Citizen Action Monitor

US historian struggles to account for Donald Trump’s unprecedented impact on his party and the country

He concludes that it’s changes in America that have changed the nation’s politics and history, making possible the creation of a lying, grifting Trump. —

No 2768 by fw, August 17, 2021 —

Rick Shenkman

“I spent the last 45 years studying the history of this country.  But after the last 4 years I can truly say I didn’t understand it, cynical though I often was about the ugly disfiguring patches that no Band-Aid could hide. McCarthyism – sure.  Racism  –  of course.  Xenophobia  –  duh. Misogyny  –  hell yes. America had it all. But a mass cult built around an old man known for lying and grifting who bronzes his face each day?  Didn’t see that happening.  Nor did I anticipate that tens of millions would refuse a free vaccine that could save others’ lives  –  and their own. And cynical as I was I never thought that the politicians these millions elected would be so cowed by their chosen leader that almost every one of them would go along with his wild schemes and lies.”Rick Shenkman, History News Network

Rick Shenkman is the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of “Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.”

So how come the emergence of a Donald Trump was impossible in America’s past? Upon reflection, in a postscript, Shenkman explains it this way:

“…in the past a Donald Trump was impossible for a variety of reasons:  the elite’s control over our politics and media, the strength of the party gatekeepers, the absence of paths to power by people existing outside the normal political structures, the enduring assumption that each new generation will do better than the preceding generation, the self-confidence of white people, the absence of a grievance-based culture, etc.”

But now, it’s changes in America that have changed the nation’s politics and history and made possible the creation of a Donald Trump:

“Once the circumstances that shaped our politics changed — once the gatekeepers lost control, once social media empowered the extreme ranks of voters, once the white majority concluded they live in a zero sum society and that every step forward for minorities is a step backward for the majority — our society changed and with it our politics and our history.  In other words, maybe I understood this country just fine but the country changed.”

Below is my abridged repost of historian Shenkman’s illuminating article, including my added subheadings, highlighted text, bulletted formatting, images, and editing changes. To read his original piece, click on the following linked title.

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Nothing I Learned as a Historian Over 45 Years Prepared Me for This Moment, by Rick Shenkman, History News Network, August 9, 2021

“…a mass cult built around an old man known for lying and grifting?” Nothing prepared Shenkman for the past 4 years

I spent the last 45 years studying the history of this country.  But after the last 4 years I can truly say I didn’t understand it, cynical though I often was about the ugly disfiguring patches that no Band-Aid could hide.

  • McCarthyism – sure.  Racism  –  of course.  Xenophobia  –  duh. Misogyny  –  hell yes. America had it all.
  • But a mass cult built around an old man known for lying and grifting who bronzes his face each day?  Didn’t see that happening.
  • Nor did I anticipate that tens of millions would refuse a free vaccine that could save others’ lives  –  and their own.
  • And cynical as I was I never thought that the politicians these millions elected would be so cowed by their chosen leader that almost every one of them would go along with his wild schemes and lies.

“Knowing our history hasn’t made it easier to come to terms with the present.”

It’s said that the past is a foreign country.  But with each passing day I can’t escape the feeling that it’s the present I don’t understand.  Knowing our history hasn’t made it easier to come to terms with the present.  If anything, it’s been a hindrance.

  • It’s gotten in the way of me seeing what is in front of my own eyes.  It’s made me want to excuse what’s happening or to downplay it.
  • Realizing that this country is not what I thought it was is disillusioning.  Which is strange.  I spent my whole career trying to see things clearly as they are and not as I’d wish them to be.

Consider the unsavory lengths to which presidents went to gain power and keep it

I wrote three books bursting the myths of American history. Then I wrote a book showing the unsavory lengths to which presidents went to gain power and keep it.  After George W. Bush, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, convinced Americans that the leader of Iraq was connected somehow to 9-11,  I wrote a book calling out Americans for their gullibility:  Just How Stupid Are We?

Because I wanted to understand the underlying forces shaping Americans’ support for Bush’s war I spent the next seven years searching for answers in the scientific literature concerning human behavior.

How do we even begin to account for our susceptibility to lies?

