New York Magazine


THERE IS A FUSTY OLD SCHOOL OF THOUGHT CALLED THE “GREAT MAN THEORY,” which attributes the tides of history to the decisions and character of a handful of fateful men. While it lives on in the popular Father’s Day–gift/doorstop-biography genre, the theory fell out of favor more than a century ago, and historians now understand that larger social forces—movements, ideas, institutions, economic interests, power—are usually more responsible for shaping our destiny. Yet Donald Trump’s horrifyingly unique combination of personal traits, together with rather fluid beliefs about policy, has reoriented American politics as a psychology seminar. Never before in our history has a major presidential character stood apart as so great (in the Great Fire of London sense) or so opposite-of-great. We have been consumed with wonder at just what it would mean to have this flamboyant sociopath pacing the Oval Office. Trump has made Great Man theorists of us all.

But something important is happening that has been obscured by the captivating spectacle. Forget about Donald Trump for a moment. Or—given how famously difficult it is to not think of a pink elephant, not to mention an orange one—consider Trump’s rise not in terms of his uniquely dangerous personality but instead as the interplay of broader trends.

Approaching the 2016 election from this historical perspective, in which Trump’s every boast, tweet, and threat disappears into the ether, may at first blush sound like a relief. It is the opposite. Trump is an extreme event, but Trumpism is no fluke. Its weaknesses are fleeting, and its strengths likely to endure. Far from an organization that is “probably headed toward a civil war”—as the Washington Post recently put it, summing up a rapidly congealing consensus—the Republican Party is instead more unified than one might imagine, as well as more dangerous. The accommodations its leaders have made to their erratic and delirious nominee underscore a capacity to go further and lower to maintain their grip on power than anybody understood. More consequentially, the horrors Trump has unleashed are the product of tectonic forces in American politics. Trump has revealed the convergence of two movements more extreme than anything in the free world that may yet threaten the democratic character most Americans take as their birthright.

DURING THE REPUBLICAN primaries, Marco Rubio frequently said, “I will not allow the conservative movement to be taken over by a con artist.” What would have struck a Republican from four or six decades ago about that line (other than the fact that Rubio endorsed the con artist months later) is that Rubio assumed that the term “conservative movement” was synonymous with “the Republican Party.” The two were not always the same. Like right-of-center parties in industrialized democracies across the world, the GOP throughout most of the 20th century understood there to be a role for government in daily life. During the years immediately following World War II, the Republican Party, led

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