Donald Trump may be unhinged, erratic, demagogic, and unpredictable, but we cannot afford the luxury of pretending that his election was some kind of historical aberration. It was not. We need only look back at our history to see how we got here. Only then will we be able to move our country in a better direction.
This country was birthed in colonialism, genocide, and slavery, as well as revolution and democracy. To understand the current political moment, though, we need not go that far back. We might start instead on November 22, 1963, three months after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when the young president of the United States was shot dead in Dallas, Texas.
A Texas Democrat, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, moved into the White House and pushed through the War on Poverty, and, under pressure from the black freedom struggle, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These brought monumental changes to the lives of African-Americans in the South and the North, but the struggle for “jobs and freedom” was far from over. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The country erupted in racial anger.
Johnson’s short reign also brought us the escalation of the Vietnam War, as the United States took on the increasingly bloody responsibility for maintaining the old European empires in Southeast Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and the Middle East—all in the name of the Cold War. The Vietnam War brought down Johnson and Nixon after him, but apparently the only lesson we learned as a country was to abolish the draft, and thus to ensure that college-educated, middle-class Americans did not have to risk their lives in our wars and therefore would not protest as we continued in our role as a military superpower.
Fast-forward to 1980. White Southern Democrats, economic populists in the New Deal era, found they could no longer abide a Democratic Party that dared to challenge their system of racial apartheid. First they joined George Wallace in the Dixiecrat-style American Independent Party; in 1980 they jumped to Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, which openly courted them with not-so-subtle dog-whistling.
Reagan didn’t only bring in the white Southern Democrats but also the Northern “Reagan Democrats.” The term referred to a white working-class constituency motivated by opposition to desegregation of schools in Northern cities through forced “busing” and by opposition to feminism and abortion after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. That alliance redrew the electoral map in the United States.
The new reality that Reagan brought with him was a dramatic one. The marginal tax rate for the richest Americans went from 70 percent down to 28 percent. The groundwork was laid for the World Trade Organization, whose protections Reagan rightly called a “Corporate Bill of Rights,” insulating global capital from financial, environmental, labor, and public-health regulations. Unions were challenged and battered by rulings of Reagan-stocked courts and the National Labor Relations Board. Wages stagnated. Federal funding, and then state funding, was withdrawn from higher education, leading to the current student-debt crisis. Environmental regulations of the Nixon era—clean air, clean water, even the Environmental Protection Agency itself—were ignored and undermined. Reagan gleefully ripped Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof.