A year ago Donald Trump produced the biggest political upset in modern day USA, but were there historical clues that pointed to his unexpected victory?
Flying into Los Angeles, a descent that takes you from the desert, over the mountains, to the outer suburbs dotted with swimming pools shaped like kidneys, always brings on a near narcotic surge of nostalgia.
This was the flight path I followed more than 30 years ago, as I fulfilled a boyhood dream to make my first trip to the United States. America had always fired my imagination, both as a place and as an idea. So as I entered the immigration hall, under the winsome smile of America’s movie star president, it was hardly a case of love at first sight.
My infatuation had started long before, with westerns, cop shows, super-hero comic strips, and movies such as West Side Story and Grease. Gotham exerted more of a pull than London. My 16-year-old self could quote more presidents than prime ministers. Like so many new arrivals, like so many of my compatriots, I felt an instant sense of belonging, a fealty borne of familiarity.
Eighties America lived up to its billing, from the multi-lane freeways to the cavernous fridges, from the drive-in movie theatres to the drive-through burger joints. I loved the bigness, the boldness, the brashness. Coming from a country where too many people were reconciled to their fate from too early an age, the animating force of the American Dream was not just seductive but unshackling.
Upward mobility was not a given amongst my schoolmates. The absence of resentment was also striking: the belief success was something to emulate rather than envy. The sight of a Cadillac induced different feelings than the sight of a Rolls Royce.
It was 1984. Los Angeles was hosting the Olympics. The Soviet boycott meant US athletes dominated the medals table more so than usual. McDonald’s had a scratch-card promotion, planned presumably before Eastern bloc countries decided to keep their distance, offering Big Macs, cokes and fries if Americans won gold, silver or bronze in selected events. So for weeks I feasted on free fast food, a caloric accompaniment to chants of “USA! USA!”
This was the summertime of American resurgence. After the long national nightmare of Vietnam, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis, the country demonstrated its capacity for renewal. 1984, far from being the dystopian hell presaged by George Orwell, was a time of celebration and optimism. Uncle Sam – back then, nobody gave much thought to the country being given a male personification – seemed happy again in his own skin.
For millions, it really was “Morning Again in America”, the slogan of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. In that year’s presidential election, he buried his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in a landslide, winning 49 out of 50 states and 58.8% of the popular vote.
The United States could hardly be described as politically harmonious. There was the usual divided government. Republicans retained control of the Senate, but the Democrats kept their stranglehold on the House of Representatives. Reagan’s sunniness was sullied the launch of his 1980 campaign with a call for “states’ rights”, which sounded to many like a dog-whistle for denial of civil rights.
His chosen venue was Philadelphia, but not the city of brotherly love, the cradle of the Declaration of Independence, but rather Philadelphia, Mississippi, a rural backwater close to where three civil rights workers had been murdered by white supremacists in 1964. Reagan, like Nixon, pursued the southern strategy, which exploited white fears about black advance.
Still, the anthem of the hour was Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA and politics was not nearly as polarised as it is today. Even though the Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill reviled Reagan’s trickle-down economics – he called him a “cheerleader for selfishness” and “Herbert Hoover with a smile” – these two Irish-Americans found common ground as they sought to act in the national interest.
Both understood the Founding Fathers had hard-wired compromise into the governmental system, and that Washington, with its checks and balances, was unworkable without give and take. They worked together on tax reform and safeguarding Social Security.
The country was in the ascendant. Not so paranoid as it was in the 1950s, not so restive as it was in the 1960s, and nowhere near as demoralised as it had been in the 1970s.
History is never neat or linear. Decades do not automatically have personalities, but it is possible to divide the period since 1984 into two distinct phases. The final 16 years of the 20th Century was a time of American hegemony. The first 16 years of the 21st Century has proven to be a period of dysfunction, discontent, disillusionment and decline. The America of today in many ways reflects the dissonance between the two.
In those twilight years of the last millennium, America enjoyed something akin to the dominance achieved at the Los Angeles Olympics. Just two years after Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, that concrete and ideological barricade was gone. The United States won the Cold War. In the New World Order that emerged afterwards, it became the sole superpower in a unipolar world.
The speed at which US-led forces won the first Gulf War in 1991 helped slay the ghosts of Vietnam. With a reformist leader, Boris Yeltsin, installed in the Kremlin, there was an expectation Russia would embrace democratic reform. Even after Tiananmen Square, there was a hope that China might follow suit, as it moved towards a more market-based economy.
