26 Jan 2020

The beginning and the end of Trumpism

From Sunday Morning, 10:40 am on 26 January 2020

Rutgers University's professor James Goodman was one of 23 top US historians recently invited by Politico to write a paragraph on how they believe the 2010s will be remembered.

In it he explained why Donald Trump is the only person who could have done what he has done -- and got away with it -- as US president.

US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020.

Photo: AFP

Trump is a unique character that we see periodically in history, Goodman says.

“I don't feel confident about saying anything about American politics tomorrow, the day after, two months after that, but I do have a very strong sense that Trump is one of these characters that we get in history, that makes it possible from time-to-time for historians and other observers to argue great men or great women theories of history.

“And by that, of course, I don't mean great in the sense of good, but great in the sense that Hitler was a great man, as well as Churchill or Abraham Lincoln or whoever you want your great man or woman to be.”

Trump’s Teflon-like ability to avoid the consequences of his actions is almost admirable, Goodman says.

“I do not think that, even though he represents forces that have been building in the United States for almost my entire lifetime, and I'm 63 years old, I do not think that anyone else could do what he has done and get away with it in the same way.”

So will Trump be re-elected this year? Goodman isn’t sure.

“Well, no president who is as unpopular as he is, has ever been re-elected, even in good economic times. But again, I can't say, there is the Electoral College, there is a very divided Democratic Party right now.”

But the public are more liberal than the Republican Party, he says.

“The pendulum right now in US politics is much more liberal than he is, and the Republican Party is; there's absolutely no doubt about it.

“Every poll shows it, the midterm election shows it and Hillary Clinton's 3 million more votes show it, but the Republicans are playing the game better - year after, year after year, especially in presidential elections.”

But the divide, the lack of any consensus, in American politics is not going to be easy to fix, he says.  

“That the divide in US politics is something that we have to deal with, because a 40 percent minority is a gigantic minority, but it is still a minority.”

In terms of the pendulum swinging back to the left in electorally, Goodman says it’s barely moved in his adult life.

“I guess I've been waiting for the cycle to swing back in a really strong, progressive liberal direction for most of my adult life.

“And it hasn't really swung, in part not because the electorate is so conservative, because it's been changing, and part of the authoritarian impulse has been to try to stop the demographic changes in the country, the cultural changes and the small ‘p’ political changes that came through the 1960s and 1970s.

“But so far, the demographic changes and the social liberalism and cultural liberalism, this stuff that you see on TV in the movies, hasn't yet translated into the kind of electoral success that would say, okay, now we've had this since Reagan, we've had this Republican moment. And now we're going to have some kind of other moment.”