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  • Donald Trump and the Triumph of Antiliberalism
  • Tony Michels (bio)

"We Americans are reared with a feeling for the unity of our history and an unprecedented belief in the normality of our kind of life. … [T]he same political institutions have persisted throughout our whole national career and therefore have acquired a certain appearance of normality and inevitableness." So states Daniel Boorstin in The Genius of American Politics, published in 1953.1 Sixty-four years later, voters elected a president who promised to overturn customs, protocols, and institutions of government. No continuity, no normality. On his road to the White House, Donald Trump understood that actions and words once considered unacceptable would serve him well. The more lies he told, the more boorishly he behaved, the more bigotry he espoused, the more ignorance he revealed, the more defiance he displayed, all the more approval he gained. Behold the genius of American politics today.

Trump's victory signals a rupture in American political traditions. We cannot know the extent of it yet, but the breach is visible. The fact that an ostensibly conservative party has brought this about attests to the seriousness of the situation. Conservatism has given rise to a strident, reactionary politics now called populism. One hopes that responsibilities of governance, established procedures, and political opposition will restrain the president. Then again, hope for moderation might well prove illusory. Republican control of both Congress and the White House gives Trump an extraordinary opportunity to "make America great again." [End Page 186]

How has the country arrived at this point? Trump's victory, one often hears, was either unforeseeable or altogether predictable if only members of the "liberal elite" had bothered to look beyond their cocoons. There is some truth to both contentions. On the one hand, some writers in New York and strategists in Washington, D.C. neglected to take the pulse of Michigan and Wisconsin. On the other, who could have predicted Russia's manipulations and the F.B.I.'s interference? The fact of the matter is that political experts were not as clueless as widely claimed. Polls consistently showed a close race, and even observers who predicted a Clinton victory were not wildly inaccurate: Trump lost the popular vote, after all. Moreover, it is not true that the mounting anger and disaffection of so-called ordinary Americans had gone unnoticed before election night. Journalists and scholars have studied antiliberalism for more than five decades, and their findings can help explain Trump.

An overall, which is not to say all-encompassing, rightward trajectory has characterized American politics since 1968. George Wallace's presidential bid may be taken as a starting point. On his own American Independent Party ticket, Alabama's former governor mobilized opposition to racial integration across regions. Most notable was his popularity among white workers in northern industrial cities. In Chicago, 44 percent of the city's white steelworkers registered approval for Wallace at the peak of his campaign.2 Although he lost to Richard Nixon, Wallace demonstrated the possibility of luring white workers away from the Democratic Party through racial appeals. Republicans took notice.

The rise of the Christian right in the late 1970s marked another important development. Convinced that the United States had transmogrified into Sodom and Gomorrah, evangelicals took the lead in organizing campaigns against legalized abortion, women's equality, gay rights, and separation of church and state in public schools. They built an extensive array of private schools, universities, summer camps, youth groups, media outlets, megachurches, and charities that far surpassed mainline Protestant denominations in terms of numbers and political power. Evangelicals thus managed to build a separate social sphere for themselves while finding a receptive political home in the Republican Party.

Economics was the third, crucial factor behind the country's rightward shift. Between the Great Depression and the oil crisis of 1973, most Republicans accepted, if only reluctantly, the liberal Democratic position that the federal government should intervene in the economy to promote economic growth, regulate commerce [End Page 187] and industry, and provide a social safety net. They often disagreed with Democrats over levels of spending, regulation, and taxation, but Republicans reached compromises within the shared framework of...


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