This was the thrust of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in his landmark 1989 essay, The End of History, which spoke of “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
For all the forecasts Japan would become the world’s largest economy, America refused to cede its financial and commercial dominance. Instead of Sony ruling the corporate world, Silicon Valley became the new high-tech workshop of business.
Bill Clinton’s boast of building a bridge to the 21st Century rang true, although it was emergent tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google that were the true architects and engineers. Thirty years after planting the Stars and Stripes on the Sea of Tranquillity, America not only dominated outer space but cyberspace too.
This phase of US dominance could never be described as untroubled. The Los Angeles riots in 1992, sparked by beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the police officers charged with his assault, highlighted deep racial divisions.
In Washington, Bill Clinton’s impeachment exhibited the hyper-partisanship that was changing the tenor of Washington life. In the age of 24/7 cable news, politics was starting to double as soap opera.
Yet as we approached 31 December 1999, the assertion that the 20th Century had been The American Century was an axiom. I was in the capital as Bill Clinton presided over the midnight celebrations on the National Mall, and as the fireworks skipped from the Lincoln Memorial down the Reflecting Pool to illuminate the Washington monument, the mighty obelisk looked like a giant exclamation mark or a massive number one.
The national story changed dramatically and unexpectedly soon after. While doomsday predictions of a Y2K bug failed to materialise, it nonetheless felt as if the United States had been infected with a virus. 2000 saw the dot-com bubble explode. In November, the disputed presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore badly damaged the reputation of US democracy.
Why, a Zimbabwean diplomat even suggested Africa send international observers to oversee the Florida recount. Beyond America’s borders came harbingers of trouble. In Russia, 31 December 1999, as those fireworks were being primed, Vladimir Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin.
The year 2001 brought the horror of September 11th, an event more traumatic than Pearl Harbor. Post-9/11 America became less welcoming and more suspicious. The Bush administration’s “war on terror” – open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – drained the country of blood and treasure.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, arguably had a more lasting impact on the American psyche than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Just as 9/11 had undermined confidence in the country’s national security, the financial collapse shattered confidence in its economic security.
With parents no longer certain their children would come to enjoy more abundant lives than they did, the American Dream felt like a chimera. The American compact, the bargain that if you worked hard and played by the rules your family would succeed, was no longer assumed. Between 2000 and 2011, the overall net wealth of US households fell. By 2014, the richest 1% of Americans had accrued more wealth than the bottom 90%.
To many in the watching world, and most of the 69 million Americans who voted for him, the election of the country’s first black president again demonstrated America’s capacity for regeneration.
“Yes we can.”
“The audacity of hope“.
Barack Hussein Obama. His improbable success story seemed uniquely American.
Although his presidency did much to rescue the economy, he couldn’t repair a fractured country. The creation of a post-partisan nation, which Obama outlined in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, proved just as illusory as the emergence of a post-racial society, which he always knew was beyond him.
During the Obama years, Washington descended into a level of dysfunction unprecedented in post-war America.
“My number one priority is making sure President Obama’s a one-term president,” declared then-Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, summing up the obstructionist mood of his Republican colleagues. It led to a crisis of governance, including the shutdown of 2013 and the repeated battles over raising the debt ceiling. The political map of America, rather than taking on a more purple hue, came to be rendered in deeper shades of red and blue.
Beyond Capitol Hill, there was a whitelash to the first black president, seen in the rise of the Birther movement and in elements of the Tea Party movement. On the right, movement conservatives challenged establishment Republicans. On the left, identity politics displaced a more class-oriented politics as union influence waned. Both parties seemed to vacate the middle ground, relying instead on maximising support from their respective bases – African-Americans, evangelicals, the LGBT community, gun-owners – to win elections.
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama continued to talk about moving towards a more perfect union. But reality made a mockery of these lofty words. Sandy Hook. Orlando. The spate of police shootings. The gang-related mayhem in his adopted home of Chicago. The mess in Washington. The opioid crisis. The health indices even pointed to a sick nation, in which the death rate was rising. By 2016, life expectancy fell for the first time since 1993.
This was the backdrop against which the 2016 election was fought, one of the most dispiriting campaigns in US political history. A battle between the two most unpopular major party candidates since polling began, ended with a victor who had higher negative ratings than his opponent and in the end, three million fewer votes.
Just as I had been on the National Mall to ring in the new millennium in 2000, I was there again on 20 January 2017, for Donald Trump’s inaugural celebrations. They included some Reagan-era flourishes. At the eve of the inauguration concert, Lee Greenwood reprised his Reaganite anthem God Bless the USA, albeit with a frailer voice.
