By: Yadin Teitz  | 

What History Teaches About Donald Trump

In a speech given in March of 2000, Condoleezza Rice informed the American people that “We need a common enemy to unite us”. Rice, speaking about the relationship between Russia and the United States, probably didn’t anticipate that this advice could also serve as an effective political strategy for running a presidential campaign. Fortunately, a certain Donald Trump came to this realization on his own in time for the upcoming presidential elections.

Since June 2015, when Trump announced his intent to run for president, his campaign has embarked on a dizzying trail of tactics designed to secure the Republican vote. Initial attempts were innocuous enough. It seemed that the objective was to place Donald in the conversation, to transform him into a viable and serious candidate who could take a place amongst experienced and well-known senators and politicians. It was to change Trump’s image from being an outspoken and loudmouthed real estate mogul to being someone who could actually run this country, and who could certainly run a serious race for the office.

Trump’s campaign has achieved unbelievable success. Over the course of a few short months, it has become impossible to talk about politics in the United States today without mentioning Donald Trump. It’s impossible to open a newspaper or read an online news source without coming across a picture of the ubiquitous redhead, even when his statements and actions are barely newsworthy. More than any other politician or electoral candidate in the country, Trump has succeeded in involving himself in every discussion. He’s managed to make himself profoundly relevant by having an opinion on anything and everything, and he’s managed to share these opinions loudly and prominently. We really must credit Trump for his marketing and self-promotional skills. Trump is so effective at drawing attention to himself that he doesn’t even need to pay for advertising.

Like it or not, Trump has redefined the political campaign as we know it. Granted, our vision of political campaigns, rife with strong internet presences, countrywide traveling, talk show interviews, Saturday Night Live appearances, multiple televised debates, and buzzy catchphrases, has not been around for very long. In the not-too-distant past, presidential candidates would have been expected to give a handful of speeches. It would have been considered inappropriate and undignified for them to travel from city to city and town to town to garner support. As a result, the American people knew very little about the individuals they voted for. If asked what their Commander-in-Chief looked like, I doubt many would have been able to answer. Radio and television changed things, but the level of communication that we have today between candidates and voters is unparalleled in history. Trump has taken this relationship one step further by transforming the presidential elections into popular entertainment for the masses. In the age of reality television, I am certain that more people are following the campaign trail than ever before, just to hear what Donald will say or do next. Trump has succeeded in changing the presidential race from being about policies and ideological views to being about individuals, and he’s made everything about his opponents fair game to attack. It’s become a personal race, in which real people are fighting and arguing for a job.

All of this would be fine (relatively speaking) if Trump limited himself to bumbling and ridiculous rhetoric about his personal capabilities, experiences, and plans for the future. Even insulting newscasters and his political opponents would be fine (relatively speaking). But the problem has emerged in the second phase of Trump for President, when Trump has taken to attacking minority groups in the United States in order to ensure a constant presence in the headlines and widen his body of supporters. Seizing upon Condoleezza Rice’s statement, Trump’s campaign urges Americans imagine a country without the threat of Mexican immigrants and Muslim extremists. Trump’s campaign invites the American public to imagine a country where individual liberties are protected and hallowed, so long one is not a member of a minority group or protected class.

Like that of any conservative politician, Trump’s campaign urges America to hearken back to better days, when America was strong and powerful, when it was free of terrorism, when economic woes did not exist, and when the country was not burdened with world crisis. In this incarnation of America, citizens lived and worked together in complete harmony, and serious problems were nary to be found. For Trump and his supporters, this imagined utopian past is what we must endeavor to achieve again today. This element is Trump’s tagline of “Make America Great Again,” which implies that we once had greatness and then lost it. Perhaps it is Trump’s uncanny ability to look into the past and adapt it to the present that makes his campaign so successful.

Trump has recently chosen to center his campaign on racial discrimination and the disenfranchisement of minorities. This, too, is an age-old technique of gaining support. In the United States, there has always been a veneration for the idea that our country is positioned to be immune from the world’s problems because of our geographic isolation. There’s always been xenophobia and racial hatred in this country. There’s always been an “other” in American society that could be exploited for the sake of rallying support and unity amongst the majority. From the nativist “Know Nothing” Party of the 1850s protesting against Irish Catholic immigrants to Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic agenda in the 1930s to the white supremacists in the Klu Klux Klan and the non-interventionist America First Committee, fear and resentment of those who are different has always been around, waiting to be exploited.

Many are surprised that this can still be happening, that in a country as advanced as ours we still cannot tolerate heterogeneousness, and that this weakness of ours can be so readily taken advantage of. Perhaps it is even more shocking that an individual like Donald Trump, a highly educated, well-respected, intelligent, and successful person can be the one galvanizing American fears of foreigners. It seems that we have lulled ourselves into believing that this could never happen here, that we are far too sophisticated, too worldly, too hyperaware to fall blindly into the abyss of history. And yet this is what Trump has done to us.

It would be easy to dismiss Trump if not for his worryingly high performance in the polls. While it is difficult to speculate what the ultimate outcome of the Republican nomination will be, the fact that Trump has managed to receive what appears to be overwhelming support from people across America is worrisome. Once again, an element of American society has shown itself to be persuaded by timeless arguments. They are convinced that Trump’s racist, xenophobic, bigoted, prejudiced viewpoints and plans are the way to solve all of our country’s problems. In my mind, the media has invoked references to the Holocaust as a desperate attempt at a wake-up call for Americans. Can it be that we have already forgotten the unforgettable? Can it be that the lessons of history have been overridden once more by convincing pomposity?

It would be less worrisome if Trump could be dismissed as an airhead, an attention-grabber without any real thoughts or visions. But as Trump increasingly stands by his comments and ardently refuses to apologize for his outrageous remarks, I’ve come to suspect that Trump actually believes what he is saying.

What will be the outcome of all of this? Certainly, there will be a segment of the populace who will vote for Trump. But I refuse to believe that it will be the majority. Perhaps it is my naïvette, but I have too much faith in the American people. It cannot be that something is so profoundly wrong with American society as to secure the vote for Donald Trump. In the words of Professor Douglas Burgess, “We must have faith in the American genius for coming out all right in the end.” We must hope and pray that American voters will show the world that we will not stand for intolerance.

The author is grateful to Dr. Douglas Burgess, Assistant Professor of History at Yeshiva University, for his guidance with this piece.