Understanding America in uncertain times

Published on 16 November 2018

To his detractors, he has ridden roughshod over human rights and set back the cause of women and minorities by decades. But to his tens of millions of supporters, Donald Trump is the plain-speaking everyman who will Make America Great Again.

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Dr Matthew Ward gave little thought to Donald Trump when the property mogul and reality TV star's run at the White House were first mooted. Like most observers, he was dismissive of the chances of an outsider with no political experience, no support within the Republican Party and no established campaign machinery. He certainly didn't foresee the impact that Donald Trump would have on his professional life.

"In the past couple of years there has been a huge upsurge in the number of students who want to take our whole range of modules relating to America," said Dr Ward, a Senior Lecturer in History who specialises in the United States. "Obviously this is a good problem to have but student numbers have doubled since Trump was elected and I think they, like a lot of people, just want to know what on earth is going on in America."

State of the Nation

In one of the most famous and important speeches of his career, Abraham Lincoln predicted the final reckoning for the north-south divide over slavery by warning that, "A house divided against itself cannot stand".

New cultural chasms have appeared alongside old racial skirmishes in recent years and the house once again appears divided against itself. A Trump supporter has just been arrested after mail bombs were sent to prominent critics of the President while an alleged victim of sexual assault was reduced to collateral in a bitter battle over the composition of the Supreme Court.

Donald Trump at a podium

President of the United States Donald Trump, Mesa, Arizona, 19/10/2018 Image by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Of the near-330 million citizens of the United States, more than 40 million identify as black or African American, 54 million as Hispanic or Latino and 16.6 million as Asian. The white population of the US is expected to fall below 50% by 2045 and Islam may become the second-largest religion in the US at that time. The face of America is changing and the tired, poor and huddled masses are no longer being welcomed onto America's shores as Lady Liberty led them to believe.

"Two very different cultures have emerged in the US in recent years," says Dr Ward. "One is more metropolitan, liberal and global-looking. The other is more traditional, conservative and patriotic. This is often portrayed as an urban-rural split, and that definitely plays into this divide, but I think it's more complicated than that.

“Two very different cultures have emerged in the US in recent years. One is more metropolitan, liberal and global-looking. The other is more traditional, conservative and patriotic.”

Dr Matthew Ward, Senior Lecturer in History

"A lot of Trump's support comes from rural areas that suffered after the 2008 crash, but urban communities were also hit hard and they tend not to be so supportive of Trump so I think the argument that his rise is purely down to economics is sketchy. It's also to do with things like immigration, gay rights, abortion and other social issues. The more conservative parts of the country have felt they've been under assault from liberal government policies for some time. What we are seeing take place in America at the moment is a confluence of all sorts of factors that have been bubbling under for decades with the economic crisis maybe being the final straw in that sense.

"One of the interesting features of American society is that it's going in the opposite direction to the rest of the world. While other western countries have become more secular, America has become more religious. Non-mainstream, almost pop-up Evangelical churches offer a sense of community and belonging in a society where, particularly in isolated rural regions, people can often feel forgotten. Trump enjoys pretty much unstinting support among white Evangelicals."

Black Lives Matter protesters

Black Lives Matter is an international activist movement campaigning to end violence and systemic racism towards black people. Image by Johnny Silvercloud / CC BY-SA 2.0

The 'mutation' of racism

In an era of identity politics, race remains a running sore for America.

Dr Zoe Colley mainly researches two interrelated areas of 20th century US history - the civil rights movement and the criminal justice system. She sees clear parallels but also important distinctions between the period which she studies and the climate that gave rise to Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville, and the alt-right.

"I think when Obama was elected, there was a feeling amongst some Americans that that the civil rights movement was finished because an African American had been elected President of the United States,” she said. “The problem was that Obama’s life not like the lives of people growing up in the ghettos of Detroit or Chicago. He had opportunities that most people, black or white, didn’t.

“Racism in the United States is like some kind of gene that you think you’ve found a fix for only for it to mutate into something else.”

