Assuming that yours is a family where facts matter, The Fix is on the case. We checked in with three political historians to see what brainy insights they could share. So, if you want to dominate the Thanksgiving dinner table conversation with historical insights or just to the family gathering armed with friendly argument fodder rich enough to distract the parents from asking, again, about their not-yet-conceived grandkids, we think we have you covered. And, should you find yourself in need more ammunition, follow the many, many links.
Responses to the questions below have been edited only for clarity and length.
Kevin M. Kruse is a history professor at Princeton University who studies the political, social, and urban/suburban history of 20th-century America. He's particularly interested in the making of modern conservatism. His most recent book, "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America," published in April, explores just how the notion of the United States as an inherently Christian and capitalist country developed. (A hint: political spending by some little companies by the names of General Motors and DuPont was pretty deeply involved.)
Robert Y. Shapiro is a professor of government at Columbia University, the former acting director of Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy and a former study director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. A 2011 book he co-wrote, "Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion," combines Shaprio's research experience in American politics, public opinion and statistical methods, policymaking, political leadership and the mass media.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a regular contributor to CNN. His most recent book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society," was released in January. Its exploration of the not so distant political past makes clear how many of the issues which loom large in the 2016 election began decades ago, including, but certainly not limited to, matters around race/ethnicity and inclusion, the social safety net and the best path to wide-spread household-level economic growth.
THE FIX: Have there been previous elections where untested political figures (those who have never held elected office) have climbed so high and maintained a lead in a presidential race for this long?
KRUSE: In 1940, the Republican presidential nominee was a figure who’d never held elected office before: Wendell Willkie, the head of the Commonwealth and Southern Corp. (a utilities holding company) who had gained fame as an opponent of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority [the authority is a government-owned corporation that constructed flood-control dams and brought affordable electric power to swath of the South]. That said, Willkie never officially ran for the nomination or campaigned in the primaries, which were largely meaningless back then. He only became the nominee when the Republican convention — faced with a choice between several isolationists on the eve of World War II — became badly deadlocked. Willkie was one of the few prominent internationalists in the party at the time and positioned himself as the best alternative. He, of course, still lost badly to FDR in the general election.
Other businessmen have flirted with presidential runs — Henry Ford considered challenging President Calvin Coolidge in his bid for the Republican nomination in 1924, while H. Ross Perot made a strong run as an independent candidate in 1992 and then as the Reform Party’s nominee in 1996.
SHAPIRO: We have had successful military leaders such as Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower, but this is prior to the current candidate selection process that emerged after 1970.
ZELIZER: Wendell Wilikie was not really tested in the political arena, though he got the nomination in 1940. Similarly Ross Perot put together a successful third party candidacy in 1992 that changed the debate and gathered significant support. Dwight Eisenhower was pretty much a newcomer in the political arena, though, he had a well-known military record.
THE FIX: Are there any elections in the recent or distant past where cultural aversion to political correctness -- or the appetite for what some might consider hate speech -- seemed so vast?
KRUSE: During the heyday of campus antiwar protests and civil rights activism in the late 1960s, George Wallace had considerable success presenting himself as the champion of ordinary white people who felt under siege. In speech after speech, he got crowds behind him with attacks on what he called the "pseudo-intellectual government, where a select, elite group have written guidelines in bureaus and court decisions, have spoken from some pulpits, some college campuses, some newspaper offices, looking down their noses on the average man … saying to him that you don't know how to get up in the morning or go to bed at night, unless we write you a guideline.”
Though the term wasn’t in use at the time, Wallace was an ardent opponent of “political correctness” and tore into it on the campaign trail. He was just 5-foot-7, but Wallace seemed like a much larger man onstage. As one reporter noted, the man could "strut sitting down." A former bantamweight boxer, Wallace still thrived on the combative nature of politics. In the political ring, Wallace assaulted hippies, beatniks, civil rights "agitators," "pointy-headed intellectuals," welfare recipients, "anarchists and communists," atheists, anti-war "radicals and rabble rousers," and street thugs whom, he claimed, liberals believed had "turned to rape and murder because they didn't get enough broccoli when they were little boys.”
Audiences responded because Wallace not only seemed to understand their fears but, more importantly, voiced them when few others would. As one observer noted at the time, "Cabdrivers and cattle ranchers, secretaries and steelworkers, they hung on every word, memorized the lines, treasured them, savored them, waited to hear them again. George Wallace was their avenging angel. George Wallace said out loud what they nervously kept to themselves. George Wallace articulated their deepest fears, their darkest hates. George Wallace promised revenge.”
