I am not a historian, but I do read a good many history books. What follows is my best attempt at analyzing what's going on in the wake of Donald Trump's election. I'm specifically trying to be factual rather than polemical, but obviously my prejudices will color my conclusions.
So now what? Well, whatever else it may be, Trumpism is manifestly:
- Nationalist, in that it it embraces an "America First" ideology;
- Populist, in that it stokes up and harnesses anger directed at elites; and
- Authoritarian, in that an admiration for "strength" seems to be a core belief both for Trump and for his followers.
The United States has never before had a mass nationalist-populist-authoritarian political movement--at least, not one with this kind of power. Andrew Jackson came close, but Jackson in the 1820s was at least in harmony with his own political party. Huey Long took some steps in that direction before he was assassinated. The 19th-century "Know-Nothings" were profoundly nativist, and (briefly) had significant political power, but they didn't have the other characteristics.
So, as the title says: we're in uncharted waters.
However: other nations have had, and continue to have, nationalist-populist-authoritarian political parties. Historical comparisons are unavoidably fraught with emotion, but there are plenty of current examples. Consider Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and (no avoiding this one) Vladimir Putin in Russia. To find out what's in store for the U.S., we can look at these. I draw these conclusions:
- These regimes tend to become repressive over time. The weaker the nation's civil and political institutions, the faster the repressiveness comes. If anyone has an example of a nationalist-populist-authoritarian regime which has not tended toward repression, please leave me a comment.
- A core constituency develops whose members will never under any circumstances turn on the leader. It doesn't matter how far the leader goes or in what direction. As long as they feel that the Strong Man stays strong, his adherents will follow him.
- When I say "the leader," I mean "the leader." It's not a group or an explicit ideology that animates the movement. It's hero-worship of a particular man. (I can't come up with a single female example off the top of my head.)
- The leader usually surrounds himself with loyalists. They may be competent or incompetent; that's neither here nor there to the boss. They are never strong enough to stand up to the autocrat in their own right, but they often use their position to build up their own power bases.
- Once in power, the regime takes steps to remain in power. Opposition politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and so forth are removed or neutralized. Non-core or borderline supporters are forced to choose: join the movement, or be purged. The vast majority of them join.
The third bullet is another interesting point. Trump is seventy years old. Strong-man leaders don't have a great record of transferring their authority to anyone else (Nicolas Maduro and Dmitriy Medvedev are cases in point). We're probably still too early in the process for him to pull off a family dynasty a la North Korea or Syria. Prognosis: unknown.
Finally, the U.S. has generally had strong civil institutions. It may be that they will check the repressive tendencies of the neo-Republican/Trumpist movement, or at least slow it down--through sheer inertia, if nothing else. Barring a major policy blunder, however, I think we are likely to see our politics dominated by mobs of insecure and angry white people for some time to come.