When historians and others look back on the Trump phenomenon — I’m not going to call it an “era” because it’s too early to start drinking — it seems a classic debate, that has taken place in many other historical contexts, is almost certain to take place.
This debate is at bottom an argument between those who see deep structural and social forces as the prime movers of events, and those who believe that the decisions and acts of a handful of critically important individuals are paramount factors.
For the purposes of this premature retrospective, let us call the former view “functionalism” and the latter position “intentionalism.”
How will historians interpret the rise of Donald Trump? The functionalist position will emphasize the many points of continuity between Trump’s regime and the movement conservatism that first rose to prominence during Barry Goldwater’s presidential run, more than a half century earlier. Functionalists will see Trump’s rise as a triumph of mass movement politics over elite control, pointing out that, as late as early 2016, Trump’s candidacy was considered something of a joke by GOP elites, who took comfort in the widely-held theory that “the party decides” who will receive major party presidential nominations.
On the functionalist view, Trump’s rapid co-optation of the entire leadership of the Republican party once he was elected merely proved that the elites who at first resisted or at least hesitated to embrace him were deluded about the nature of movement conservatism, which in retrospect was always first and foremost a form of white ethno-nationalist reaction. From this perspective, Trump’s campaign and presidency simply tore the mask off the actual project of modern American conservatism, which at its most fundamental was not about “smaller government” or any other libertarian platitudes, but rather about — especially in the wake of the psychologically shattering fact of Barack Obama’s presidency — reinstating white supremacy in America.
The intentionalist view will emphasize that Trump was in many ways a caudillo-like figure: the leader of an authoritarian cult of personality, who insisted, like his many South and Central American predecessors, on his populist bona fides, his supposed hostility to existing elites, etc. On this view, the Trump phenomenon, despite obvious points of continuity with post-Goldwater movement conservatism, represented a radical break in American political life.
These historians will cite the combination of Trump’s complete lack of qualification for the office, his remarkably bizarre behavior, his unprecedentedly open corruption, and the cult-like rallies he held throughout his presidency as evidence for the view that Trump marked the arrival of a new movement in American political life, and that his takeover of the Republican party was, at least from the perspective of its elites, in many ways a hostile one, rather than the natural continuation of the party’s evolution over the preceding half century.
Here is the kind of question that’s likely to mark this debate: Was the rise of a radically reactionary media ecosystem, especially in the form of right wing talk radio, Fox News, and Breitbart, a mass phenomenon that eventually overwhelmed initially reluctant Republican elites? Or was it rather an essentially elite-driven search for profit and power, that manipulated the ever-manipulable masses for those ends?
Stay tuned for a few more decades for the answer.