Donald Trump Has Happened Before: How Democracy Can Destroy Itself

By Noah Houghton '20


It’s been shouted about on cable networks for over a year now, written about ad nauseum in just about every publication, and been the rallying cry for supporters of one presidential nominee: “Donald Trump is unlike any politician in history.” And on the surface, our natural instinct as media consumers is to agree; of course it’s unthinkable that a serious political figure vying for arguably the most powerful position in the world would have such terrible temperament, such contempt for the everyman (and women), and such small, small hands. Of course, we say, knowing in our bones that no rational human being, let alone a conservative politician, would incite crowds of supporters to violence, or promise to violate the Constitution, or insinuate that the democratic process which has endured for hundreds of years in our country is no longer legitimate. Trump’s candidacy is like a pitch for a political thriller that won’t get picked up, because it’s so out of touch with the American audience...right?

But, hang on a second. In the 1840s there was a xenophobic political party that campaigned almost exclusively on an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration platform called the Know-Nothings. This party’s candidate Millard Fillmore, according to a September 2015 article on The Week magazine’s website entitled “A brief history of populism,” won 21.6 percent of the vote. Nativism is nothing new in the political system; it’s just not always as in-your-face as Donald Trump or Millard Fillmore.

And as for appealing to those who feel cheated by the capitalist system, who resent those in power and want revenge, this isn’t something that Trump invented either. Arguably, the first left-wing populist movement in America started in the 1880s by farmers who were struggling in a global economic depression — think Grapes of Wrath type of people. They weren’t able to keep up with the twin forces of industrialization and globalization that were sweeping their income away, and so they turned to political activism for change. The Populist Candidate in 1892, James B. Weaver, won only 8.5 percent of the vote, but the Populist Movement was a key factor in the many reforms that would be made in the next few decades. Women’s suffrage, the establishment of welfare and social security, and public schooling are just a few of the accomplishments that Populists would go on to support and achieve.

And presidents throughout history have been in certain ways deeply flawed. Theodore Roosevelt, considered by many to be the quintessential Republican, had a foul temper and a worse mouth. John Coolidge Jr. signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, championed by eugenicists and Klansmen. So it’s not that Trump is new; it’s that he’s coming through on at least part of his campaign’s promise: “again.”

The most important thing about Trump is that he’s bringing these archaic ideas about America to the modern world. That is what is so outrageous: that he has resuscitated beliefs long thought lost to the progressive power of time. We as Americans have to recognize that which is not exceptional about ourselves: that we have inherited a country with a past full of anti-immigrant, racist, sexist, and anti-establishment sentiment. Such bigotries and insecurities felt by the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were pressed deep into our original Constitution and the character of our nation. It is our struggle and responsibility to fight against those feelings that would drag us back into history as we make our way into the future.



A brief message here on what is perhaps most troubling about the resurgence of populism; specifically, a widespread incorrect perception of what it means to be democratic. When people rail against “The Establishment” — that superdelegates are undemocratic, that tax codes are too complicated for the everyday American, that even representative democracy isn’t democratic enough — it appeals to our nature as Americans. But what it obscures is the fundamental protection that made our democracy unlike anything that came before it: the protection of the minority. Not minorities (see: slavery, homophobia, and nativism) but the ideological minority. In classrooms and meeting rooms, decisions made for a group are usually majority rules — 10 people want Felipe’s, 3 people want burgers, we’re getting Felipe’s. In smaller scale democracy, you do whatever satisfies the greatest number of people. It’s an appealing idea; if a majority of people want something done, why shouldn’t it be done?

But this is a fundamental problem in the way people are taught democracy. Democracy as a political system means majority rules, yes, but of great importance is the ability of the minority to continue to have a say, and to continue to advocate for their position. Populist movements in government are important because they tend to move politics closer to people, but they’re also dangerous in that they threaten that essential protection of the minority. Central to our nation’s (at least professed) character is that we do not silence people we disagree with. We engage with the people who disagree and try to find an amicable solution, a compromise that satisfies no one entirely but allows us to move forward united. Too much populism, and the system that gives voice to the minority will break down; and a tyranny of the majority is no democracy.