The unresolved question is how those historians, with the benefit of distance, will explain Trump’s rise and what it portended. My guess is they’ll conclude that Trump reflected nostalgia for a fast-receding American moment — while also giving us a glimpse of the one that lay ahead.
History will record that from the late 1980s, with the end of the fragile Cold War consensus, our politics began to fracture rapidly. Rattled by seismic transformations in technology, left behind by social movements and global markets, many Americans lost faith in the big institutions — banks, churches, media, military — that had been the cornerstones of community life.
Tremors rocked the political establishment as a parade of celebrities and self-styled reformers — Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger — moved to exploit the sudden vulnerability of industrial-age parties. Then came Barack Obama’s toppling of the Democratic order in 2008 — a sign that personality and identity had at last supplanted party machines.
The history texts will note that by 2016, a leaderless Republican Party was primed for a hostile takeover. Into that breach stepped an accomplished huckster and TV celebrity, playing the role of garish billionaire and anti-immigrant populist.
The idea of a conservative billionaire populist may sound inherently contradictory to students in the 22nd century, but in 2016 America, ideological coherence wasn’t a particular selling point. Trump was a skillful entertainer who terrified the political and media elite, and that was enough.
Students will write that Trump’s brief presidency was notable mostly for its affront to the democratic norms of the age. Trump behaved more like a small-time strongman than an American president — sharing power with his children, misinforming the public through a primitive digital platform called “Twitter,” whipping up the masses with staged-for-TV rallies.
His enduring hold on these audiences — White and less educated, a sizable plurality of the electorate — stemmed from a promise to restore the past. Perpetually aggrieved, Trump was the natural anchor on a relay whose baton of racial and socioeconomic resentment had passed from George Wallace to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan before him.
By the 2020s, though, American culture was moving quickly and inexorably toward mass urbanization and the more tolerant social attitudes that came with it. It will be clear to future historians, with the benefit of hindsight, that Trump’s presidency marked the last, tortured spasms of a dying ideology.
They will say that Trump briefly emboldened reactionary forces that had been marginalized in the years immediately preceding his ascendancy. But he could do nothing to reverse their long slide into irrelevance, which within a few decades would be all but complete.
And yet, scholars of the next century will point out that Trump’s presidency wasn’t only a rearview mirror trained on where America had been. It was also a kind of headlight, illuminating the road ahead.
Because, after Trump, presidential politics would never again be the sole purview of parties or their careerist politicians. History will say that Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, represented only a short-term correction — that the trend toward personality-based politics exploded in the years after Trump, creating a disorderly political landscape that would have been unrecognizable to previous generations.
They will say that if the 20th century belonged to two enduring parties and their loyalists, then the 21st belonged to a series of “pop-up parties” centered on celebrities, athletes, activists and businesspeople.
They will note that this phenomenon started with candidates who, like Trump, engineered temporary takeovers of the existing parties. Within 20 years of Trump’s exit, however, a nation that now voted at higher rates than ever before — thanks to expanded voting times and, finally, e-ballots — elected the first of several independent presidents, unmoored from any party structure.
Will historians say this was a bad thing? That’s a hard one to predict.
There’s a version of what Trump represents — persona over party, outsiderness over conventional experience — that might actually ennoble our politics. There are ways in which a reform-minded, independent leader, freed from inherited orthodoxies, might ultimately modernize government and restore a sense of national purpose.
But then there’s the more alarming version of the free-standing, celebrity president — a demagogue who preys on divisions, an aspiring autocrat whose self-gratification eclipses all public good.
If that’s where we’re headed, history will have little problem tracing it to the source.