In the course of my study I read books and papers on Evolutionary Psychology, social psychology, and even neuroscience.  In the book I wrote summarizing my research  –  Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics  –  I devoted the bulk of the pages to a discussion of our susceptibility to lies.

  • The literature shows that human beings are capable, productive — and often plain wrong.  They think they are good at detecting lies but aren’t.
  • They believe they have empathy for others but often don’t.
  • They are confident they can read other people but often can’t.
  • This is true of human beings around the world living in vastly different environments.

Despite the search for answers, nothing prepared Shenkman for today’s America

And still nothing I learned prepared me for the country I find myself living in today.  History had convinced me that Americans wouldn’t elect a wild demagogue as president and wouldn’t stand by him after it was proven (over and over again) that he lies to them.  History was wrong.

It’s heartbreaking.

This article addresses the debate historians have been having about Trump

I haven’t felt the urge to write lately, but this piece needed to be written and so I wrote it.  It concerns, at bottom, the debate historians have been having about Donald Trump:  Is he sui generis [unique, special] or inevitable?  As a historian I have always believed that everything has a history and that events don’t just happen.  Through careful analysis of the past we can demonstrate how the events that capture the headlines emerge from changes over time in a particular place.

Sometimes, to be sure, contingency is the cause.  Nothing’s inevitable, after all.  Individual human beings acting in one way rather than another can affect the course of history, sometimes with positive outcomes (think FDR) and sometimes with bad outcomes (think Hitler).

Trump’s presidency has prompted Shenkman to rethink his views about the way history happens

But even taking into account the serendipity of events it always seemed clear to me that history seldom conjures up a  genuine surprise. Things happen for a reason that can be fully accounted for after a careful review.  Thus, even 9-11, though a shock, was not a surprise.  Terrorists had been blowing up buildings and killing people for decades in the Middle East.  On numerous occasions they had hijacked airplanes.  That no one until Osama bin Laden had been brazen or daring enough to think of crashing a hijacked plane into a building until 9-11 hardly changed the calculus of history. So shocked as I was by 9-11 it didn’t force me to rethink my views about the way history happens.

Donald Trump’s presidency has.

“…nothing prepared me for the embrace and continuing adoration of Donald Trump by a major political party”

While I can reassure myself that in his racist demagoguery Trump is like George Wallace, and in his prevaricating he’s like Joe McCarthy, and that the GOP’s exploitation of race runs like a strong thread through the history of the past half century (since the passage of the Voting Rights Act), and that on numerous occasions Americans have demonized outsiders from the Irish in the 1840s to Chinese in the 1880s to Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, nothing prepared me for the embrace and continuing adoration of Donald Trump by a major political party.

That still stumps me.  So, for that matter, does the ongoing resistance to the Covid-19 vaccines.

History is not irrelevant, but the present challenge requires us to look with fresh eyes on our country

Still, history is not irrelevant.  It is helpful to know that our history is replete with instances of racism, xenophobia, and other signs of moral depravity.  We’d really feel lost if we weren’t aware of Jim Crow, Juan Crow, and McCarthyism.  But the present challenge requires us to look with fresh eyes on our country.  As Lincoln said, writing in a different time but in one which resonates today, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Postscript 8/13/21

Maybe a Donald Trump was impossible for four reasons —

Rereading my own post several days after I wrote it I realized that I didn’t fully address an obvious question. Did I really misread the past?  Maybe I understood American history correctly.  Maybe in the past a Donald Trump was impossible for a variety of reasons:

  1. the elite’s control over our politics and media,
  2. the strength of the party gatekeepers,
  3. the absence of paths to power by people existing outside the normal political structures,
  4. the enduring assumption that each new generation will do better than the preceding generation, the self-confidence of white people, the absence of a grievance-based culture, etc.

But now, it’s changes in America that have changed the nation’s politics and history and made possible the creation of a Donald Trump

Once the circumstances that shaped our politics changed —

  • once the gatekeepers lost control,
  • once social media empowered the extreme ranks of voters,
  • once the white majority concluded they live in a zero sum society and that every step forward for minorities is a step backward for the majority –

— our society changed and with it our politics and our history.  In other words, maybe I understood this country just fine but the country changed.

Our task is to learn to live in the country we actually live in.  This won’t be easy.

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