Leading historians on how 2016 wasn’t a unique election year, but the winner wasHistorians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump
Historians of the future will likely ask how and why Donald Trump’s election victory was possible—as well as why so many supposedly clever people really, really didn’t see it coming.
But while there are never direct parallels with the past, history tells us that the structural factors—namely political discontent and social and economic stratification—that helped propel Trump to the White House are not unique to 2016, even if Trump himself is.
“Americans have elected populists in the past,” says Rhys Jones, a research fellow in history at the University of Cambridge. “What’s unusual about Trump is the unpredictability and contingency of it.”
Back in the late 19th century, as America’s economy shifted from an agricultural to an industrialized one, there were feelings of disorientation, threat, and anxiety, says Frank Cogliano, a professor in American history at the University of Edinburgh. These, he says, were similar to what many workers have felt with the more recent shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.
The outcomes of the two eras, however, were different. “Where political alienation in the 1890s produced the Progressive Movement, our moment has seen a transnational turn against reform and state intervention,” Cogliano says. “Then, they elected [Theodore] Roosevelt as president as a Republican committed to reforming the excesses of capitalism; today we face the prospect of a Trump presidency seemingly premised on repealing those reforms.” ...