How does someone like Donald Trump become president of the United States? How does someone without political experience, establishment support, or detailed plans win an election? How does someone turn back the will of the majority with a minority of support?
I was thinking about this when Dave Pell asked a question on Twitter:
I wanted to find just that article to read later while taking out some frustrations on a treadmill, but I failed. I’m not a historian. Or an expert it geopolitics. But I really wanted to know, so I started pulling on a few threads to see how far back they would go.
I stopped in 1916.
Here’s my shorthand for a three threads—oil wars, border conflicts, and ethnic strife—that twist together unbroken from 1916 to 2016. There are a lot of events missing, to be sure, but the threads seem pretty clear.
1917: America supplies Allies with 80% of oil to fight the Central Powers. Allies eventually cut off Germany’s access to Balkan fuel and food supplies, and win the Great War. (WWI)
1920: America is left out of European oil treaties. (San Remo Petroleum Agreement)
1929: Crashing markets, failing banks, declining consumption, rising unemployment, increasing tariffs, and devastating drought cripple the world economy. (Great Depression)
1933: Adolph Hitler channels Germans’ discontent with economic conditions, international commitments, and ethnic minorities. He stokes nationalist fervor and racial resentments. He threatens to imprison opponents. Claiming he alone can make the country great again, Hitler becomes chancellor and then Führer. (Enabling Act)
1937: Japan’s territorial war with China strains its economy and military, depleting supplies of oil and natural resources. (Second Sino-Japanese War)
1938: SoCal discovers earth’s largest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king agrees to the creation of the Arabian-American Oil Company. (Aramco)
1941: “Until WWII, the U.S. foreign policy mirrored broad public sentiment: Isolationism was the best policy as the country climbed out of the Depression. Unlike colonial powers, the U.S. had no imperial ambitions. The Blitz cracked it. Pearl Harbor shattered it. (America First)
1945: Communist nation states in the Soviet Union and, eventually, China shift U.S. consensus toward military and economic global engagement. The goal is counter the Communist threat and protect access to foreign oil and markets. (Iron Curtain)
1947: America supports global free trade and promotes (or, where necessary, protects) democracy, with the goal of providing both good jobs at home and a clear counterpoint to the politically repressive and economically stunted nations of the communist bloc. (Truman Doctrine)
1967: Israel seizes territory from Arab neighbors after a long history of border disputes and ethnic strife; America, bogged down in Vietnam, publicly maintains neutrality but privately supports Israel. (Six-Day War)
1976: Syria invades Lebanon after a long history of border disputes and ethnic strife, occupying the country for almost 25 years. (Cedar Revolution)
1991: America leads an international coalition to expel Iraqi forces, restore Kuwait’s monarch, and stabilize oil production. (Resolution 660)
1991: The Soviet Union collapses, ending decades of economic and military support for proxy states in the Middle East.
2006: U.S. manufacturing slows significantly as low-cost competition from China skyrockets. American growth comes mostly from financial, I.T., professional, scientific, and technical services. The only bright spot in manufacturing is housing. (Bubble)
2007: Globalized trading, speculative investing, excessive borrowing, government deregulation, and exotic financial instruments help cripple the world economy. (Great Recession)
2007: Barack Obama is elected president with 53% of the popular vote and vows to save the U.S. banking and automotive industries, cut unemployment, expand health insurance, bring bin Laden to justice, promote clean energy, and bridge partisan and racial divides. Republicans vow to obstruct his leadership. A reality TV host spreads false rumors he wasn’t born in America because is father was a Muslim from Africa. (365)
2008: Communist China exports $268 billion more in goods to the U.S. than it imports. Cheaper foreign goods begin equating to fewer middle class and blue collar jobs in parts of the U.S. Communism has a new face as China makes deals with repressive regimes for oil and natural resources. (Opening ceremony)
2009: The net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeds the net worth of half of all American households. The top 1% captured 91% of the real income growth per family during the 2009–2012 recovery period. Gas begins taking market share from coal as gas prices collapse. (Fracking)
2010: The Arab Spring, whose major slogan is “the people want to bring down the regime,” spawns civil wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria as well as coups and uprisings throughout the Middle East. (Bouazizi)
2011: Syrian security forces open fire on peaceful protestors. Bashar al-Assad blames Israel and America for instigating violence. Defecting officers form a rebel army and begin mounting attacks. (Syrian Civil War)
2011: President Obama is re-elected with 51.6% of the popular vote after saving the banking and automotive industries, cutting unemployment, expanding health insurance, killing bin Laden, promoting clean energy, but failing to bridge partisan or racial divides. Republicans block investing in infrastructure, retraining factory workers, supporting clean energy, and court nominations. (332)
2013: America bombs ISIS strongholds in Syria as rebel forces take control of cities. Assad uses chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians. America sends some aid, mostly non-military, as rebel factions clash. (WMD)
2014: Islamic State, as members now call it, declares the foundation of a Caliphate. Syria descends into chaos. Russia invades Ukraine and annexes Crimea. America and Europe impose sanctions. (Little Green Men)
2015: Russia calculates that bombing Syrian rebels—and civilians, hospitals, and aid workers—will keep al-Assad in power, maintain influence in the region, distract critics, and punish Western governments. Almost 5 million refugees flee the country in three years. (Alan)
2015: Donald Trump channels discontent with economic conditions, international commitments, and ethnic minorities. He stokes nationalist fervor and racial resentments. He threatens to imprison opponents. Claiming he alone can make the country great again, Trump wins $2 billion in free media campaigning for the Republican nomination. (MAGA)
2016: Eight years after the Great Recession, unemployment is at 5%, deficits are down, crime is down, GDP is growing, and America has withdrawn military forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet many voters feel left behind as infrastructure crumbles, factories shutter, and coal mines close. (GOP)
2016: Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and tells his convention that the American way of life is threatened by Mexican immigrants, Islamic terrorists, Muslim refugees, Black violence, trade agreements, environmental laws, and climate treaties — which he alone can fix. (Strongman)
2016: Great Britain, in response to fears about national sovereignty, votes to leave the European Union with 52% in favor. (Brexit)
2016: Donald Trump is elected U.S. president with 46% of the popular vote. America’s post-WWII consensus on military and economic global engagement is now gone. Oil wars, border conflicts, and ethnic strife are the threads that remain. (306)