Rethinking American History in Trump’s Shadow
Catastrophes like the pandemic or the president shape the past as much as the future.
History is a moving target, and recent history an almost unhittable one. The past is visible only through the lens of the present, and as the present shifts, understanding of the past shifts with it. When an unexpected event dramatically reshapes the present, it calls into question everything the recent past once seemed to mean.
The world is at one such inflection point now. As recently as January, very few people even guessed at the possibility that a pandemic would redefine every aspect of our lives in 2020, disrupting everything from mundane daily routines to financial markets to geopolitics. Surely in hindsight, the failure of the United States to build an infrastructure capable of weathering the deadly new viruses epidemiologists warned us were coming will loom large in our evaluation of the past several administrations. And many of our recent assumptions—that densely populated cities such as New York would continue to grow and prosper indefinitely, for instance—have been abruptly cast in doubt.
But while meaningful histories inflected by the coronavirus will take a while to be produced, Americans are only a few years past another unexpected major inflection point: the election of Donald Trump as president. On Election Day morning 2016, most informed observers believed that America’s growing diversity demographically ensured that President Barack Obama’s young, multiracial coalition would continue to dominate national elections, while the Republican Party would have to expand its appeal beyond white revanchism in order to remain competitive. Twenty-four hours later, that conclusion would seem laughable, as indeed it does now regardless of who wins this year’s election.
The post-Trump reevaluations were instantaneous. The centrist liberal writer Jonathan Chait had a book scheduled for release in early 2017, to be titled Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America. Written with close access to the Obama administration, Audacity was supposed to tell the triumphal story of Obama’s policy successes, which the near-universally expected Hillary Clinton administration would then build on. Following Trump’s victory over Clinton and what must have been some frantic rewriting, the book was released with an altered and far more defensive subtitle: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail.
A number of books written in less haste have followed. If journalism is the first draft of history, these books are the second drafts: The history they look back on is still fresh enough that the authors themselves lived through it, and the crucial event that caused the rethink is painfully fresh in memory. The upheavals now being caused by the coronavirus, and by accelerating climate change and other future crises that will only seem inevitable in retrospect, will surely cause the post-Trump histories to seem dated in turn. But in the meantime, they offer insight into how history is constantly being reinterpreted with the present in mind.
The defining work of general history produced in the Trump years will very likely be These Truths: A History of the United States, by the Harvard University historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. Clocking in at 800 pages, Lepore’s book accomplishes the admirably ambitious task of surveying the entirety of U.S. history, from Christopher Columbus’s voyages to Trump’s election, in a single readable volume. These Truths was released in 2018 to critical and commercial success, and it will probably be a standard textbook for many years to come. The prose is lovely, if occasionally over the top; Lepore is fond of similes, describing the U.S. Constitution as being “as finely wrought as an iron gate” and the nation after Robert F. Kennedy’s murder as mourning “as Job in the desert, fallen to his knees.” But these indulgences can be forgiven; it’s no small feat to tell a nation’s story from beginning to end in a tonally and ideologically coherent voice.
Lepore has a thesis: America needs a history lesson. From their country’s messy, chaotic, paradoxical history, Americans must forge a usable and unified narrative, one that speaks to everyone and that calls for national resilience. She makes this mission explicit in her brief 2019 follow-up, This America: The Case for the Nation, but it is stamped on every page of These Truths. “In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out,” she writes in her introduction, “I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past, mainly because this book is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” Her focus is on politics, media, and legal institutions, and on how shifts in technology have affected all of them.
Though Trump’s name appears nowhere in the introduction, his influence is palpable in Lepore’s focus on differentiating truth from falsehood, on the persistence of demagoguery and xenophobia, and on the need to reassert bedrock national ideals. Figures from throughout U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson to Joseph McCarthy, are evoked, with Trump clearly in Lepore’s mind as the culmination of their particular brand of politics. But Trump’s presence is particularly felt in the book’s final quarter, which covers the United States from 1946 (perhaps not coincidentally, the year of the president’s birth) to 2016.
Lepore’s boldest choice, and the one that feels most directly rooted in post-2016 trauma, is to project the role of polling-driven media coverage back into history. Lepore introduces ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer, at the very beginning of her post-World War II section, and she plays up the importance of primitive computing in every subsequent election, giving a long prehistory to the social media dynamics of 2016. A few pages later, she introduces a relatively obscure duo as major figures in postwar history: Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, the co-founders of a campaign consulting firm that played a key role in defeating Harry S. Truman’s proposed national health care plan in 1945. They later managed Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign, driven heavily by TV advertising, with the outcome successfully predicted by a computer called Univac.
