In many respects, the election of Donald Trump and the coming to power of his style of governance seems new and unprecedented, a fundamental shift in the American political traditions. There are, of course, many causes for this tectonic transition, many of them relating to the last ten years or so of declining employment, growing inequality, and the descent of the Republican Party into permanent partisanship. As historians, however, we can’t help observing longer-term historical forces at play as well as the long reach of events from the past whose consequences still haunt American politics. While much of it is new, the roots of Trumpism run deep in American soil and in the fateful consequences of choices we did make.
To explain Trump, the most important of these events was the highly contested election of 1876 and the effects of the bargain between Democrats and Republicans, which momentarily settled a dangerous dispute following the Civil War while injecting a poisonous serum into the body of American politics. Like two of the last 4 presidential elections, the election of 1876 was uneven in its results. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden received a majority of the popular vote, but Hayes, the Republican was granted victory in the Electoral College after considerable wrangling about disputed delegations from three former Confederate states. This was settled in a compromise: the GOP got the presidency because the Democratic Party engineered the collapse of Reconstruction in the South. As the republicans remained in charge of national politics, the South was consigned to a conservative project whose consequences have not died out and are still of great relevance to present day America.
Since the Grant Administration, Federal troops had occupied several former Confederate States, enforcing, with varying degrees of energy, the political rights of former slaves. Washington’s commitment to safeguarding the rights of all its citizens was wildly unpopular among the Southern white population. Thus, the enjoyment of these rights by the newly liberated Southern masses was itself precarious. It was clear that if force were withdrawn, ex-slaves and free Blacks would quickly lose whatever political and economic progress they had made since the beginning of Reconstruction.
And that was the result of the bargain between Republicans and Democrats who sought to defuse a wrought political situation. In return for the presidency, Republicans agreed to withdraw Federal troops from ex-Confederate states. Very quickly the Reconstruction state governments fell, and new Black Codes in many respects reinstituted slave conditions. Formal segregation was instituted and eventually affirmed by the notorious Plessy v Ferguson case (1896) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The release of Federal troops from the occupation of the South made them available for a devastating war against independent Native American Nations in the West and their eventual confinement to reservations.
The long-term result of this bargain created the politically conservative “solid South,” run by state oligarchies of large agricultural and later, manufacturing interests who benefitted immensely from maintaining low wages and even lower educational standards for the general black and white population. Political rights for both poor white and black populations were limited or not existent. Despite efforts by the Populists in the 1890s and some variations throughout the next 100 years, the ex-Confederate South has remained the home of reaction, first as a bloc in the Democratic Party and now in the Republican Party.
The 1876 compromise turned out to be the real American cancer. It has spread throughout American history and defined American politics. By 1968, when Richard M. Nixon developed the “Southern strategy,” the 1876 compromise had long since given birth to an entrenched American political system based on race and sectionalism. This political system has been so constant that it seems as natural as the geography of North America. Thus history has become nature, and often goes unnoticed. Donald Trump has been able to benefit from the century-old inheritance of 1876, and win the Presidency, while making a case for the novelty of his goals. He succeeded in attracting a substantial portion of the Northern white working class vote into his column, but he could not have won without the almost solid South. In fact, the candidate that is supposed to drain the swamp and wreck and destroy the established political order, based his campaign on the sturdiest and oldest pillar of that very order: “fake new,” if not “fake news.”