The phenomenon of Trumpism has represented a challenge for the United States but has been a boon for historians. It is undeniable that the Republican presidential candidate has brought an unprecedented mixture of xenophobia, ignorance, sexism, authoritarianism, bluster, and celebrity culture into the presidential campaign. At the same time, even typically ahistorical pundits have recognized that the Trump campaign has built on ongoing transformations in the Republican Party, gender roles, race, conservativism, and the demographics of the American electorate. There is a consensus that Trumpism is rooted in history. All manner of American antecedents have been mentioned, from the anti-Semite Henry Ford, who shared Trump’s disregard for history, to the American Firster Charles Lindbergh, to Senator Joseph McCarthy, to George Wallace, the segregationist populist. The satirical twitter account, “Historical Trump,” regularly spoofs the Republican candidate by having him offer his signature praise to discredited historical figures: “Great job by fugitive slave catchers (who endorsed me) catching dangerous Nat Turner. We need LAW and ORDER!” As this suggests, commentators have especially emphasized the long-term white supremacist, fascist and crackpot precursors to the Trump phenomenon.
Others take Trump’s “Washington totally is broken” rhetoric (which was a little-noticed aspect of his Pussygate “apology” videotape) to be a more recent phenomenon that we can date to the scorched earth policies of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, whose main self-described goal has been wholly negative: to deprive President Obama of any legislative accomplishments. Some turn to the Newt Gingrich era of leadership in the 1990s, which brought government shutdowns into our political vocabulary. The political scientists Norman J. Orstein and Thomas E. Mann have recently claimed that Trump should be understood as the consequence of the GOP’s “3-decade war on government.”
If we wish to understand the roots of Trumpism, however, we need to backdate Ornstein and Mann’s argument by half a century—to the era of the Great Depression, when anti-New Dealers developed an enduring language of opposition to government and governing that has played a key but unacknowledged role in Trump’s rise to power. While some critics have pointed to Lindbergh, the first America Firster, Father Charles Coughlin and other proto-fascists from the Depression decade, as precedents for Trump, there has been little attention to the mainstream anti-New Dealers, who indirectly laid the groundwork for Trumpism. Their rhetoric about the dangers of government has been the background music for opposition to liberal reform ever since. This is not to claim that an unchanging template was set during the Depression decade and that all members of the Republican coalition have followed this script in an unvarying way ever since. Yet it is undeniable that many of the political reflexes that Trumpism builds on were first developed not in the 1990s, but by critics of the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s and have become an enduring part of the language of American conservatism ever since.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created a formidable political coalition that remained a powerful force in American politics for many decades. FDR was reelected three times and even after his death, historians describe a hegemonic “New Deal order” that lasted at least until the 1970s. Yet even at its peak, the New Deal was subject to vigorous criticism. While the critics lost in the short term, in the long run, they helped develop an enduring vocabulary that has fundamentally shaped our political culture, and become a core component of conservative discourse. Although Trumpism is not consistently conservative, much of its appeal is built on the arguments and assumptions of the anti-New Dealers.
Scholars have rightly shown that the real “New Deal” was partial, pragmatic, contradictory, and racialized. In its best moments, however, it promised, as FDR memorably articulated in his “Four Freedoms” speech, a government that fights discrimination in all forms, provides a safety net for the less fortunate, opens opportunities for all citizens, that regulates in the public interest, and that seeks to ensure political, economic and legal equality. Critics fought actual New Deal and welfare state programs tooth and nail. But they aimed most of their ire at this aspirational New Deal, rather than the imperfect one that actually existed. They took aim at its very essence by arguing, for example, that the quest for security was really a path to slavery.
