This election result has been coming since the 1970s. In some ways the surprise is that it has taken this long to happen, but, mark my words, it was bound to.
As the 1960s drew to a close the era of progressive Democratic Party politics in the US came to a close. Franklin Roosevelt had put in place the New Deal programme to boost government spending and lift the US out of the Depression. With the end of World War Two and the election of Harry Truman came the Fair Deal. Perhaps the most consequential programme of these was the Great Society programme, and the parallel efforts in the realm of civil rights, initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in the 60s. The Great Society programme brought about Medicare and Medicaid, government health services for the elderly and the disabled which are now entrenched parts of the US social system. What all of these programmes underscored was a sense that Americans, despite the divisions which marked much of the 60s around the subject of both civil rights and the Vietnam War, shared common ground and a belief that government could work for the common good.
By the turn of the 1970s, however, this began to change. The historian Rick Perlstein has written that the divisions began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 as white, working class, voters from what we now term “Middle America”, opted out of the troubled consensus which had been built up since the New Deal. They did so for reasons which will sound familiar to anyone who followed the election over the last few months. The fear of cultural change coupled with an economy going through structural change, with subsequent job losses, resulted in white voters flocking from the consensus that had been nurtured, primarily, by Democratic Presidents (with the exception of Dwight Eisenhower). Many of those people became solid Republican voters disillusioned with the consensus system developed through the 60s. Not only were they disillusioned but they were angry too and Nixon tapped into this most famously with his “Silent Majority” speech, whipping up support for the Vietnam War and for his own conservative political agenda. Despite white voters being the largest voting bloc by far at this time, the disillusionment that was stoked at the turn of the 60/70s made those same voters feel like a small minority being pushed aside by new cultural forces of colour, sexuality and gender.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because that is what happened during this election cycle and what was bound to happen since that shift in the late 60s. Through the 70s, that group of new conservative white voters grew in power and shifted the Republican Party further to the right to the point where many members today belief global warming is fake and that the Earth is just a couple of thousand years old. However, as they shifted to the right of the political spectrum, the factors which pushed them in that direction only became stronger. Stagflation dogged the economy in the 70s and traditional working class jobs gradually ceased to exist. Wages ceased to rise, a trait which has remained until today. The cultural changes which they witnessed through the 60s continued apace with gender and race roles changing. Many of the changes, such as the Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee equal rights for women as for men, were opposed by the new white conservatives much as how movements towards gay marriage were opposed in the US over the last few years.
Ultimately, the fissures which began at the turn of the 60s/70s have only grown wider, but they have been there for a lot longer than a lot of us seem to realise. They have been allowed to grow and flourish, fed by the likes of Fox News and Breitbart. The culmination of it all was, perhaps, the Tea Party Movement and Trump’s very own birther movement which attempted to prove that President Obama was actually not born in the US. It need not have been this way but the original root causes were never addressed. The cultural changes which occurred through the 60s were the perfect foil for the economic insecurities which emerged as the 60s became the 70s. No one politician, except perhaps Obama who has been dogged by similar economic issues since the Great Recession, has been able to separate the two. No one politician has been able to solve the economic insecurities which have stoked the flames of cultural distrust which feed the ongoing conservative movement in the US. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Snr, Clinton, Bush Jnr, nor Obama, have been able to do so. Will Trump? I would be surprised if he did. What we all should not be surprised about, though, is the election of someone like Mr Trump. The fissures in the post-war US societal consensus have grown wider since the 60s, this election has been the result of history.
Published in the Evening Echo (Cork), Monday November 14, 2016.