A Historian’s View: The Past Has A Lot To Say About Trump’s Campaign Strategy

Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada, photograph by Darron Birgenheier
Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada, photograph by Darron Birgenheier

I was recently asked to provide a “2–3 sentence quote” about how history informs this election.

I failed.

Boiling this unparalleled election down to just two sentences is impossible. As much as the election is all about the future of America, it’s also about the nation’s past. In some ways, the Donald Trump phenomenon is uniquely new, and history provides few comparisons (at least from the United States). In others, Trump is a continuation of old trends in American history. But overall, most historians, both conservative and liberal leaning, seem to agree that Trump is an existential threat to the nation, combining the very worst elements of our past and ignoring those things that have kept America a stable republic. I would also argue that he is a product of America’s own troubled history.

Trump’s recent rhetoric about what will happen if he loses the election is worrying. Claiming the election is going to be stolen when all indicators point to a loss is a dangerous game for him to play. Historically, even in elections where the loser had a claim to being cheated due to America’s electoral college overriding the popular vote, or due to a “corrupt bargain” seemingly determining the winner (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000), the losing candidates have accepted their fate and avoided making assertions that the system was fixed or calling for violence to overturn the will of the people. By contrast, Trump seems to be flirting with calls for armed rebellion. His supporters certainly are calling for it, and with Trump, flirting often leads to more.

Here, history gives us a disconcerting peek at a possible future. Consider the 1898 Wilmington race riots, often referred to as the only successful coup d’état in American history. In that uprising, armed, red-shirted white supremacists violently drove a biracial city government out of North Carolina, killing as many as ninety African Americans in the process. The overthrow was, for all intents and purposes, the end of African-American voting in that state for a generation. In the wake of a Trump defeat, should something akin to these race riots erupt on the national level, the potential for bloodshed is horrifying to consider.

Wilmington Rioters, 1898
Wilmington Rioters, 1898

Trump’s promises of what he will do if he wins are equally worrisome. Democracy demands a loyal opposition. At least two healthy parties are needed for the system to work. Trump’s threat to jail—not just investigate—his opponent is unprecedented. It goes against over two hundred years of history in which the losing candidates accepted the outcome of the election and the winners did not use the power of their office to persecute their opponents. Should Trump make good on his threat to jail Hillary Clinton, this move would fundamentally contradict the concept of checks and balances, which does not allow the executive branch to jail people unilaterally without a trial. The idea that Trump would designate a “special prosecutor” to put Clinton in jail is disturbing, as the entire idea of a special prosecutor is premised on the notion that this prosecutor is independent from interference by the White House and political pressure.

Threatening to imprison Clinton is not the only example of Trump blatantly ignoring the Bill of Rights. Trump’s desire to prosecute newspapers that are critical of him is, sadly, not without precedent, but it is a practice that would upset many of the Founding Fathers. In 1798, John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which essentially made it illegal to criticize the government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the fight against the law, which in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has largely been viewed as unconstitutional. In the end, Adams lost his reelection campaign, in part because voters saw the beginnings of a tyrant in his attack on free speech, which was supposed to be protected by the First Amendment. Trump’s hatred for the press continues to evolve, it seems, as his most recent complaints about a global conspiracy of the press and international bankers sound suspiciously like a twenty-first-century version of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Is he purposefully playing to the “alt-right” part of his base, or does he not realize what he is saying? Either interpretation should concern voters.

Parts of Trump’s campaign strategy fall in line with campaigns of the past. There is a long history of using guns to intimidate voters at polling places. Attempts at intimidation involving armed men outside an opponent’s campaign headquarters and calls for armed “poll watchers” outside polling places in “certain areas” to “maintain integrity” sound suspiciously like the illegal use of a “National Ballot Security Task Force” in New Jersey in 1981. Going back further, these calls look like the Klan violence and racial intimidation that paved the way for the end of Reconstruction and Jim Crow’s rise. In 1900, two years after the Wilmington race riot, Alfred Waddell gave a campaign speech in which he said, “Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.” Though the language may have changed, the strategy has not. In his call for “poll watching,” Trump recently said to the audience, “When I say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about, right?” Indeed, we do know what he is talking about: a blatant effort to suppress the vote of minorities, who some of his supporters view as illegitimate Americans. As an historian, I wonder, will Trump have his poll watchers wear red shirts along with their red hats? It would keep with the theme.

The GOP has certainly changed from its early years. It was political violence against Republicans in the 1860s that led to the amending of the Constitution in 1870 to protect the right of African Americans to vote. Today, when open-carry advocates proclaim their right to display their arms, it seems the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment is at odds with the Second. Whether legal or not, even the implied threat of violence during elections is an act that is fundamentally in opposition to America’s professed democratic principles. While electoral violence and intimidation are not new to American history, they should be roundly condemned by all parties who profess to hold the Constitution up as a sacred document.

This is the first of a series of three posts on how history can inform our understanding of the Trump campaign. The views expressed here represents the author’s views alone.

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