It’s often been said that Americans have been sheltered from history.
The absence of a feudal past meant that Americans were “born free without having to become so” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, thus sparing America from the bloody upheavals that convulsed much of Europe during the “age of democratic revolutions.”
The splendid geographic isolation America has enjoyed meant that the world war fought to subdue the Napoleonic dictatorship emerging out of the French Revolution largely passed us by while America was a reluctant late-comer to the two world wars fought in the 20th century.
And America’s two-party political system – or “monopoly” to its critics – meant that the radical parties of the right and left that created so much tragic history elsewhere were denied the oxygen they needed to breathe life into their racial, ethnic, religious or ideological utopias.
The subplot of the 2016 election is whether that last democratic bulwark against political extremism has crumbled away.
That is why the vote next week is less a choice between Republicans and Democrats than it is a referendum on American democracy itself.
Donald Trump does not represent a political program per se but rather an angry (and potentially violent) protest against the Washington “establishment.”
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, carries the burden of being an avatar for a broadly-defined “status quo.” It is a status quo that for her critics represents the present state of partisan dysfunction and “corruption” while for her supporters is synonymous with long-standing American political values, norms, institutions and traditions.
The much talked about “civil war” currently raging within the Republican Party, and likely continue long after the election whether Trump wins or not, is wrongly seen as a conflagration confined to the GOP alone as that troubled institution decides what kind of party it wants to be and then struggles to find the means to unite warring factions around that central vision.
There are certainly short-term political opportunities that Democrats can exploit stemming from current Republican divisions. Yet, it would be a mistake for Democrats to cheer (too much) the GOP’s present weakened condition. That is because the civil war that now pits Republican against Republican is less a Republican-only problem than it is a symptom of larger forces tearing apart America’s democracy more generally.
The hardcore Trump support that belongs in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” predates Donald Trump and in many ways is older than the Republican Party itself.
Like the poor, the anti-social and undemocratic reactionary right has been with us always.
Elements of this mindset could be found among the so-called “Anti-federalists” of the 1780s who fought so hard against the Constitution and the Republic for which it stands in favor of states’ rights.
It could be found among the Southern plantation slaveocracy that dragged the nation into a bloody civil war rather than surrender political power after a presidential election did not go its way.
In the 1950s, the “Radical Right,” representing in Richard Hofstadter’s words no more than a modest fraction of the electorate nevertheless was able to set a tone of “punitive reaction” throughout the country in which many American values as inclusiveness, open-mindedness and non-conformism came under relentless assault.
The latest iterations of right wing reaction have appeared under brand names like the “Tea Party,” the several varieties of “Constitutional Conservatives” and, more recently, “Trumpeteers.”
All of these right wing movements have been wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Republican Party. But right wing conservatism has been an equal opportunity party crasher. White ethnic nationalism has destroyed every political party it's been associated with because its tendencies cannot peacefully co-exist as part of the broad coalitions major political parties must build in order to succeed in our two-party system.
White nationalists, like most reactionary movements, equate compromise with cravenness and surrender and so inevitably must destroy every institution they cannot control.
The Whig Party collapsed as a national organization over the South’s uncompromising defense of slavery. During the the civil rights movement in the 20th century, the Democratic Party twice split in two with the “Solid South” going its own way – first with the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 and again with Alabama governor George Wallace’s segregationist presidential campaign twenty years later. And now, thanks to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to woo reactionary Southern Democrats over to the Republican Party, the jackboot is on the other foot.
Democracy requires certain cultural prerequisites, as conservatives like to remind us, which can be best summarized by the idea that self-government begins with the governing of self. Democracy requires disciplines that do not come naturally, namely support for tolerance and civility, respect for differences and the legitimacy of other parties, a willingness to be governed by one’s political enemies and by an appreciation that persuasion and propaganda or prevarication are not the same thing.
Needless to say, each of these fundamental norms is violated by a candidate who thinks he is the messianic leader of a “movement” instead of the candidate of a political party; or refuses to say ahead of time whether he will accept the results of an election; or who tells supporters that the system is rigged against them; or promises to imprison his chief political rival if he wins; and who believes that his standing as a celebrity entitles him to grope women and otherwise behave like a sex criminal.
There is no denying that Republicans have been playing with fire for more than 30 years as they've sought political power by pandering to anti-democratic elements that have always been there. And so Republicans must take full blame for the personification of political extremism in the nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer.
But returning right wing extremism to its rightful place on the lunatic fringe is not merely a Republican problem, it’s also an American one.