There were chants of “USA, USA,” a staple of the billionaire’s campaign rallies – usually triggered by his riff on building a wall along the Mexican border. There was also an 80s vibe about the telegenic first family, who looked fresh from a set of a primetime soap, like Dynasty or Falcon Crest.
The spectacle brought to mind what Norman Mailer once said of Reagan, that the 40th president understood “the President of the United States was the leading soap opera figure in the great American drama, and one had better possess star value”. Trump understood this, and it explained much of his success, even if his star power came from reality TV rather than Hollywood B-movies.
Yet Trump is not Reagan. His politics of grievance, and the fist-shaking anger it fed off, struck a different tone than the Gipper’s more positive pitch. It played on a shared sense of personal and national victimhood that would have been alien to Reagan.
In the space of just three decades, then, the United States had gone from “It’s morning in America again” to something much darker: “American Carnage”, the most memorable phrase from Trump’s inaugural address.
It is tempting to see Trump’s victory this time last year as an aberration. A historical mishap. The election all came down, after all, to just 77,744 votes in three key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But when you consider the boom-to-bust cycle of the period between 1984 and 2016, the Trump phenomenon doesn’t look so accidental.
In many ways Trump’s unexpected victory marked the culmination of a large number of trends in US politics, society and culture, many of which are rooted in that end-of-century period of American dominion.
Consider how the fall of the Berlin Wall changed Washington, and how it ushered in an era of destructive and negative politics. In the post-war years, bipartisanship was routine, partly because of a shared determination to defeat communism. America’s two-party system, adversarial though it was, benefited from the existence of a shared enemy. To pass laws, President Eisenhower regularly worked with Democratic chieftains such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
Reforms such as the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which improved science teaching in response to the launch of Sputnik, were framed precisely with defeating communism in mind.
Much of the impetus to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s came from the propaganda gift Jim Crow laws handed to the Soviet Union, especially as Moscow sought to expand its sphere of influence among newly decolonised African nations.
Patriotic bipartisanship frayed and ripped after the end of the Cold War. It was in the 1990s the then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole started to use the filibuster more aggressively as a blocking device. Government shutdowns became politically weaponised.
In the 1994 congressional midterms, the Republican revolution brought a wave of fierce partisans to Washington, with an ideological aversion to government and thus little investment in making it work. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the first Republican to occupy the post in 40 years, personified the kind of abrasive partisan that came to the fore on Capitol Hill.
Grudging bipartisanship was still possible, as Clinton and Gingrich demonstrated over welfare and criminal justice reform in the mid-1990s. But this period witnessed the acidification of DC politics. The gerrymandering of the House of Representatives encouraged strict partisanship, because the threat to most lawmakers came from within their own parties. Moderates or pragmatists who strayed from the partisan path were punished with a primary challenge from more doctrinaire rivals.
By the 112th Congress in 2011-2012, there was no Democrat in the House more conservative than a Republican and no Republican more liberal than a Democrat. This was new. In the post-war years, there had been considerable ideological overlap between liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. In this more polarised climate, bipartisanship became a dirty word. One leading conservative thinker and anti-tax campaigner, Grover Norquist, likened it to date rape.
Would Congress have impeached Bill Clinton, ostensibly for having an affair with an intern, had America still been waging the Cold War? I sense not – it would have been seen, in those more serious times, as a frivolous distraction. When Congress moved towards impeaching Richard Nixon it did so because Watergate and its cover-up truly rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours.
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Clinton’s impeachment signalled the emergence of another new political trend: the delegitimisation of sitting presidents. And both parties played the game. The Democrats cast George W Bush as illegitimate because Al Gore won the popular vote and the Supreme Court controversially ruled in the Republican’s favour during the Florida recount.
The Birther movement, led by Donald Trump, tried to delegitimise Barack Obama with specious and racist claims that he was not born in Hawaii. Most recently, the Democrats have cast aspersions on Trump’s victory, partly because he lost the popular vote and partly because they allege he achieved a Kremlin-assisted victory.
Over this period, the political discourse also became shriller. Rush Limbaugh, after getting his first radio show in 1984, rose to become the king of the right-wing shock jocks. Fox News was launched in 1996, the same year as MSNBC, which became its progressive counterpoint. The internet quickened the metabolism of the news industry and became the home for the kind of hateful commentary traditional news outlets rarely published.
Maybe the Jerry Springerisation of political news coverage can be traced to the moment the Drudge Report first published the name Monica Lewinsky, “scooping” Newsweek which hesitated before publishing such an explosive story. The success of the Drudge Report demonstrated how new outlets, which didn’t share the same news values as the mainstream media, could establish brands literally overnight. This lesson was doubtless learnt by Andrew Breitbart, an editor at Drudge who founded the right-wing website Breitbart News.
The internet and social media, trumpeted initially as the ultimate tool for bringing people together, actually became a forum for cynicism, division and various outlandish conspiracy theories. America became more atomised.
As Robert D Putnam identified in his 1995 seminal essay, Bowling Alone, lower participation rates in organisations such as unions, parent teacher associations, the Boy Scouts and women’s clubs had reduced person to person contacts and civil interaction.
Economically, this period saw the continuation of what’s been called the “Great Divergence” which produced stark inequalities in wealth and income. Between 1979 and 2007, household income in the top 1% grew by 275% compared to just 18% growth in the bottom fifth of households.
The Clinton-era was a period of financial deregulation, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the landmark reform passed during the depression, as well as legislation exempting credit default swaps from regulation.
The opioid crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s with the over-prescription of powerful painkillers. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions tripled.
America seemed intoxicated by its own post-Cold War success. Then came the hangover of the past 16 years.
Over the past few months, I’ve followed that same westward flight path to California on a number of occasions, and found myself asking what would an impressionable 16-year-old make of America now. Would she share my adolescent sense of wonder, or would she peer out over the Pacific at twilight and wonder if the sun was setting on America itself?
What would she make of the gun violence, brought into grotesque relief again by the Las Vegas massacre? Multiple shootings are not new, of course. Just days before I arrived in the States in 1984, a gunman had walked into a McDonalds in a suburb of San Diego and shot dead 21 people. It was then the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
What’s different between now and then, however, is the regularity of these massacres, and how the repetitiveness of the killings has normalised them. What was striking about Las Vegas was the muted nationwide response to a gunman killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.
Once-shocking massacres no longer arouse intense emotions for those unconnected to the killings. A month on, and it is almost as if it didn’t happen.
What would she make of race relations? Back in 1984, black athletes such as Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Michael Jordan were unifying figures as they helped reap that Olympic golden harvest. Now some of America’s leading black athletes are vilified by their president for taking a knee to protest, a right enshrined in the First Amendment. These athletes now find themselves combatants in the country’s endless culture wars.
What would she make of the confluence of gun violence and race, evident in the spate of police shootings of unarmed black men and in the online auction where the weapon that killed Trayvon Martin fetched more than $100,000?
Charlottesville, with its torch-wielding and hate-spewing neo-Nazis, was another low point. So, too, were the president’s remarks afterwards, when he described the crowd as including some “very fine people” and implied a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters.
I was at the news conference in Trump Tower that day. An African-American cameraman next to me yelled out “What message does this send to our children?” The question went unanswered, but concerned parents ask it everyday about Donald Trump’s behaviour.
What about the monuments debate? The last civil war veteran died in 1959, but the conflict rumbles on in various guises and upon various proxy battlefields, as America continues to grapple with the original sin of slavery.
But what if she landed in the American heartland, rather than flying over it? Coastal separateness can sometimes be exaggerated, but it would be a very different experience than Los Angeles. In the Rust Belt, stretches of riverway are crowded again with coal barges, and local business leaders believe in the Trump Bump because they see it in their order books and balance sheets.
In the Coal Belt, there’s been delight at the rescinding of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In the Bible Belt, evangelicals behold Trump as a fellow victim of sneering liberal elites. In the Sun Belt, close to the Mexican border, there’s wide support for his crackdown on illegal immigration.
In many football stadiums, she would hear the chorus of boos from fans who agree with the president that the take-the-knee protests denigrate the flag. In bars, union branches and American Legion halls, you’ll find many who applaud Donald Trump for “telling like it is”, refusing to be bound by norms of presidential behaviour or political correctness.
There are pointers of national success elsewhere. The New York Stock Exchange is still reaches record highs. Business confidence is on the up. Unemployment is at a 16-year low. Of the 62 million people who voted for Trump, a large number continue to regard him more as a national saviour than a national embarrassment.
In many red states, “Make America Great Again” echoes just as strongly as it did 12 months ago. Trump has a historically low approval rating of just 35%, but it’s 78% among Republicans.
In the international realm, it’s plausible foreign adversaries fear the United States more under Trump than Obama, and foreign allies no longer take the country for granted. The so-called Islamic State has been driven from Raqqa. Twenty-five Nato allies have pledged to increase defence spending. Beijing, under pressure from Washington, appears to be exerting more economic leverage over Pyongyang.
However, America First increasingly means America alone, most notably on the Paris climate change accord and the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump has also Twitter-shamed longstanding allies, such as Germany and Australia, and infuriated its closest friend Britain, with rash tweets about crime rates and terror attacks.
