Well, Donald Trump is a creature of his time. His rise is not an historical anomaly. It's an historical moment, yes, but there haven't been enough presidential campaigns to call any cycle an anomaly, really, although some are more unpredictable than others!
The rise of an outsider who gives voice to the unbelievably persistent anxiety and political impotence that drives modern conservatism? Predictable.
That the outsider would know how to master the media morays of his time? Predictable.
That America has a latent streak of authoritarianism (we almost made George Washington a king!), that the white working class remains troubled by the rise of a majority-minority nation? And that these genes could be activated by the right messenger? Predictable.
That Donald Trump would be the avatar of this movement? Not predictable. What's unique and original about Trump is his lack of credentials as a member of that movement. He was a New York liberal until he decided that it would be profitable to become a populist; he was pro-choice and pro-gay; he still is in favor of big government; he doesn't seem to know or care about Supreme Court justices; okay, he finds common cause with folks who hate the media, but really, Trump craves the media's approval, so there's not much overlap.
What's also unique about this moment is that the GOP has been taken over by people who don't think ideological purity has served it well. Trump may seem to be a second generation Tea Partier, but really, he's not. He's making it up as it he does along. He is all attitude, all id. That seems to be all that matters.
What's unique is that a party's base has never so quickly abandoned its policy aims.
Unless... unless... Trump's new incarnation is closer to where the GOP has really been... not the GOP that holds conventions and pays consultants hundreds of millions of dollars and sits in the Senate... but the body of voters represented by the GOP who oppose the party's international adventures (or have come to oppose them), who are skeptical about trade, who think the party is too cozy with big business and with Wall Street, who think the party sold them down the river on immigration.
By the standards of the television and Internet era, this is an acidic campaign. By the standards of history -- and here I can go back to the founding generation and traffic in the mud that they did -- it's not that bad. (The party that's afraid of losing power isn't shutting down newspapers belonging to opponents, isn't passing new alien and sedition acts, and sex scandals this cycle are thankfully absent. Candidates have been accused of being born in different countries, and their penis sizes have been scrutinized, but none has yet been accused of having an illegitimate child, or, like Rachel Donelson Jackson, having married her husband Andrew while not yet being divorced).
Broadening out the lens a bit, I think there are roughly three historical periods where the government and major institutions simply could not cope with the changes that swept across the country, and the result was major, wrenching political realignments:
- The early Jacksonian era, which saw the first spasm of voter anger against the concentration of power in the hands of the financial elites.
- The, uh, Civil War
- The period spanning the election of the Two Roosevelts, lasting all the way until the Second World War.