later, fights between supporters and protesters of George Wallace at a Madison Square Garden rally grew so violent that, The New Republic observed, “never again will you read about Berlin in the ’30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces.”
Perlstein’s article is incisive and well-worth reading. I’m old enough to remember Trump’s call to lynch the Central Park Five. Trump is eerily reminiscent of the New York City of Bernhard Goetz and the fascist 1970s film Death Wish. Nevertheless, I also think it’s important to look at Trump’s rise in the very short term. With many liberal Democrats calling for an alliance with neoconservatives like John McCain and David Frum, I think it’s important to remember that there are two events that made the 2017’s apotheosis of the extreme right almost inevitable.
The first, of course, was 9/11 and George W. Bush’s use of the worst terrorist attack in American history to manipulate the American people into standing behind his invasion of Iraq. 9/11 was, perhaps, the greatest day in the history of the post-war American right. 9/11 made racism and Islamophobia respectable again. It ended the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the skepticism of militarism and the American empire that came out of the antiwar movement of the 1960s, for good.
The unwillingness of the American media to fully investigate the baffling success of a small group of Islamic terrorists in penetrating the security of the most powerful military the world has ever seen also gave rise to a whole new generation of antisemitic conspiracy theorists, the best example being Trump’s crude, almost demented, yet widely popular supporter Alex Jones. The “9/11 Truth Movement” not only revitalized the John Birch Society’s hysterical views of post-war American history, it also gave a new lifeline to classical antisemitism. For Jones, every event in recent American history, from 9/11 to the Sandy Hook Massacre, is a hoax played on the American people by a small cabal of “Illuminati,” Jews. Trump’s constant drumbeat about “fake news” in 2017 would have been impossible without Alex Jones’ wild accusations of “crisis actors” at Sandy Hook back in 2012.
The second event is the financial crisis of 2008 and the betrayal by Barack Obama of his progressive supporters. If 9/11 made the federal government look ineffective in the face of a well-organized terrorist conspiracy, the Wall Street bailout of 2008 made it look corrupt. By essentially declaring Wall Street and the banks to be above the law, “too big to fail,” Obama drove a wedge between black Americans and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and the American left. You could support the first African American President, or you could condemn Wall Street. You couldn’t do both. In spite of Bernie Sanders’ strong run in the 2016 Democratic Party Primary from the left, a run that was constantly undercut by charges of racism and sexism by the Clinton campaign, by 2017 the extreme right had already captured the anti-establishment anger that has been simmering since the Republican and Democratic Party elite got together behind closed doors, overruled their own rank and file congress members, and funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to the corrupt oligarchs who had destroyed the housing market, and, not incidentally, an entire generation of black, middle-class wealth. In the 1960s, if you said “down with the man” you were almost certainly on the left. In the 2010s, it’s not so clear.
If we don’t understand these two short term causes, I fear, an alliance of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans in 2018 and 2020 will simply try to paper over the deep fissures in American society the election of Donald Trump has made visible in 2016 and 2017, and set us up for someone in the not too distant future who might be even worse.