Dr Zoe Colley, Lecturer in History

"Racism in the United States is like some kind of gene that you think you’ve found a fix for only for it to mutate into something else. There are lots of things that feed into it – the criminal justice system, housing, depravation, police brutality. There isn’t anything new about Fergusson, for example. Police brutality has been a problem directed against African Americans since they had police in America. The very same thing sparked massive demonstrations and riots in the 1960s so again we see a continuation.

"Black Lives Matter can be related to campaigns against police brutality since the 1960s. What is new is that mobile phones are allowing African Americans to capture the various ways in which discrimination works against them. The ability to video police brutality has shaped the movement and its ability to spread their message, organise and recruit people in a way that couldn’t be done in the 60s. That's one reason why Black Lives Matter has become so powerful."

Is Trump racist?

Racial controversies have dogged the President from the outset of his campaign, with comments about the character of Mexicans and 'shithole' countries among other comments being taken by many as proof of his own prejudice. Then there is the promise to build a wall along the United States' southern border, the travel ban on citizens from majority-Muslim countries entering the US and Trump's attempt to draw equivalence between neo-Nazis and protestors in the tragic rally at Charlottesville.

He's been called a fascist, a racist and an apologist for white supremacists, but the issue of Trump's views on race have deeper roots, according to historian Dr Peggy Brunache.

"Donald Trump was a prime mover pushing Barack Obama to produce his full birth certificate and prove he was born in the United States," she said. "Because of Obama's African ancestry, it's hard to see this as anything other than a thinly veiled racist attack and it brought him to the attention of a segment of the population far more conservative than most mainstream Republicans.

Portrait of Dr Peggy Brunache
“Is Trump a racist? He certainly has done little to dissuade people of that opinion, but let’s be clear – Trump is not the cause of racism in the United States.”

Dr Peggy Brunache, Lecturer in History

"Is Trump a racist? He certainly has done little to dissuade people of that opinion, but let's be clear - Trump is not the cause of racism in the United States and his supporters are not all racists. Trump is a billionaire and his supporters aren't, but at a time when they feel under attack from forces beyond their control they see hope in him.

"Trump was considered a breath of fresh air for those who were disenfranchised. The person struggling to find enough money to feed their family in Oklahoma, who's just trying to do right by them, doesn't necessarily know or like everything about Trump but what they see is a person who isn't a politician. He doesn't wax lyrical in the way the glossy Clinton/Obama types do. When someone like that says 'I'm going to go in and change everything for all of you' then it's quite compelling."

In whose interest?

For Philosophy lecturer Dr Dominic Smith, the polarisation of American society is merely the most widely covered example of a trend that has swept the western world over the past decade. From Brexit to Brazil, Trump to Turkey, liberal, progressive politics seem to be in retreat.

"We are in a situation where, in the US and globally, politics are polarised to the point where we are seeing a whole cluster of issues - gender, ecology, education - through very binary lenses," he said.

“We are in a situation where, in the US and globally, politics are polarised to the point where we are seeing a whole cluster of issues – gender, ecology, education – through very binary lenses.”

Dr Dominic Smith, Lecturer in Philosophy

"There is no room for nuance within that polarisation. After the 2008 crash, liberal progressive politics has been discredited to an extent, as collateral damage for the excesses of neoliberal economic policies. As neo-liberal economics has been called into question from both right and left, nuance has evaporated. At the same time, identity politics has become overheated to the point many people appear to be working against their own interests."

Examination of gender issues - another of the great fault lines in today's America - reveals one group who, at first glance, would certainly appear to be working against their own interests. Donald Trump's campaign was rocked by a tape emerging of him seemingly boasting of sexual assault as well as claims by dozens of women of impropriety. The President continues to denounce these as politically motivated fabrications and has gone on to lend support for Roy Moore's Senate campaign and Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination despite the serious allegations laid against them. Furthermore, in the climate of the #metoo movement, President Trump has doubled down by calling 2018 a "very scary time for young men in America".

Women's March, 21 January 2017

The Women's March on 21 January 2017 was the largest single-day protest in US history, but 52% of white women voters voted for Trump. Image by Molly Adams / CC BY 2.0

"52% of white women voted for Trump despite the tape, the allegations and the comments he was making about women," said Dr Brunache. "Americans are the same as everyone else - they aren't voting for what's best for their country but what they think is best for them. Women can suspend their distaste if they believe he will help them or are willing to believe this is all part of a conspiracy to discredit Trump.

"In the reconstruction era, wealthy white landowners were able to persuade poor whites that their best interest were served in alliance against a common enemy - freed slaves. That was one instance where race superseded class. For a lot of white women today, Trump clearly trumps gender."

Gun crime and the Constitution

More than 15,000 people were killed by guns in the United States in 2017. Mass shooting incidents occurred at a rate of almost one every day, including the worst such massacre in US history, while the killing of 19 students in Parkland, Florida earlier this year led to widespread protests about US gun laws, among the most to be found anywhere in the world.

The right of Americans to bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which proclaims “a well-regulated Militia” to be essential to the security of a free state. While the proliferation of gun killings has led more and more people to question the validity and relevance of the amendment today, it is a right millions of Americans – backed by the deep pockets of the National Rifle Association – will fight tooth and nail to protect.

Portrait photo of Matthew Ward
“This is a document nearly 250 years old. Is a well-regulated militia really more important in 2018 than preventing mass shootings and inner-city gun crime?”

Dr Matthew Ward

"The reverence afford to the US Constitution is something that non-Americans struggle with,” notes Dr Matthew Ward. “After all, this is a document nearly 250 years old. Is a well-regulated militia really more important in 2018 than preventing mass shootings and inner-city gun crime? It goes back to the American self-conception as a national of liberty and the situation is a lot more complex than some outsiders believe. Gun control means different things to different people as many support different types of restrictions within the overall theoretical possibility of owning a gun.

"Regardless of the supposed higher purpose of these arguments, a lot simply comes down to the spending power of interest groups. The NRA are willing to pour levels of funding into their propaganda that so far no opponents have been able or willing to match."

For Dr Zoe Colley, the focus on mass shootings, horrific as they are, detracts from the daily reality of gun crime in the poorest areas of the United States. "The largely unspoken element of the gun control debate is the day-to-day gun crime in many impoverished urban communities, and especially minority communities. Research has shown that African Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by firearms than whites."

The very limits of freedom

Dr Brian Christopher Jones, an expert in constitutional theory, believes that the treatment of the Constitution as sacrosanct has become more intense as the debates around its best-known amendments have become increasingly politicised in recent years.

"If Trump's Presidency has any effect on the Constitution then I think it might be with regards to the First Amendment," he said. "The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech and you could say that President Trump is taking this to its very limit. He is using a combination of this right, his position and modern technology to attack opponents in a way we've never seen before.

"It is unprecedented for the President to attack the Attorney General or the FBI in the way he has. The right to a free press is also protected but journalists are constantly castigated. Even well-respected news organisations are denounced as fake news. That's where you see the tension between people's interpretation of the Constitution. What are US citizens meant to believe now?"

Portrait of Brian Christopher Jones
“If Trump’s Presidency has any effect on the Constitution then I think it might be with regards to the First Amendment.”

Dr Brian Christopher Jones, lecturer and expert in constitutional theory

Dr Jones believes that Democrat hopes the Constitution would constrain the 45th President have proved misplaced, although the checks and balances on power embedded in the US political system are stymying some of the more radical elements of his agenda.

"When you look at the things he claimed he was going to do before the election, what has really frustrated him is politics," he said. "Getting the wall built depends on votes in Congress, not the constitution. The only thing you could say was constitutionalised is the travel ban. There were some checks on whether it was constitutional in terms of courts reviewing it before it was effectively legalised in slimmer form by the Supreme Court. The internal processes of Congress are also frustrating the President's agenda. Filibusters are not mentioned in the Constitution and he will now need to contend with a Democrat-controlled House."

"Healthcare is another hot potato that the Constitution is used to argue over," adds Dr Ward. "Rolling back Obamacare was one of Trump's key pledges but when voters and their representatives see what it actually means for them they become more reluctant."

A constitutional future

The Constitution remains open to interpretation, with the Supreme Court continually trying to interpret what was meant at the time of its birth and to apply these principles to situations that the Founding Fathers could never have foreseen. Its position as the supreme law of the United States means those ultimately responsible for executing it share vast amounts of power.

"The confirmation of Brett Kavanagh was about far more than the allegations made against him," said Dr Jones. "He is a conservative and the balance of the Supreme Court has now shifted towards Republicans. Many of the most liberal Justices are older, while Kavanagh is relatively young. Getting another conservative on court will shape the power dynamic of the US for decades.

“Many of the most liberal Justices are older, while Kavanagh is relatively young. Getting another conservative on court will shape the power dynamic of the US for decades.”

Dr Brian Christopher Jones

"Previously, it was largely Republicans who used the Constitutional stick to beat people with. The Democrats did it occasionally but they have been much quicker to denounce things as unconstitutional - be it the wall, travel ban or other things - since Trump starting winning Primaries.

"Guns, healthcare and free speech in the 21st century are hugely contentious things that would probably require a new constitution to settle once and for all but, barring a crisis of unprecedented magnitude that created a new consensus, that is extremely unlikely to happen for decades yet."

America's addiction

It is a scene played out across America. Towns and smaller cities from shore to shining shore have been abandoned by the very industries that spurred their growth, depriving them of their raison d'etre.

Main Streets lie shuttered and deserted as changing patterns of consumption lay waste to community centres. Empty lots scar the landscape and social problems more commonly associated with big cities have arrived unaccompanied by the amenities and opportunities afforded by Metroland.

The opioid crisis is perhaps the most potent symbol of the challenges recent decades has thrown at small-town America. More than 72,000 Americans died as a result of a drug overdose in 2017 and, of these, 49,000 involved an opioid. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 80% of the world’s opioid use, leading President Trump to officially declare the epidemic a public health emergency. In response, he established a presidential commission to combat the crisis and called for the death penalty for drug traffickers among other measures.

Portrait photo of Craig MacKenzie
“By all means go after the importers, but targeting addicts whose health problem is driving them towards illegality will do nothing to address the underlying issues facing the United States.”

Dr Craig McKenzie, Forensic Drug Research Group

The latter approach is not one that Dr Craig McKenzie, of the Forensic Drug Research Group, agrees with, though he believes the President is right to take action against an insidious problem and strongly agrees with those experts who have called instead for additional funding to support and treat those addicted and to prevent drug addiction in the first place.

"Trump’s response is encouraging in one way because he says there will be an even greater focus on the opioid problem but drug addiction is a medical problem and one that draws many people into dealing and even smuggling on behalf of others,” he said. “By all means go after the importers but targeting addicts whose health problem is driving them towards illegality will do nothing to address the underlying issues driving the opioid crisis in the United States."

A prescription for disaster

The 'epidemic' is thought to have originated with the over-prescription of opioids for pain relief. The number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by US retail pharmacies rose from 76 million to 255 million between 1991 and 2015, followed by a decrease to 191 million in 2017 as the effects of the opioid crisis became apparent and prescribing was decreased. Professor Blair Smith, Professor of Population Health Sciences, agrees that the peculiarities of healthcare in the US – a perennial battleground in US politics – have brought about the crisis.

"All the evidence suggests that this has arisen as a result of overprescribing of opioids," he said. “That’s something we wouldn’t see in the UK or most European countries and it led to a massive increase in demand for opioids before proper controls were put in place or a real understanding of what these drugs did.

"There are a large number of factors such as age or gender indicating opioid use, but by far the biggest association is deprivation. There are complex sociological factors at play but chronic pain is also strongly associated with deprivation, so people in deprived areas are more likely to start and more likely to run into problems with addiction.

Portrait photo of Blair Smith
“There are a large number of factors such as age or gender associated with opioid use, but by far the biggest association is deprivation.”

Blair Smith, Professor of Population Science

"There is no real evidence to support the efficacy of long-term prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. Opioids are best deployed to help patients in the short-term prepare for the long-term non-pharmaceutical strategies. The problem is that these are much harder to health services to support. Someone on a long-term opioid prescription visits their doctor for five minutes every three weeks. It’s easier and quicker for everyone, especially in a for-profit healthcare sector."

