Stiff Upper Lip, Friends

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At ToM, we have always loved Max Weber's essay "Politics as a Vocation" -- especially, and always, in times of political despair. The wise old sociologist was speaking amid revolutionary tumult in Germany in 1919, in the wake of the First World War. (And yes, he was speaking, despite the fact that the lecture is extraordinarily long and dense.) Somehow, Weber knew that dark times were ahead -- perhaps even intuiting the rise of Nazism, as you can see in the quotation below.  But he urged his countrymen and comrades to steel themselves for the hard vicissitudes of politics, whatever may come their way. Eric Foner reminded us of this in the darkest days of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, … [Read more...]

Sorry, Folks, but Trump Really Is Different

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Trump is different. Wow—a really big breakthrough discovery, huh? Maybe it is. Some contributors to this discussion seem determined to carry a brief for the Left by proving that Trump is merely the coming home to roost of GOP chickens. His misogyny and racism is “nothing new,” or just the logical conclusion of 40 years or more of GOP rhetoric. As tempted as I am to accept this analysis, I cannot. Something new—or at least, not terribly old—is happening right now. To explain away Trump by citing Willie Horton or Strom Thurmond or something is to choose not to reckon with the evidence of the recent past.  Sure, the GOP made robust use of dog whistles and “coded” language to play on the … [Read more...]

New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism

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I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the most frequent cause of my current existential dread election and I half-jokingly remarked that Donald Trump’s outlandish candidacy almost made me miss George W. Bush. She laughed and said that Bush had made her feel the same way about Richard Nixon. We both chuckled at the absurdity of the conversation and went on our merry ways. When I got back to my office, however, something didn’t sit well. Did I really just say I missed George W. Bush? The Bush administration was a clear point in my own political and professional development. I was in college during the Iraq War and I started grad school toward the end of Bush’s presidency, all … [Read more...]

Trump doth bestride the narrow world, like a tiny-handed Colossus…

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Is Trump sui generis? The culmination of forty years of oblique race-baiting in the GOP? A reality television hack? An avatar for fascism? We are asking the wrong questions. The real question is how our political culture has become so denigrated that we would allow a rank amateur so clearly out of his depth to rise this far, this fast. Then again, the questions always seem to outpace the answers when it comes to Trump’s nettlesome presence in the 2016 presidential election. A year and some ago, he was only the most orangey in a crowded field of GOP attention-seekers, from Ted “Puddin’head” Cruz, Mike “not quite primetime” Huckabee and Ben “Egyptologist” Carson. How long til the Donald … [Read more...]

The American Political Tradition, Revisited

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Tropics of Meta is excited to announce a new initiative that we hope can bring together leading historians and emerging scholars around a unique proposal: an update of Richard Hofstadter's seminal The American Political Tradition, which brings the great historian's perceptive and often acerbic assessment of American political figures from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the more recent past. Hofstadter ended at FDR in his 1948 classic, bringing a jaundiced eye to the then-most recent US president. From Jefferson to Lincoln, Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson, Hofstadter employed his svelte prose and acid cynicism to provide apt profiles of major figures in what he … [Read more...]

Reckoning Trump through a Joan Didion Lens

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“We’re in a new world in terms of the way information flows to the nation,” Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor James Shea noted nearly two decades ago amid accusations that President Bill Clinton had engaged in “sexual relations” with a twentysomething intern. [1] The Columbia Journalism Review bemoaned the rising influence of “journalistic amateurs” and “pretenders” like then-neophytes Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge. Today, of course, Huffington Post dominates a segment of the punditry market and the Drudge Report pretty much encapsulates the Trump worldview.[2] While Donald Trump’s attempt at misdirection in using Bill Clinton’s sexual controversies remains a smokescreen for his … [Read more...]

There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis

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I remember almost ten years ago, the normally sagacious Economist commented on the looming 2008 race.  “The smart money is on Hillary,” they declared, remarking sarcastically on the “icy” small talk among Hillary’s lady friends at a tony fundraiser, and warning that an outbreak of Bill’s horn-dog behavior could still upset the Clintons’ especially well-constructed apple cart. [Editor’s note: we thought about going with “eruption” instead of “outbreak,” but decided that either one is queasily connotative when used in the context of William Jefferson Clinton, so… fuck it.] Of course, the good journalists and editors at the Economist could not see the unlikely figure of Barack Hussein Obama … [Read more...]

Is Trump Sui Generis?

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Given Donald Trump's ongoing meltdown, all of this may be moot. But even a catastrophically failed presidential campaign has ramifications that can unfold for years, even decades to come, as well as lessons to teach us about the country. After all, many at the time saw Barry Goldwater's 1964 landslide loss as a fluke; the takeover of a mainstream party by a noisy, right-wing minority supposedly spelled the end of conservatism as a political force in the country. Yet historians now recognize that, even in defeat, Goldwater pointed the way to a major conservative revival. In contrast, Walter Mondale's historic drubbing in 1984 said a great deal about where the Democratic Party was coming from … [Read more...]

VP Debate 2016: Send in the Clowns!

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Needless to say, somewhere Smokey Robinson is wondering “WTF?” or patting himself on the back for seeing into the future, maybe both. All over the heartland, real clowns are stalking the populace, horrifying rural and inner city populations alike.  The TV mini-series It turned 25 last year, and it’s as if the anniversary served as a dog whistle for a clown resurgence: a nation of Pennywises rising from obscurity. In almost parallel development, this year’s presidential campaign feels like an Edward Hopper painting, Stephen King novel, and three-ring circus all wrapped into one. The GOP debates functioned as a proverbial clown car with an array of insane candidates emerging to grasp an … [Read more...]

Reagan’s 1966 Gubernatorial Campaign Turns 50: California, Conservatism, and Donald Trump

"Reagan for Governor" pins from the David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

On October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan, in an attempt to right a flagging Barry Goldwater campaign, stepped up to a Los Angeles podium and proceeded to address a national television audience. The speech, “A Time for Choosing,” thrust Reagan into the national spotlight. As a spokesperson for General Electric, he’d given the speech hundreds of times to receptive audiences around the country, yet, as historian H.W. Brands argues, no oration in U.S. history “ever did more…to launch a national political career.” Never an office holder, Reagan had never even campaigned for an elected position. He had only been a Republican for two years, having identified with liberal causes for much of his life as a … [Read more...]