President Trump’s surprising electoral victory in 2016 launched a wide array of suggested explanations. Racism. Sexism. Class divisions. Russia. Cheating. There may be some truth in all (or none) of these hypotheses. However, one important factor has been absent from the conversation: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
While these events happened three decades ago, analysts who ignore their impact on the contemporary political moment are missing a central piece of the story about how the United States reached its current destination, and are thus offering an incomplete vision of the formation of the Trump coalition.
From its earliest days, American politics were defined by a fierce distrust of the federal government, a sentiment that produced the weak Articles of Confederation and then underlay the criticisms of its stronger replacement. Maryland’s Luther Martin spoke for many of the antifederalists in 1788 in his condemnation of the Philadelphia convention for giving the federal government “great and undefined powers,” which threatened “the destruction of the state governments, and the introduction of monarchy.”
While the antifederalists lost, fears of a powerful federal government that might trample individual rights remained the guiding force in American politics for generations. “The people reign in the American political world like God over the universe,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. “It is the cause and aim of all things, everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them.”
The Cold War, however, challenged this traditional hostility toward centralized power. Unlike the rapid rise and fall of the federal state that had occurred in earlier American wars, World War II bequeathed to the nation another conflict, one that would last a half-century and would, with the rise of nuclear weapons and the spread of a hostile political ideology, appear particularly ominous to the American public.
The 1950 outbreak of the Korean War convinced many Americans both in and out of government that communism was on the march and presented such a danger to the United States that expanded federal power was necessary. Federal government spending thus exploded during the Korean War, but unlike in previous conflicts, it remained on the upward trajectory afterward, almost doubling over the next 15 years. Even many conservatives were willing to accept this new path as necessary. So great was the perceived threat that shortly after the war ended in 1953, some of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s aides warned that the Cold War might necessitate restrictions on basic American liberties that could change the nation’s fundamental way of life. Nevertheless, they were “prepared to go to full mobilization and controls if this were necessary to safeguard the national security.”
This perceived threat led Americans to continue to acquiesce to the increased growth and reach of their national government during the Cold War years, as many came to see government as not just a necessary evil but sometimes as something positive. The defining sense among the American people that a powerful government would inevitably strip them of individual rights had been replaced by a sense that a powerful federal government was necessary to safeguard their fundamental freedoms, and from that changed perspective flowed a somewhat artificial marriage between the two that underlay much of the next few decades of expansive federal policy.
In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government all or most of the time. In 1972, conservative President Richard M. Nixon, who had created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, imposed price and wage controls and proposed a federally guaranteed minimum income program, was reelected with almost 61 percent of the popular vote, with foreign policy issues at the heart of his victory. While few Americans had learned to love a powerful federal government, they had at least learned to live with it, especially if it meant keeping communism at bay.
This sentiment, however, began to wane in the 1970s, largely in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, which reminded many of why Americans had distrusted the government for so long. President Ronald Reagan capitalized on the emerging sentiment to win the White House in 1980, famously declaring that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” The Soviet Union’s collapse removed the last restraint on anti-federal government sentiment. Big government was suddenly no longer needed to defend the national interests against the communist threat, and perhaps, no longer needed for anything else.
Years of pent-up hostility toward government and those who administered it exploded. Conservatives, some of whom had grudgingly accepted the expanded federal government and others who had been marginalized by the new moderation, now sought to make amends and seize political opportunity by launching frenzied attacks on federal programs and the bureaucrats who oversaw them. Decades before the Trump presidency, Republican congressmen led by Newt Gingrich of Georgia weaponized the debt ceiling, opposed providing federal disaster funds unless they were offset by federal spending cuts, launched personal and partisan assaults on Democratic leaders that fundamentally damaged the legislative process and forced a lengthy federal government shut down. The end of the Cold War had liberated them from the threat of big government tyranny, many believed, and it was time to undo the damage that had been done.
“The Fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes an epochal change in the way people live,” declared the Republican Party platform in 1992. “More important, it liberates the way people think. We see with new clarity that centralized government bureaucracies created in this century are not the wave of the future. Never again will people trust planners and paper shufflers more than they trust themselves.” Although Democrat Bill Clinton won that election, he, too, recognized the changing vision unfolding around him, as 60 percent of the country thought the government was trying to do “too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” while a mere 32 percent favored more government involvement. “The era of big government is over,” Clinton famously announced.
No one, however, embodied this anti-government sentiment quite like Trump. Portraying himself as the ultimate outsider, Trump condemned federal programs and officials with an almost unprecedented ferocity.
Trump also went much further, attacking the basic political norms and assumptions that had defined much of 20th-century America. He didn’t just criticize Hillary Clinton; he called for her imprisonment. He didn’t just disagree with his media critics; he labeled them enemies of the people. He rejected the traditional standards to which presidential candidates had previously adhered, refusing to release his tax returns, refusing to divest from his financial empire and even refusing to promise to accept defeat if it came at the ballot box.
Fifty years earlier, such tactics probably would have appalled an American populace that had accepted action from Washington as necessary and sometimes even welcome. In 2016, however, they resonated with a nation whose trust in the government to “do what is right” had fallen to 18 percent. Without the Cold War realities to buttress the pro-government consensus, the nation had stormed down a path of renewed and hyper-intense hostility toward the government and its representatives.
That path had been largely dormant since World War II, but in 2016 it helped lead Trump to the White House. With the 2020 elections on the horizon, it is important to understand the complex and deeply historical roots of those 2016 results. Doing so requires that we move beyond the easy explanations of race and gender and recognize the important role played by changing perceptions of the fundamental role of government in American life.