The perfect storm

The majority of opioid-related deaths in 2016 involved non-prescription illicit synthetic opioids, a class of opioids increasingly dominated by illicitly produced, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl. As a forensic chemist, Dr McKenzie has many years’ experience of not only studying the chemical make-up of drugs but also following the trends and political factors that influence their use across the world. He believes there are factors other than the healthcare system driving the opioid crisis in the US.

"Once people who built up an addiction through prescription drugs have the tap effectively turned off they will look for alternatives," he said. "Increasingly heroin has been cut with fentanyl to increase the high, reduce production costs and increase profits. What is sold as heroin may actually be fentanyl. Fentanyl is also being found in fake prescription opioid tablets. It seems that it is almost impossible to buy heroin in the States without it containing, or being made up entirely of, fentanyl these days," he said.

"Fentanyl has penetrated the entire market and is driving the horrific overdose rates that we’re seeing. It is up to 50 times stronger than heroin so is very attractive to drug dealers because and its potency it can be smuggled in much smaller amounts while increasing profit margins.

"Most of the fentanyl, or the precursors used to make it, is coming directly from China via international mail services. There is increased vigilance at international mail transport hubs that connect to China but it is like looking for a needle in a haystack and some will always get through.

“The War on Drugs' focus upon minority communities has led to what has been termed "mass incarceration", with African Americans constituting around 60% of the prison population in recent years.”

Dr Zoe Colley

"There is increased international cooperation and communication between the United States and China with regards to fentanyl trafficking, but this is taking place in the context of an ongoing trade war. Up until now hundreds of psychoactive substances have been controlled by China and most of these substances have now all but disappeared from US drug seizures.

"What happens if current trade tariffs become permanent and the trade dispute escalates further? How will it affect international efforts to tackle the flow of fentanyl and other related drugs into the country? How this plays out remains to be seen."

Donald Trump's approach to drug addiction and crime represents a shift from that of his predecessor, according to Dr Zoe Colley. "The War on Drugs' focus upon minority communities has led to what has been termed "mass incarceration", with African Americans constituting around 60% of the prison population in recent years. In 2016, Obama started a programme of releasing non-violent offenders from federal penitentiaries and declared that drug addiction would be treated as "a public health issue."

"This marked a remarkable shift away from the policies of earlier presidents. Trump's administration, however, has been working hard to reverse Obama's reforms and he has committed his administration to a reinvigorated War on Drugs, which can only bring further growth of the nation's prison system."

Hope and fear spreads across the globe

Obama's 'Hope' poster is one of the enduring pictures of the 21st century, but it is fear, and another iconic image, that Dr Matthew Ward believes plays a large part in creating the conditions that led to a brash novice assuming the most powerful political office in the world.

On 11 September 2001, tens of millions of Americans watched in horror as footage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre spread across the nation. According to Dr Ward, everything changed that day.

A photograph of the World Trade Centre attack

The 11/09/2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre left Americans fearful. Image by 9/11 Photos / CC BY 2.0

"Those images on TV brought the horror into every living room in the United States. Americans suddenly felt very afraid and began to ask questions about their place in the world for the first time. It certainly contributed to an isolationist streak and an America First philosophy but I also think it had a broader effect. 9/11 made Americans more suspicious of foreigners and there was a deep cultural backlash. Afghanistan and Iraq followed and then came the 2008 economic crash to prolong this sense of fear. People may have voted for Obama out of hope but fear for personal safety and financial security remained rife in America.

"America has always been a land of contradiction. One of the main areas of our teaching looks at what freedom means to Americans from the 18th century right up to the present day. How could Americans be comfortable about launching the Revolution in the name of freedom when millions of African Americans were enslaved? The same tension is evident today with regards to the travel ban and the wall with Mexico.

"The debate about gun control isn't taking place in any other western country and it all goes back to this perception of liberty, which is central to the American identity. Americans think of themselves as a nation of freedom but post-9/11 they were, for the first time, willing to stomach legislation like the Patriot Act, which saw them give up what were previously seen as basic rights in order to protect the larger goal of American liberty."

