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How Historians of Tomorrow Will Interpret Donald Trump’s Election

9 minute read

It’s safe to say that the results of Tuesday’s presidential election came as something of a surprise to many Americans, no matter whom they backed. President-elect Donald Trump soundly defied the polls to pull out a victory, despite a campaign that shocked and alienated large swaths of the country.

In the wake of the news, TIME History asked a variety of experts who have contributed to the section in the past to weigh in on one question: When historians of the future look back on this week, what do you think they will see? Below is a selection of the answers they submitted by email and phone:

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history at The Evergreen State College and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families:

It’s really up to the American people, and how they respond to the challenges of this next administration, as to how historians will judge this, whether it’s a turning point or not. But there’s a sense in which the election was discouraging, not just because of the mobilization of racist and misogynistic and nativist sentiments that we know have been there all along, but also because of the failure of liberals to address the historical roots of white working-class frustration. In condemning white men’s nostalgia for the 1950s, many liberal politicians bent the stick too far the other direction, ignoring the real losses white working-class Americans have experienced over the past 40 years, and missing the opportunity to integrate class analysis with our new emphasis on race, gender and sexuality.

That’s what I’d say as a historian: we will see this as a lost opportunity by Democrats to address class, given what had happened with the great recession, with the indignation at the 1%, with the polling that showed Bernie Sanders would have done better than Clinton, and with the complicated reasons that bullies and outsiders like Trump appeal to people who have not only lost illegitimate advantages over minorities, but badly-needed bargaining power as workers in relation to capital. That loss of bargaining power has hurt all workers, but Clinton’s campaign was not able to convince many workers of her sincere understanding and indignation about their plight.

Jefferson Cowie, James G. Stahlman Professor of history at Vanderbilt University:

A dispatch from 2066: To review our holographic study modules, we have three lessons to go over from the unprecedented moment fifty years ago when Donald Trump won the presidency. First, it has since become an axiom of politics that it is impossible to sustain a multicultural republic on a foundation of economic inequality. Only when all boats are rising are we capable of being socially and politically inclusive. Second, the election of Trump triggered what we now call the “Era of Ethno-Fundamentalism.” While that backlash was already happening around the world, the success of Trump showed the continued power of place, race, religion and region in people’s identity as tools to confront the upheavals of global capitalism. Finally, though the maelstrom of history in the half century after Trump showed that the principles of the Enlightenment were far weaker and more precious than most philosophers had previously believed, we must highlight the profound durability of the republic amidst the challenges.

Tony Horwitz, President of the Society of American Historians:

The election of 2016 will be remembered as a backlash election, akin to Nixon’s victory in 1968. For many Americans, too much changed in too short a time—culturally, economically, globally—and Trump gave voice to their fear and anger and nostalgia. Unfortunately, historians will note another 1968 parallel: the election of a man whose character would destroy his presidency.

Lynn Hunt, professor of history emerita at UCLA:

Historians won’t talk about this week as something surprising. Every time there have been any gains for minorities, women or immigrants, the white population of this country has been unable to resist the siren call of racism, sexism and xenophobia. Two steps forward, one step back. Emancipation of the slaves, lynching as a five decade long response. An African-American president and a vicious racist reaction. Gay marriage, and you get Mike Pence. Nor will the reaction to a woman running for president surprise anyone. I have spent 50 years as a professional ignoring, setting aside, and just not recognizing the sexism I have encountered at every step. Because to do so would be discouraging and to fight it would take all my energy. Women have had to be twice as good as men to get paid the same amount (in the university!) and if they are not demure in the way that men expect, they are vilified as bitches, ball-breakers, whatever (in the university!). And if they are demure, they don’t get promoted because they are not up to the job. I now consider Hillary a secular saint and martyr for having been willing to be the lightning rod for the evils of sexism.

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Elizabeth Hinton, assistant professor of history and of African and African American Studies at Harvard:

Many commentators—including Hillary Clinton herself—have noted this, but the 2016 election clearly exposes how divided America is and the way racism deeply shapes social and political relations. In 1935’s Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that poor white Americans are paid a “psychological wage” that makes them feel superior to their black counterparts even though that racism compromises their own potential material gains. As a result low-income white citizens consistently act and very often vote against their own class interests. This election will be noted for exposing that psychological wage in stark new ways. Clearly the mobilization of marginalized white people for Trump’s brand of nationalism is a backlash to Obama and the threat a black presidency represented. We have a long, long way to go.

I also think we will see the outcome of this election, in part, as resulting from the policies of the Clinton administration. Many black people decided to sit this election out because Hillary failed to inspire them, and because they feared she would not adequately represent their interests, given that tens of thousands of black American families fell into extreme poverty during the 1990s as a result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms and his 1994 Crime Bill. That six million Americans could not vote in this election due to a prior felony conviction helped to secure Donald Trump’s ascendancy and the Republican-majority Congress.

James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong:

Historians of the future will see 2016 as the year America saw that men have real grievances. The federal government had special commissions, etc., for “women’s health,” including “National Women’s Health Week,” yet women outlive men by five years, partly because they already get better health care and see doctors twice as often as men do. Yet the government offers almost nothing that speaks to men’s health issues. There are many more such examples, such as the harsher sentences men typically get for identical crimes, and, of course, on the whole it has been men’s jobs that have been disappearing overseas.

In Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, she went through the list of what many white men see as special interest groups: women, people of color, gays/lesbians, handicapped persons, transgendered, and poor people. She did not want to offend any group by omitting them. Meanwhile, she spoke not one word to or about “regular” white men. Those men see themselves as supporting governmental programs aimed at everyone else (which is not entirely inaccurate), while they go completely unheard by government. If Democrats begin to care about investigating and speaking to the issues facing white men, 2016 will have been a turning point.

T.J. Stiles, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America and The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt:

With a longer perspective, I believe historians will see this election as an earthquake on a 150-year-old fault line. On Feb. 19, 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed an extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a pioneering federal agency that assisted emancipated African Americans. He declared that Congress had never done so much for “our own people,” meaning white people, and defined federal assistance as, in essence, a hand-out to blacks who wouldn’t support themselves. Just four months later, on June 18, Congress sent the Fourteenth Amendment to the states. When ratified in 1868, it erased racial limits on citizenship from the Constitution and authorized federal protection of the rights of individuals. Here was the making of a fundamental political divide that lasts to the present day: On one side, a colorblind definition of citizenship and an endorsement of federal power to aid individuals; on the other, an explicitly racial definition of American identity and a belief that federal aid for individuals is illegitimate, framing it as a bounty for undeserving non-whites. That hardly explains everything about this complicated election, but it’s a historical continuity that will appear more obvious in the decades to come.

Tyler Stovall, Distinguished Professor of History at University of California Santa Cruz and President-elect of the American Historical Association:

For me, the election of Donald Trump underscores the Brexit vote in the U.K. earlier this year; both represent a profound anger at globalization by those who see themselves as its losers, and mixed in with that is a substantial amount of xenophobia and racism. I think historians of the future will think of this as a major turning point in not only how America adapts to a more globalized economy, but equally what this will have said about our democratic political system. This of course will all depend on how the future transpires in general, and what the Trump administration achieves in particular. I also think many historians will see this as a major example of resistance to a more multicultural America, perhaps akin to the suppression of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. Perhaps the most astute will consider how these two primary questions, diversity and the resistance to globalized economic inequality, have shaped and will continue to shape contemporary America.

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