End Times for the American Republic?

Two historians discuss today’s political climate and whether it has parallels with other periods.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Morton Keller: The view is widespread, and growing, that the current dysfunction in American politics and government portends an American End Time, when the Constitution, the Republic, and society can no longer play their traditional roles. The chattering classes in particular share this belief. The Trump administration is widely regarded in those circles as a uniquely extreme, maladroit, and ultimately dangerous deviation from the mainstream of American public life.

How accurate is this? That question is all but impossible to answer. Certainly this is not the first time in American history that the end seemed nigh. It has been part of the American parties' dialogue from their inception that the opposition poses a threat to the future of the Republic. The French sociologist Jean-Francois Revel took note of what he called the notable meteorological phenomenon that the dark night of fascism is always about to descend on the United States, yet only lands in Europe.

But does such a concern have special validity in the Age of Trump? Do the attitudes and activities of his administration justify the opposition calling itself the Resistance, evoking the image of the anti-Nazi partisans of the Second World War? In this view, to be other than a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Trumpite is to engage in a species of appeasement at best, collaboration at worst.

The rest of the political spectrum is hardly at ease. A large segment of American society sees the major social and economic changes of recent decades—race-gender-class identity trumping all others; the rising inequality that seems to come hand in hand with the internet revolution—as no less of a threat to the American creed.

What are we as historians to make of all this? Does our perspective afford any greater insight as to its verity? Given the current society's misuse and/or dismissal of the past, probably not. Still, a quick look at what might appear to be similar times might help to put our present discontent in a more useful perspective.

We have had three contested elections in the past 150 years: 1876, 2000, and 2016. So far we have only partisan conjecture as to Trump's election being stolen or improperly secured.

Rutherford B. Hayes's 1876 electoral victory was the work of a partisan commission, and it went to him in exchange for a GOP agreement to complete the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction. The Supreme Court in 2000 ended the election controversy of that year. That Bush won Florida by a couple of hundred votes is at least as likely as that he did not. In any event, no great crisis of the Republic emerged from 2000—except perhaps for an (understandable) Democratic bitterness that blossomed with Trump's popular vote minority in 2016.

But if we're going to speculate about the End Time of the Republic, we have to come up with better analogies than these. The only claimant in my view is the antislavery-Secession crisis of the 1850s, which led inexorably to the Civil War.

Are the divisions in American life today comparable to those of the pre-Civil War years? It would be difficult indeed to argue so. The differences over slavery and secession were far more significant, and deeper, than those over race, gender, or class today.

But there are also some unsettling parallels. The political passions of the 1850s were the product of what has been called “an excess of democracy”: the belief that to be an American meant that any (white) group could adopt their own social customs, form of labor, and whether or not to stay in the Union. This attitude grew hand in hand with the belief that slavery and/or secession were fundamental threats to American democracy. Gender-free bathrooms and economic disparity just aren't yet in the same category of irreconcilable social issues.

A second (perhaps less muted) echo of the 1850s is the current sense that both parties (as seen in the 2016 election) produce candidates that for many voters are deplorable. Similarly, the presidents of the 1850s—Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan—are strong contenders to be on any list of America's worst presidents.

All this said, we're hardly in a rerun of the 1850s. But if take-no-prisoners politics and government-stifling polarization continue to flourish, then all bets are off.

Julian Zelizer: In your essay, you raise important questions about the most dramatic rhetoric that we hear these days about the dangers facing the nation and the severity of the dysfunction in Washington. How bad are things in 2017? You turn our attention to the 1850s, so that we can think about how bad the current polarization has become within the electorate and whether we are heading toward another civil war.

I don’t think we are in a crisis that severe. The truth is that on many issues a number of polls have shown that American citizens are not as far apart as party leaders. While Washington likes to see black and white, there is a considerable amount of grey out there in the polls. Just as important, our political institutions remain very strong. As Donald Trump has been learning, the president can’t do whatever he or she wants. The courts and Congress remain powerful players, as does the federal bureaucracy, and have the ability to check the most aggressive leader. Shifting public policy and government institutions is also extremely difficult. The thickening of government in the 20th century makes it very difficult for any president, even with united government, to move the needle.