Human rights, political wrongs?

For Kurt Mills, Professor of International Relations and Human Rights, Donald Trump's Presidency could have a deleterious effect on billions of people for years to come.

"It is hard to work in the area I do and conclude anything other than that Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for human rights," he said. "He has withdrawn the US from the UN Human Rights Council, advocated torture and shown absolute disdain for any international agreements or institutions relating to human rights. The administration has separated parents from children when they have come across the southern border and put them in camps without adequate facilities. That shouldn't let Obama off the hook either because significant immigration enforcement was stepped up under his watch, but Trump has taken it to a new level."

Portrait photo of Kurt Mills
“It is hard to work in the area I do and conclude anything other than that Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for human rights.”

Kurt Mills, Professor of International Relations and Human Rights

The end of the American Century appears marked by more self-doubt and insularity than the 50 years following the end of World War II when America confidently exerted its political, military and economic will - for good or ill - across the globe. The United States remains the richest nation in the world but China's growing influence, Islamic terrorism, and the rise of Russia in place of the Soviet Union have meant new realities to wrestle with in the 21st century.

"The trade war with China is a classic populist move but Trump lacks a fundamental understanding of trade dynamics and their broader political implications," said Professor Mills. "He sees these things in bilateral terms - the zero-sum game of America versus the world as if it was one business deal - but he doesn't understand the concept of an ecosystem.

"Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel tears away at the notion the US could ever be a neutral party in the conflict because it has given one of the very big Israeli demands while walking all over one of the key planks of Palestinian identity. A workable two-state solution may be further away than ever as a result and it is certainly not going to help America's standing with groups who already see the US as biased against Islam and Middle East countries.

"Trump is right that the Iranian nuclear deal is far from perfect, but it was a major step forward in constraining Iran's nuclear ambitions. His rhetoric and desire to tear up the agreement may give them license to do things that will further destabilise the whole region and have an impact much further afield."

America's new place in the world

The long history of American interventionism has not been universally welcomed.

While ostensibly spreading democracy and freedom, American foreign policy has been designed to - covertly or otherwise - prop up dictatorships when politically expedient, says Professor Mills. Despite this, he believes America's worldview and its strategic goals were generally consistent through successive administrations whereas we are now in a period of unpredictability.

“We are forced to look at international relations in entirely new ways and look beyond the US towards the increased power of other actors such as Russia, China, even Europe in its reduced state.”

Professor Kurt Mills

"The term 'leader of the free world' has always been slightly problematic because there have been situations under both Republicans and Democrats when dictators have been tolerated because it's been seen as being in the national interest, but when the President of the US is acting in a way that is contrary to the protection and promotion of human rights it gives license to despots and abusers. It chips away at the rules-based international order, to the extent that one exists.

"How do we interpret all of this? There has never been a leader of the US who has had so little understanding of the way diplomacy works. We are forced to look at international relations in entirely new ways and look beyond the US towards the increased power of other actors such as Russia, China, even Europe in its reduced state. I think Trump is undermining US power and standing in the world and other countries like China are going to be the beneficiaries of that."

Donald Trump out of focus from behind waving to an in-focus crowd

Make America Great Again campaign rally, Mesa, Arizona, 19/10/2018. Image by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

The essence of 'Trumpism'

The President's fondness for the phrase 'fake news' played no small part in it being crowned word of the year for 2017.

This was a re-appropriation of a term that first entered common use as a way of describing the disinformation deliberately spread online that allegedly aided Trump's path to Pennsylvania Avenue. Using one of his own perceived weaknesses to attack opponents has been characteristic of Trump's career, but is it merely part of an individual's psyche or representative of a movement's underpinnings?

"Viewed philosophically, the problem with Trump is a problem not of establishing truth, but of making sense," said Dr Dominic Smith. "I think one of the most interesting aspects of the post-truth times is how people believe what they want to, even when they know that they ought not to. The issue is less to do with whether certain things are true or false, but how deeply are you willing to look into things? How complex a place are you willing to perceive of the world as being? If your prejudices are confirmed, do you accept the information at face value? If they are challenged, do you dismiss it?"