SHAPIRO: "Political correctness" debates are a recent development in U.S. history. There was greater racial bigotry in the campaigns of George Wallace. What is surprising now is that such overt bigotry has emerged [in the 2016 race] when we thought we were long past that kind of bigotry, or rather, any bigotry has been below the surface of problems that have had racial dimensions, such as crime and welfare issues.
Anti-immigration politics was part of what was called nativist and Know Nothing Party politics that emerged in the 19th century. But that was during a time when there were no national norms of civil rights and liberties for all — genuinely regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
ZELIZER: Yes that is not new. There are both campaigns and candidates willing to use aggressive rhetoric — either explicitly or implicitly — and political correctness has been a target of the right for a long time. Even George H.W .Bush played to some of these issues. In 1988, his campaign [ads] about Willie Horton and allegations that [Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" fit in a narrative about coastal liberalism. In 1992, [Vice President Dan] Quayle's speech about the television show Murphy Brown was heard in this context as well. Some of the rhetoric used by conservatives in the 1966 midterms as well as the 1968 campaign about law and order in the cities, was not so subtle slam against the riots in cities like Newark and Detroit.
THE FIX: Has there been a presidential election in which facts or allegiance to factual information has seemed to so inessential or insignificant?
KRUSE: Ben Carson’s exaggerations or inventions about his past call to mind Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, when the candidate came under fire for biographical embellishments of his own — claiming to be the inspiration for “Love Story” or locating the environmental disaster at Love Canal. As these stories piled up and the press devoted additional attention to his life story, Gore was increasingly seen as dishonest.
Donald Trump’s style, meanwhile, echoes Joe McCarthy’s approach. Like Trump, McCarthy seized headlines with sensational claims that often turned out to be completely untrue and, importantly, kept on making newer and more outlandish claims that overwhelmed anyone intent on fact-checking or correcting the record. As others have noted recently, Trump — like McCarthy before him — uses the Gish Gallop strategy of argumentation, keeping his opponents and the news media off balance by advancing so much misinformation at once that it becomes impossible to push back coherently on any one issue. It can be a successful strategy for the short term, but it usually ends badly for the politician using it.
SHAPIRO: I take this to mean candidates who can make false statements and not suffer any consequences in their support. I have not seen such a series of patently false statements before. That there have not severe consequences affecting Trump's and Carson's supporters [the candidate's standing in recent polls] speaks to their [voter] attachment to these anti-mainstream candidates. They will accept any "facts" and justifications the candidates offer for the policy positions that they, the candidates' supporters, also favor. Today's partisan conflict is so great that it has affected how candidates and their supporters see reality or at least how they say they see reality -- perceptual biases are at work.
ZELIZER: I think in many campaigns the truth is something politicians stretch. In recent years we have seen many examples of this, such as the 2004 attacks on John Kerry's war record or, in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson ran as a peace candidate, even though an escalation plan in Vietnam was in the works.
THE FIX: Are there any historical figures to which Donald Trump might aptly be compared?
KRUSE: More and more, Donald Trump reminds me of Alabama's Gov. George Wallace, who ran for president as a Democrat in 1964 and 1972 and, in his strongest showing, as an independent in 1968.
Like Trump, Wallace had an aggressive, engaging presence on the campaign trail and a knack for showmanship. His supporters claimed they loved him because he “told it like it is” in a simple, straightforward manner. On domestic issues, Wallace made similar appeals to Trump on themes of nativism and patriotism, with the same strong overtones of economic populism and protectionism. His campaign appealed directly to white working-class fears about race, crime, campus protests and Washington politicians who he claimed had enabled them all. Stoking white resentment, Wallace’s campaign rallies often turned ugly, as liberal protesters at them were singled out as a sign of what was wrong with America and, in some cases, physically attacked. We’re now seeing echoes of that at Trump’s rallies too.
On foreign policy, meanwhile, Wallace cut through diplomatic niceties to offer a stark black-and-white view of the world. His approach to Vietnam was simple and confident, essentially arguing that the U.S. should “win or get out.” He chose as his running mate General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force leader who gained fame for promising to “bomb them back to the Stone Age.”
SHAPIRO: There is no one like them [Trump or Ben Carson] -- figures coming out of success in business or a profession. The current context is unique in terms of numbers of candidates and an opportunity to capitalize on the rejection of mainstream party politicians. We have had third party movements but this situation is very different. These are two political leaders running in a party with no minimal support from any part of the party establishment.
ZELIZER: Trump can certainly be compared to Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s or George Wallace in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these politicians, one a senator and the other a governor and presidential candidate, played on the fears and anger of the electorate to advance their cause. For McCarthy it was fears of communists lurking in the United States, and for Wallace it was the racial tensions of the period. Both were willing to push the boundaries as to what was acceptable in "mainstream" politics, an establishment that they made their target. Both stirred up extremists elements within the parties.