Donald Trump has just clinched the number of delegates to become the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. His de facto nomination has dismayed the so-called media establishment in the United States, which represents an ideological spectrum that includes conservatives. Political pundits have rushed to decry the alleged Europeanization of American politics or the appearance of fascist populism. The notion that the American political tradition has always been characteristically middle-of-the-road liberal and lacked ideological contestation is of course an argument that consensus historians like Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter made a long time ago. To paraphrase Werner Sombart's famous query, "Why is there no Fascism in the United States?" To understand the Trump phenomenon, political commentators have pointed to the rise of Hitler and the recent growing political strength of the far right in the continent. In fact, they should be looking closer to home.
The history of American democracy has been marked more by contestation, including a bloody Civil War in which over 700,000 Americans lost their lives, than consensus. The founding of the American republic on egalitarian principles and a constitutional order did not prevent the rise of the forces of political reaction. Slaveholders used the Constitution to protect their property rights in human beings and expand the system of racial slavery in the guise of "states' rights." Their ideas on inherent racial inferiority and the dangers of socialism, feminism, and abolitionism anticipated the golden age of free market capitalism, imperialism, Social Darwinism, and scientific racism at the turn of the nineteenth century. As Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina put it, "red republicanism" in America had merely "blacked its face." Proslavery ideology rather than the abolition of slavery, gave birth to colonial ideas that viewed entire groups of people and nations as unfit for democracy. As the political theorist Corey Robin has argued, a reactionary mindset, committed to racial hierarchy and undemocratic values, has long been alive and well in the western world, especially in the United States.
Indeed the history of the American republic has never been the mythic story of linear progress toward greater freedom whose boundaries have inexorably expanded to include the disfranchised. Nearly every period of democratic expansion of civil and political rights has been hard fought for and given birth to formidable opposition to change. With the fall of Reconstruction, America's first experiment with interracial democracy after the Civil War, the nation plunged into a racial nightmare of Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement, debt peonage, and unprecedented violence, lynching and pogroms against black communities. Mainstream politicians capitulated to racial demagogues, who incited their constituencies with fantasies of black rapists and criminals. When it comes to Mexican immigrants, Trump has used that playbook word for word. America's home grown brown shirts, dressed in the long flowing white gowns of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups, long preceded the rise of fascism in the twentieth century. It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump's father, a New York real estate magnate known to draw the color line in his properties, was arrested in a Klan riot in 1927 or that he has been endorsed by David Duke, a grand wizard of the Klan and erstwhile Republican candidate for the governorship of Louisiana, among other assorted white supremacists. The Klan's anti-Catholicism and anti-semitism has morphed into a blanket condemnation of all Muslims in Trump's hands. It has already involved him in a war of words with London's newly elected popular Mayor.
The Grand Old Party of the Republic, the party of Lincoln, ironically has its political base in the former states of the Confederacy today, states in which Abraham Lincoln did not receive a single electoral vote. Ever since the overthrow of Reconstruction, when the Republican party was transformed from the party of antislavery to the party of big business, the GOP has moved steadily to the right encompassing nativist, racist, as well as anti-women's rights and anti-labor positions. The United States witnessed its own profoundly anti-democratic historical moments when civil liberties were violated with impunity during the Red Scare that followed the First World War and the McCarthy era after the Second. The rush of the Republican establishment to embrace Trump, while holding their noses, is indicative of the extent to which the party has been undone by its far right core constituency.
On its 150th anniversary, it would serve us well to learn the historical lessons of the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction, when African Americans attained civil rights and black men obtained the right to vote. Few could have predicted that the achievements of Reconstruction, enshrined in constitutional amendments and federal law, would be so completely undone. A similar reaction followed the gains of the Civil Rights movement in the twentieth century. It gave us the Reagan era, with its anti-government rhetoric, voodoo economics, and socially conservative policies. Today religious fundamentalism that defies the separation of church and state and medieval obscurantism, which questions science and rationality itself, are the defining characteristics of not just Republican voters but many of their representatives in Congress.
If the Democrats can learn anything from American history, it is that without a truly progressive alternative to right wing politics, the mechanisms of liberal democracy might provide no safeguard against it. That is why it is imperative for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats to stop blaming Bernie Sanders for complicating Clinton's road to the Presidency. Her supporters and the Democratic National Committee must listen to the voters he has energized in the primaries. Like Obama in 2008, Sanders has created a new progressive coalition and it might be the Democrats' best shot at defeating Trump. If the Republican party is showing its fascist face, is it not time for the Democratic party to reinvent itself as a genuine social democratic party? History proves that is when American democracy triumphs, when Abraham Lincoln won in a slaveholding republic or when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended decades of elite misrule. The Democratic party must unify but it must do so on a truly progressive platform. If that happens, Trump would most likely go the way of southern slaveholders or more recently, Barry Goldwater, who lost all the states except the deep south and his home state to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Is it possible that a misogynist, nativist, racist, faux billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, a "reality" TV celebrity and tweeting buffoon has a shot at becoming the President of the United States after the age of Obama? Many Americans would be ready to move to Canada in November if that ever comes to pass. Following Trump's bizarre suggestion of building a wall on the US-Mexican border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might well suggest a wall at the Canadian-US border and ask Trump to pay for it! Or as Lincoln put it commenting on the rise of anti-immigrant Know Nothings in the nineteenth century, the true predecessors of the GOP today, "When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." Others might feel like the little black girl, whose video has gone viral in social media. She started crying when she was told that Obama would no longer be President next year.
The writer is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of most recently 'The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition' (Yale University Press, 2016).