The early prominence of pollsters, advertising, and computers in shaping election outcomes, none of which I recall reading about in my own high school history textbooks, is something Lepore carries forward to 2016, where she blames polls to a significant extent for Trump. “Polls admitted Trump into the GOP debates, polls placed him at center stage, and polls declared him the winner,” Lepore writes, although it’s unclear what mechanism she thinks would have been preferable. As best as one can tell, she believes that the rationalization of the electorate has distorted civic virtues and enabled manipulation of the public, with the damage now visible to all in the form of Trump. But it’s odd to place so much onus on polling—whatever valid criticisms one might have of the industry—after spending hundreds of pages demonstrating that the xenophobic, racist, and reactionary forces that propelled Trump’s campaign have all been integral to the United States from the very beginning.
Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, a 2019 collaboration between the Princeton University historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, is decidedly more modest in scope. While Lepore covers five centuries chronologically, Kruse and Zelizer limit themselves to the past 40 years and change, which they cover thematically as well as chronologically, with long stretches on such themes as race and identity, gender and sexuality, growing economic inequality, and U.S. military adventures abroad. Fault Lines is an able summary of the major news events of recent decades—one that’s fair-minded to a fault. While the authors are both outspoken liberals, they have attempted to shape their book around the central thesis that the United States has become divided, with mutually opposed camps refusing to acknowledge one another’s basic perception of reality.
“Abandoning the search for common ground in political and economic life, [Americans] increasingly valued competition and even conflict,” the authors write in their introduction. “From the 1970s on, the United States would seem less and less unified with each passing decade.” They root this insight in Obama’s farewell address in January 2017, in which he identified three threats to U.S. democracy: economic inequality, racial division, and partisan polarization. Trump’s victory, which seems to have occasioned the writing of Fault Lines, is rooted in these divisions. The sudden swing from Obama’s vision of America to Trump’s reflects a nation split in two.
This is an uncontroversial-sounding point as far as it goes, one that also seems to be the operating principle behind much mainstream media coverage of politics: the principle of “bothsidesism.” There is no question that Kruse and Zelizer prefer Obama to Trump, and that they are aware that the roots of America’s divisions go back much further than the 1970s—Kruse, for instance, is the author of a 2007 history of desegregation in the 1960s, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism—which makes their focus on national unity seem almost purposefully naive. They fall prone to a common and regrettable impulse among liberals to give conservative arguments more credit than they deserve, compensating for the right’s efforts to divide Americans by affirming a mythical unity.
“The first year of the Trump presidency revealed the enormous wear and tear that forty years of bitter division has inflicted on the republic,” they write in their conclusion. “Yet a divided nation did not mean a broken nation. … The question that the United States of America now faces as a divided country is whether we can harness the intense energy that now drives us apart and channel it once again toward creating new and stronger bridges that can bring us closer together.”
The answer, I’m pretty sure, is no, and I suspect Kruse and Zelizer would agree. Nothing about the current pandemic suggests that a new age of national unity awaits. Economic inequality has been hypercharged by the coronavirus, with poor communities of color bearing the brunt of the casualties and making up a disproportionately large share of those labeled essential workers, compelled to risk their lives to keep society functioning. The divisions even within the Democratic Party remain bitter and painful, while over 40 percent of Americans continue to support Trump despite his manifest cruelty and incompetence. New regional divisions are also emerging, or at least being clarified, as the Trump administration favors distributing emergency aid to governors it considers its allies, such as Republican Ron deSantis in Florida, over those it considers hostile, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York. The collective action that Americans might in theory mount to resist Trump’s misgovernance has been rendered nearly impossible by the requirements of social distancing and self-isolation. Even if Trump loses in November and goes willingly, everything that enabled him will remain.
Fault Lines is not a bad book; it’s certainly lucid and in command of a wide range of facts, and when it emphasizes the role of new forms of media in exacerbating culture wars and polarization, it verges on making a structural argument. Jill Lepore is one of many eminent historians to give it a nice blurb, and Kruse and Zelizer are on to something with their choice of timeline. Something about the United States did change in the mid-1970s, even if “division” is the wrong culprit. The history of the present really does begin around then, as another recent history by another enthusiastic blurber of Fault Lines persuasively argues.
Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics came out in 2017, which means it only barely makes the cut as a work of post-Trump history. Unlike These Truths and Fault Lines, it wasn’t necessarily written with a Trump victory in mind, although the future president does take center stage for a four-page episode late in the book concerning his early success in Manhattan real estate. At the very least, Phillips-Fein was aware that Trump had become a major figure in U.S. politics by around 2015, and that his business activities in the 1970s might therefore help illuminate some aspects of the present.
The focus of Fear City, however, is on New York City’s 1975 budgetary crisis, immortalized in the New York Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Between the end of World War II and 1975, New York had been the unquestioned leading metropolis of the free world, home not only to Wall Street and the United Nations but also to heavy industry, small manufacturers, and a thriving laboratory of New Deal and Great Society reforms—including America’s largest systems of public transportation, public housing, public hospitals, public libraries, and public higher education. But for a variety of reasons, by the 1970s the city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Mayor Abe Beame, a New Deal liberal, appealed to the federal government for assistance, but President Gerald Ford—who was never elected, and who owed his presidency to Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate—refused to help.
Ford, known as a moderate Republican, was fending off a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan, the ideologically conservative governor of California. Guided by advisors such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Ford allowed America’s greatest city to go bankrupt in order to force budget cuts that would destroy the city’s generous social contract and pave the way for the finance and real estate industries (the latter represented in microcosm by Trump) to take over Manhattan. An Emergency Financial Control Board, staffed with Wall Street bankers, would wrest control of municipal governance from New York’s elected leaders, and once the city became solvent it would continue to be run by mayors beholden to a wealthy and globalized elite. Meanwhile, much of the city descended into anarchy and violence, captured in the many gritty films of the era.
While this may seem like the narrow story of one city over the course of a few years, Phillips-Fein sees much more profound national and international implications. “[T]he spectacular failure of the New York City government crystallized the antigovernment ethos that was gaining momentum nationally during the 1970s,” she writes. In New York’s crisis, she sees the blueprint for the austerity crises of the past decade, from Detroit to Greece to Puerto Rico. “The politics of inevitability that defined New York in the 1970s have been at work in all these cases as well. … Modern politicians and economists employ a moralistic rhetoric of responsibility and belt-tightening just as they did in 1975, but they do so with far more confidence than at that earlier moment, thanks to the intervening forty years of antigovernment politics.” Still, she adds, “austerity remains a political choice.”
The crucial difference between Phillips-Fein’s approach and those of Lepore, Kruse, and Zelizer is the foregrounding of material concerns. All of these historians are interested in changing social and cultural mores, in the ways race and gender intersect with politics, and in political divisions, and all of them clearly saw that Americans were living through a crisis even before the more acute catastrophe of the pandemic. But Phillips-Fein also understands that politics is not just a battle over identity or values or civics, but also over resources: who society’s wealth is for, and what kind of life government can provide for the majority of its citizens.
The 1970s represent a break not because Americans became divided—Americans have always been divided—but because a social contract that had more or less functioned for a generation was deliberately torn apart by financial interests organized into a new political movement. Donald Trump was an early beneficiary of this financial disruption, as the tax code shifted from incentivizing the middle class (and, to be clear, segregated) outer-borough housing empire built by his father to the gleaming Midtown luxury towers on which he emblazoned his name. His eventual presidency represents the culmination of the same project: the selling off of public goods to private interests.
Meanwhile, New York City has become the global epicenter of the pandemic on Trump’s watch—with an assist from Cuomo, heir to a political dynasty that has also been active since the 1970s. My apartment in Brooklyn is mere blocks from one of the public hospitals that survived the budget cuts detailed by Phillips-Fein; it is now one of the most overloaded COVID-19 wards on earth, in spite of its crumbling and long-neglected infrastructure. A few miles to the southeast, a truck outside a funeral home was recently discovered to be holding dozens of decomposing corpses. My own quarantine has been mercifully comfortable, but sirens have been a constant feature day and night, and casualty rates in the neighboring working-class West Indian communities are far higher than in the wealthiest precincts of Manhattan. Many wealthy New Yorkers have fled the city for their second homes, and whether they will ever return is now an open question.
If 1975 represented the beginning of the neoliberal era in New York, and perhaps in the United States as a whole, 2020 could represent the end—the end of gentrification, the end of cities being marketed as luxury items, and the end, if we’re lucky, of passive governance that allows urban poverty to entrench itself. Then again, the pandemic might just extend and exacerbate the status quo, and a decade from now it may be as forgotten as the 1918 Spanish flu, eclipsed by larger forces and crises barely imaginable now. Either way, the interpretation of the past remains as in flux as the possibilities of the future.