“In some ways, Trump acts as this screen onto which desire can be protected... anything can be projected onto him depending on what is politically expedient and Trump seems to perform that core role quite well.”

Dr Dominic Smith

For Dr Smith, the question of what Donald Trump stands for cannot be coherently answered. He believes to gauge an understanding of the Trump movement, it is necessary to define it in broader terms.

"In some ways, Trump acts as this screen onto which desire can be protected," he said. "It is as if he is this kind of particle of chaos that is A) disruptive and B) inconstant. This means anything can be projected onto him depending on what is politically expedient and Trump seems to perform that core role quite well.

"Clearly in some way Trumpism is a reaction to progressive politics, economic factors, social factors, and general insecurity. It brings back elements of past and there are a cluster of terms like white privilege and masculinity that are commonly talked about when people consider what Trumpism is. The interesting thing is to think about how all those things can be mapped together. Maybe Trumpism ultimately stands for inconstancy because it changes day-to-day, depending on the President's whims and which of his advisors happen to be in favour at any one time."

Trump's place in history

To the President's detractors, the print hanging in the Oval Office was further proof of his incorrigible narcissism. 'The Republican Club', a portrait of Trump sharing drinks with Grand Old Party leaders from the past, was mercilessly mocked but the Commander-in-Chief to which Trump is most frequently compared was not eligible for inclusion due to his status as a Democrat.

Bust of Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the USA

7th USA President Andrew Jackson was also divisive figure. In contrast to Donald Trump he had decades of experience in office Image by Phil Roeder / CC BY 2.0

"It would appear that Trump likes to think of himself in some ways like Andrew Jackson," said Dr Matthew Ward. "There was no doubt that Jackson broke the mould of American politics and he was someone who was either really liked or hated. But Trump isn't Jackson. He was a populist but that's as far as it goes. Jackson had decades of experience as a senator and congressman as well as rising to fame as a military general. He wasn't a political outsider like Trump was. He knew how to work the system.

"By looking back into the past we can evaluate how unprecedented or otherwise the times we are living in are. There have been similar backlashes and polarisation is not, in itself, new.

"For instance, there was the Populist Movement that emerged at the end of the 19th century. Instead of the collapse of industry, it was a crisis in farming that precipitated it. This led to a feeling of alienation that fed into a rise of racism, which is something we're seeing today.

"We almost have two different cultures living side-by-side and that isn't in itself new either. In the late 18th century the disputes between Federalists and Republicans were as intense as you see today and these cultural splits got very violent. Like today, these were fundamental differences over the way forward for the country."

Those who forget the past...

As a historian, Dr Ward gives a lot of thought to both the historical context of contemporary events and how they will be viewed in years to come.

"It's always difficult to guess what historians will say in the future but if I was to guess I would say they will conclude that this period in American history has many parallels with periods of the past.

“The 1850s led to the Civil War, but these were sectional differences whereas today’s divides cut across the whole country.”

Dr Matthew Ward

"I think today's cultural divisions are as strong as those of the 1790s. It is the only period in American history where you get national divisions like this. The 1850s obviously led to the Civil War but these were sectional differences whereas today's divides cut across the whole country. Trump's support comes from across the country but there are also very strong pockets of anti-Trump sentiment in every state.

"I think what is different in the 21st century is how people communicate. Social media, the immediacy of communication and the development of fake news have contributed to a collapse in trust of politicians and people on all sides are now openly questioning whether American democracy as we've known it is actually the best way forward. That kind of dialogue would have been unthinkable even 10-15 years ago.

"We can only guess how the Trump Presidency is going to work out, especially now that the midterms have added a new dimension to the Mueller investigation into alleged collusion with Russia, but the way people obtain information and the way they live within their own bubbles may well be the big thing historians focus on in 30-40 years' time."

By Grant Hill
With thanks to Peggy Brunache, Zoe Colley, Brian Christopher Jones, Craig McKenzie, Kurt Mills, Blair Smith, Dominic Smith, and Matthew Ward.
Banner image: flag of the USA by Jnn13 / CC BY-SA 3.0


Press Office, University of Dundee

Story category Public interest