Anti-New Dealism and its legacy offers what is perhaps the most important and least-understood vector of Trumpism, one that links Trump to, rather than separates him from, the mainstream history of the Republican Party. Anti-New Dealers denigrated the state as inherently corrupt, held to an apocalyptic worldview, and ridiculed even mild social reforms and limited forms of regulation as unrealistic and dangerous, an existential threat to the individual and collective freedom. A not insignificant group of Republicans predicted that the New Deal and, later, postwar liberalism, would lead inexorably to totalitarianism, and they devoted themselves to destroying it. And they proclaimed, as one partisan said in 1944, that “the Republican party must be an opposite to the New Deal,” defining themselves by what they were not. In this way, opponents of the New Deal claimed the mantle of “freedom” understood not by virtue of promoting any positive policies but by preventing the welfare state from reaching its ultimate destination of tyranny.
This is not to claim that all Republicans bought into this discourse. Many made accommodations to the New Deal order, most famously Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first post-New Deal Republican president. But even these politicians—like Ike, Robert Taft, or Ronald Reagan—who took governing seriously routinely denigrated the idea of government as a positive good.
Not only extremists but mainstream opponents of the New Deal displayed a paranoid style of political thought. The key to understanding the appeal of the opponents of the New Deal is that, like Donald Trump does today, they spoke in the language of crisis rather than policy, and of absolutes rather than compromise, of hyperbole rather than reality. The New Deal, they claimed, was “worse than two wars,” and more dangerous than chattel slavery, since it was producing “the slavery of 140,000,000 of or American citizens.”
Rather than framing their disagreements with the New Deal as a critique of Roosevelt’s proposals, they argued the New Deal state was corrupt and dangerous, a “new-fangled name for old fashioned tyranny.” They viewed their political enemies as dissemblers who were hiding their true goals in the language of incremental reformism. The New Deal, in this view, was a stealth revolution. For this reason, the critics of the New Deal rarely took Roosevelt’s proposals at face value. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover spent the rest of his long life after leaving office predicting a “New Deal apocalypse.”
In the face of this danger, they used the urgent language of emergency politics. The choice, they claimed endlessly, was binary and time was short. In the 1936 presidential campaign, Republicans laid out this vision of a dangerous and corrupt New Deal usurping the traditional American “free enterprise” system. And they continued in 1940, when Wendell Willkie, remembered today as a moderate who accommodated himself to the New Deal, accused FDR of seeking to “Sovietize the American system.”
After the war, this language continued, now aimed against what became known in the late 1940s as the “welfare state,” rather than Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1947, the lawyer Frank Branch Riley condemned “the stealthy, sinister erosion of our free institutions.” Two years later, Col R, H. Engler denounced government “so big and powerful that it masters us rather than serves us.” As late as 1952, critics continued to argue that the New Deal has been a “Trojan horse,” the opening wedge of a “secret battle.” The journalist Willard Edwards feared that there existed among Fair Dealers, a “secret blue print for a super-state in America.” In 1955, Herbert Hoover said, “If the power of government can’t be checked now, it never can be.”
Listen again to Trump, against this backdrop of opposition to the New Deal order. “This is not simply another four-year election,” said Donald Trump in a speech on October 13, 2016. “This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.” Trump went on to explain that “this election will determine whether we are a free nation.” Over the course of his campaign, he complained about governmental corruption—secret plans and false statistics—and called out President Obama for dual loyalties. He accused his opponent Hillary Clinton of plotting secretly to abolish the Second Amendment and has pre-emptively—and unnecessarily, it turned out— proclaimed her presidency to be illegitimate. He has condemned the “FDA food police” and other examples of job and freedom killing “regulations on top of regulations.”
Trump is no student of history, but his alarmist rhetoric almost perfectly follows the patterns laid out by New Deal opponents. “I call this election the crucial crossroads,” said one New Deal opponent in 1944. “The roads lead in opposite directions.” Four years earlier, the Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, said that “it is just about five minutes to midnight” and feared that “we shall go down into the totalitarian pit.”
The roots of the Trumpian worldview can be found not only in extremist outliers but in the very mainstream of the party for which he was the standard bearer and is now the leader.
Lawrence Glickman is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor in American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is completing a book on the idea of “free enterprise” in American history. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.