The Problem of Donald Trump Didn’t Start with Donald Trump
His shocking rise to power was actually 27 years in the making
The arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene has been treated by disbelieving pundits, journalists, and politicos not unlike how the appearance of the Mule was treated by the Encyclopedists in Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series of science fiction novels (and, for the uninitiated, soon to be an Apple-produced TV series). I’m not implying that Trump, like Asimov’s notorious conqueror, has mutant powers that allow him to manipulate the masses’ emotions, making his followers adore him and his enemies to cower in fear. No, the parallel has to do with Trump being president of the United States; this very fact seems inconceivable to many. Like Asimov’s Mule, Trump simply wasn’t supposed to happen; the Founding Fathers didn’t build the system in anticipation of a president such as him.
This disbelief and shock has led to a narrower form of analysis than is perhaps warranted. More reflective members of the media have tried to grapple with the moment by asking, “What is the phenomenon of Trump doing to America?” “How are our hallowed institutions standing up to the unique challenge of his presidency?” “How can we repair the damage left behind, once the Trump presidency is firmly in the rearview mirror?” These are not so much the wrong questions as they are misdirected. Because, while Trump differs from his predecessors in many ways, he is best understood as the culmination of a process that’s been underway in the United States for quite some time.
With talk of impeachment in the air, it can be tempting to compare Trump to Richard Nixon. Nixon’s rise and fall, however, took place in a completely different political context. One can certainly trace today’s situation to a domestic conflict that has its roots in the 1960s, and it’s interesting to juxtapose the reactionary sentiments that powered both Nixon and Trump to the highest office. But the process I’m describing kicked off in 1991.
One of the defining features of this process — of the post–Cold War political context more generally — has been the tendency to delegitimize whoever is the democratically elected president at the time. The persecution…