Most discussions about Donald Trump serve as indicators of just how broken and bi-polar American political discourse has become. For his loyalists, Trump represents the MAGA savior, courageously and cleverly taking on all Swamp Creatures. To a different group of partisans, he’s a singularly evil character, the Hitlerian figure who will make democracy die in darkness.
For the few who choose to stand at arms’ length to either tribe, such good-versus-evil assessments seem counterproductive on their face. But there is perhaps even more damage beneath the surface of our collective discourse because few have asked an important question: Where does Donald Trump stand within the long arc of American history?
The most reasonable answer to that question would be to compare Trump to other American presidents. This approach presents a problem to both sides, however. The Never-Trumpers are stumped because they can find no suitably fascist predecessor. The MAGAs draw parallels to Reagan, or even to Lincoln or Jackson, but such connections tend to be overblown and narcissistic.
Comparisons to previous politicians fail to be relevant in Trump’s case because no other president embraced the role he has chosen to play. To understand that role, one must recognize that the country is in a particular phase of a specific historical cycle.
America finds itself within the early-to-middle stages of our era’s Fourth Turning …… a cycle that has repeated every eighty years or so since before the nation’s founding. Therefore, based on past experience, the current conflict seems likely to escalate into something more dysfunctional, more intense, and more existential as the next months and years play out.
To understand the role the Orange Man plays in today’s political conflict, we must look back to the agitations of similar figures during the same phase of previous Fourth Turnings.
For example, in the events preceding the Civil War, John Brown filled a role that parallels Trump’s. When Brown arrived on the national scene, the plight of Black Americans was festering below the surface of collective discourse. But the country refused to address it, preferring instead to be distracted by flawed compromises and irrelevant conquests. Brown’s rhetoric and actions forced the country’s citizens to make a choice. They declared their allegiance to one side or the other …… even if they disliked the man or disagreed with his methods.
Similarly, the Boston lawyer James Otis played Trump’s role prior to the Revolutionary War. He too brought suppressed sentiments out into the open by inserting statements like “no taxation without representation” into the public discourse. Here again, onlooking citizens felt compelled to declare their loyalty to one side or the other.
In both of the earlier cases, the instigator’s understanding of the nation’s plight was instinctive. It was also, to a large extent, unclear to the man himself. Each pursued an intuitive vision of where the country should head, but that vision moved toward fruition haphazardly, through a process of trial and error. In short, each of these personages functioned as one crucial variable within a larger, emergent, self-organizing process.
Unfortunately, in the two previous examples, the anti-hero was fated for demise. John Brown died on the gallows. James Otis suffered a complete emotional breakdown and was ushered off the public square into ignominy.
The 45th president displays moments of volatility and instability that are disturbingly similar to those earlier figures. Yet Trump’s 2016 candidacy and ensuing presidency began to shift the country’s terms of debate. He forced a growing plurality of citizens to choose their side on the Fundamental Question that will drive our society’s decision-making going forward: will America become a centrally governed, semi-authoritarian nation …… or will its earlier commitment to individual autonomy and local self-governance re-emerge?
As each day of 2021 passes, the old divisions of left versus right, or liberal versus conservative, are becoming less relevant. Our Turning’s conflict – that of top versus bottom – has become the more urgent topic of political discourse. We see this manifested in a series of Otis-esque dichotomies, like the The Elites versus The People, masks versus mandates, woke education versus school choice, social media bans versus public debate, or vaccines versus free will. Trump instigated this debate in 2016 with his vague and rambling calls to “drain the Swamp.” The outlines of the conflict have steadily become more clear to the rest of us ever since.
It’s possible that a businessman who survived several bankruptcies could re-invent himself politically and return to the World Stage as a Lincolnesque figure. But a more likely outcome is that America will turn its attention toward more sophisticated thinkers. A Churchill or a Gandhi might soon emerge. Or, as Glenn Greenwald suggests, a smarter, more stable version of Trump.
As new leaders help the nation to frame the existential decisions it faces, The Donald will ultimately be acknowledged as an important instigator, but his influence over future outcomes will likely fade. Trump will be referenced in the history books as a crucial early figure in an unfolding process. But he won’t be considered a main player in the founding of a new, more just, and more sustainable political paradigm.