His labelling of foes such as Kim Jong Un as Little Rocket Man seems juvenile and self-diminishing. It hardly reaches the Reagan standard of “tear down this wall”. Indeed, with North Korea, there’s the widespread fear that Trump’s tweet tirades could spark a nuclear confrontation.
Few countries look anymore to Trump’s America as a global exemplar, the “city upon a hill” Reagan spoke of in his farewell address to the nation. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is routinely described as the leader of the free world, the moniker bestowed on the US president since the days of FDR.
The Economist, which trolls Trump almost weekly, has described Chinese President Xi Jinping as the most powerful man in the world. American exceptionalism is now commonly viewed as a negative construct. “Only in America” is a term of derision.
Ronald Reagan used to talk of the 11th commandment – No Republican should speak ill of another Republican. So it is worth noting that some of Trump’s most caustic and thoughtful critics have come from within his own party. Senator Jeff Flake called him “a danger to democracy”.
Bob Corker described the White House as an “adult day care centre”. John McCain, a frequent critic, has railed against “spurious, half-baked nationalism”. George W Bush sounded the alarm about bigotry being emboldened and of how politics “seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication”, without specifically naming the current president.
Trump’s determination to be an anti-president has arguably had a vandalising effect on the office of the presidency, and to civil society more broadly. Artists have boycotted the White House reception held ahead of the annual Kennedy Center Awards, a red letter night in the country’s cultural calendar.
The Golden State Warriors were disinvited from appearing at the White House after their championship win because of the take-the-knee protest. It’s new for these kinds of commemorations to become contested.
Trump has even politicised one of the commander-in-chief’s most solemn acts, offering condolences to the families of the fallen. It led to an indecorous row with a war widow. Small wonder long time Washington watchers, on both the right and left, consider this the nastiest and most graceless presidency of the modern era.
The corollary is the historical stock of his predecessors is rising. When the five living former presidents appeared together in Texas earlier this month they were greeted like a group of superheroes donning their capes for one final mission. It speaks of these unreal times that George W Bush is spoken of fondly, even wistfully, by long-time liberal foes.
Trump’s claim he could be just as presidential as Abraham Lincoln is one of the more comical boasts to come from the White House. Then there are the falsehoods, the “alternative facts” and attacks on the “fake media” – his label for news organisations such as the New York Times and Washington Post, whose reporting has rarely been better. Recently he has even threatened to revoke the licences of networks whose news divisions have published critical stories. To some it has shades of 1984, but Orwell’s version.
As for Morning in America, it has a new connotation – checking Trump’s Twitter for pre-dawn tweets. The president commonly starts the day by lashing out at opponents or mercilessly mocking them. The new normal, it is often called. But it seems more apt to call it the new abnormal.
There is an extent to which America is politics-proof and president-proof. However bad things got in Washington, my sense has long been that the US would be rescued by its other vital centres of power. New York, its financial and cultural capital. San Francisco, its tech hub. Boston, its academic first city. Hollywood, its entertainment centre.
But Los Angeles is reeling from the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the Uber scandal has shone a harsh light on corporate ethics in the tech sector and the Wells Fargo affair has once again shown Wall Street in a dismal light.
US universities dominate global rankings, but its top colleges could hardly be described as engines of intergenerational mobility. A study by the New York Times of 38 colleges, including Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, showed that students from the top 1% income bracket occupied more places than the students from the bottom 60%. Of this year’s intake at Harvard, almost a third were the sons and daughters of alumni.
There’s still truth in the adage that America is always going to hell, but it never quite gets there. But how that is being tested. Presently, it feels more like a continent than a country, with shared land occupied by warring tribes. Not a failing state but not a united states.
As I’ve travelled this country, I struggle to identify where Americans will find common political ground. Not in the guns debate. Not in the abortion debate. Not in the healthcare debate. Not even in the singing of the national anthem at American football games. Even a cataclysmic event on the scale of 9/11 failed to unify the country.
If anything it sowed the seeds of further division, especially over immigration. Some Americans agree with Donald Trump that arrivals from mainly Muslim countries need to be blocked. Others see that as an American anathema.
When I made my first journey to the US all those years ago I witnessed a coming together. Those Olympic celebrations were in some ways an orgy of nationalism, but there was also a commonality of spirit and purpose. From Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue performed on 85 grand pianos to a polyglot team of athletes bedecked with medals.
From the pilot who flew around the LA Coliseum in a jet pack to the customers who left McDonald’s with free Big Macs. There was reason for rejoicing. The present was golden. America felt like America again.