The news media has also demonstrated its capacity to be a powerful counterweight when journalists are motivated to keep politician’s accountable. The press has not made things easy for President Trump, and high-level investigative reporting has made it difficult for Trump to get away with whatever he wants. The president can complain all that he wants about fake news, but most outside of his orbit seem to agree that this has been a moment of some very good reporting and analysis.

It is important to recognize that the criticism of Trump is more than just “partisan bickering” or the product of the “chattering classes.” His low approval ratings suggest that others are concerned about what’s happening in the White House. The difficulty that former President Barack Obama had moving legislation through Congress in a period of united government is also notable.

It is also crucial to note that the opposition to Trump is not primarily about leftist extremists obsessing about fascism and being unreasonable with regards to what the administration is doing. Groups like Indivisible, headed by former congressional staffers, believe that the Republicans are threatening to take away health-care benefits from millions of Americans—a conclusion that the Congressional Budget Office has supported. The protests against the ban on refugees, which was supported by several judges, centers on a prohibition that violates constitutional protections. The anger about the president withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and deregulating huge swaths of the energy markets through executive action stems from very broad concerns about the damage from climate change that have support in almost all of the scientific community. Fears that the administration is not taking seriously the Russian intervention into the election—documented by key intelligence agencies—and, at worst, having possibly worked with them is not that radical of a position.

Concern that Trump’s language via Twitter and in person are undermining perceptions of the presidency are grounded in very rational fears. One only has to look back to Richard Nixon to remember how the actions of one president can really make a big difference on the public standing of government leaders. The belief that his attitude toward women, African Americans, immigrants and others is extremely damaging to our political culture should be seen as more than one side just disagreeing with the other.

All of this to say is that in the case of Trump, the tensions that exist might be more about him than the broader partisan zeitgeist of the nation. As bad as things have been between red and blue, the actions and impact of Trump might be a bit more exceptional and destabilizing than you suggest.

Keller: I'm glad to see that we are in general agreement as to the relative place of the Trump administration on the spectrum of threats to the Republic. I guess that our major area of disagreement, as in the past, resides in the varying weights that we apply to the role of the mainstream media in contemporary American politics.

You considerably understate things when you say that the press has not made things easy for Trump. Nor do I think it should. But I don't see any great investigative work coming out of the media. Indeed, I think that the level and quantity of investigative reporting has markedly declined: in part because of diminishing press financial support; in part because in the age of polarized politics, Twitter and Facebook, and the social networks, there isn't much demand (or supply) of the kind of real investigative journalism exemplified by Watergate. The popular (and media) taste now is for sensational, not necessarily documented accusations of wrongdoing by the (political) enemy.

Another problem is one we have differed over before. And that is my view that (for obvious reasons) the press is as ready to pounce on the abundant wrongdoings of the Trump administration as it was reluctant to pounce on the misdoings of its predecessor. Two prime examples: the shamefully slight exploration of the IRS scandal (one of the most questionable misuses of government power in recent history) and the reluctance to probe deeply into the connections between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. By all means the media is right to go after the possibility of Trump-Russia collusion. By all means it was wrong to give the Obama administration a pass on comparable shady doings.

Zelizer: Thanks for these thoughts. To conclude, we'll have to disagree. I understand the many flaws of the media, but there are plenty of quality investigative stories that have come out about the Trump administration that deserve praise. This has been much more than sensationalism and I would predict that there is more to come. While there are some reporters who trump up parts of this story, inflating their significance, much of the coverage about conflicts of interest, blocking an investigation and hiding information about contacts with Russia, and about the overall chaos of the White House have been pretty on target.

Finally, I just don't think I agree with the comparison between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. There was extensive coverage, for instance, of the Clinton foundation. This was anything but a mystery. Part of the difference was that Obama ran a very different kind of administration, one that was extremely ethical by most accounts and one that governed in a more traditional manner than what we are seeing today. There was simply more respect for governance than what we see right now in the Oval Office.

While there were many flaws with Obama, from his political acumen to his choices about public policy, it seems to me that overall he ran a pretty ethical administration which is the primary reason it was scandal free. The questionable behavior connected to the Clintons certainly did not get a pass from the national media. Just ask the Clinton campaign about that one.