Jul 21st 2016

Where Did Donald Trump Come From?

by Charles J. Reid, Jr.

Charles J. Reid, Jr. was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he majored in Latin, Classics, and History, and also did substantial coursework in classical Greek and modern European languages. It was during his undergraduate days that he developed an interest in canon law, doing a year of directed research in Roman and canon law under the supervision of James Brundage. Reid then attended the Catholic University of America, where he earned J.D. and J.C.L. (license in canon law) degrees. During his time at Catholic University, he organized a series of symposia on the bishops' pastoral letter on nuclear arms. The proceedings of these symposia were published under Reid's editorship as "Peace in a Nuclear Age: The Bishops' Pastoral Letter in Perspective" (Catholic University of America Press, 1986). This book was called by the New York Times "among the most scholarly and unsettling of responses" to the pastoral letter (December 28, 1986).Reid then attended Cornell University, where he earned a Ph.D. in the history of medieval law under the supervision of Brian Tierney. His thesis at Cornell was on the Christian, medieval origins of the western concept of individual rights. Over the last ten years, he has published a number of articles on the history of western rights thought, and is currently completing work on a book manuscript addressing this question.In 1991, Reid was appointed research associate in law and history at the Emory University School of Law, where he has worked closely with Harold Berman on the history of western law. He collaborated with Professor Berman on articles on the Lutheran legal science of the sixteenth century, the English legal science of the seventeenth century, and the flawed premises of Max Weber's legal historiography.While at Emory, Reid has also pursued a research agenda involving scholarship on the history of western notions of individual rights; the history of liberty of conscience in America; and the natural-law foundations of the jurisprudence of Judge John Noonan. He has also published articles on various aspects of the history of the English common law. He has had the chance to apply legal history in a forensic setting, serving as an expert witness in litigation involving the religious significance of Christian burial. Additionally, Reid has taught a seminar on the contribution of medieval canon law to the shaping of western constitutionalism.  Recently, Reid has become a featured blogger at the Huffington Post on current issues where religion, law and politics intersect.


Let’s begin with the obvious. Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as President of the United States. He has appealed to the worst instincts of the American people. He has revealed himself to be racist, xenophobic, hateful, and buffoonish. Still, he is no longer a carnival act, he is no longer merely the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. His status is now official. His name will appear on ballots in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. It is time, therefore, to ask, “where did he come from?”

As a historian, I can identify five strands of the American political experience which Trump drew from, magnified, made his own, and has now imposed on the American body politic. The first is the American fondness for conspiracy theories. A penchant for conspiracy theories has, after all, lurked just beneath the surface of American politics for most of our history.

America’s very first conspiracy theory involved money and banking. At issue was the Bank of the United States, chartered by Congress in February 1791, over the substantial opposition of Southern members of Congress. The Bank thereafter remained the persistent target of tall tales and conspiracy theories. Eventually, these conspiracy theories seeped into the “mainstream” of American political discourse with the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, who revoked the Bank’s charter, helping to precipitate an economic depression.

Nor was this the only conspiracy theory to influence nineteenth-century politics. In the early 1800’s, there were deep fears that the Freemasons exerted secret control over the workings of government and were responsible for gruesome crimes and outrages. This conspiracy theory led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party in the late 1820’s, which sought to eradicate this perceived threat from America. And then there were the various Jesuit conspiracy theories, united by a belief that the Pope and the Jesuits were collaborating in the overthrow of American institutions.

Twentieth-century conspiracy theories owe much to this older tradition. The John Birch Society, the great panics over the so-called Communist Conspiracy, the smaller, stranger conspiracy theories regarding fluoridation in drinking water, all trace their origins to these old subterranean fears. The American mind, at least the darker corners of its id, finds this stuff appealing.

And Donald Trump, with his birther ranting, his dark speculation about the assassination of President John Kennedy, and his appearances on the Alex Jones InfoWars radio program, is merely the latest manifestation of these old phenomena. What makes Trump different, however, is that he has mainstreamed the freak show. And he is all the more dangerous for that reason.

Second, there is the con man. In Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’, one encounters the King and the Duke, two old con men who made a living passing themselves off as displaced royalty from Europe. P.T. Barnum, later in the nineteenth century, was another form of confidence man. He was the con man as entertainer. “There’s a sucker born every minute” may or may not have been said by Barnum. But it was early on used to describe his style of entertainment.

Early in his career, Barnum constructed from a collection of old bones the skeleton of a “mermaid,” which he claimed to be authentic. His whole career followed this trajectory, as he moved from one barely reputable idea to the next. And of course, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there are analogues to this literary and theatrical type. Witness the Redford and Newman movie, ‘The Sting’, or watch the charades surrounding reality television.

Trump is at home in this environment. He has spent the better part of the last two decades marinating in this stew. He has dabbled in professional wrestling, and crafted his public persona around reality television. He is now the con man personified. And he is the nominee of the Republican Party.

And then there is the nativist strand of American politics. Nativism first became a force in the 1840’s as portions of the Anglo-Saxon population of the northeast reacted with violence against new immigrants from Ireland. The Know-Nothings, these anti-immigrant groups called themselves, reveling proudly in their ignorance. And in the late nineteenth century, especially on the West Coast, one saw similar political and popular opposition to Chinese immigration.

Anti-Catholic and Anti-Jewish sentiments were aroused in the years around World War I, again as a reaction to immigration. The Ku Klux Klan, which originated in the Reconstruction South as a means of terrorizing newly-emancipated African Americans, expanded its reach in the 1920’s with an anti-immigrant message. Indeed, the Klan reached the zenith of its power during this time, as it exerted strong influence over the state governments of Indiana and Oregon, where it nearly succeeded in outlawing Catholic schools.

In our own time, nativism has emerged once again as a toxic force, thanks to Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions. Once again, immigrants are made the targets and scapegoats. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, did not escape Trump’s wrath. He was seen and denounced by Trump and his ilk as a foreigner, a Kenyan, who had no business in American politics.

But the nativism in the Trump movement has been even more pervasive. He has called Mexican immigrants foul, unspeakable names. He has stereotyped whole groups of people. And Trump is not some hooded Klan leader, shamefully masking his identity. No, he is now the nominee of a major political party.

Closely intertwined with nativism is the racist element of American politics. Again, racism has been a part of the American political scene since the decades before the Civil War. Racism emerged again as a potent force in the South during Reconstruction. It was enshrined in law during the Jim Crow period, stretching from the 1880’s roughly to the early 1960’s.

In the 1960’s, however, right-wing politicians discovered that overt racism was no longer respectable. Thus there emerged the so-called Southern Strategy, an effort by Republican politicians to convert Southern and working-class whites to the Republican Party through coded language about “law and order” and crude stereotypes about welfare benefits and work habits.

Trump, however, has given up speaking in code. Yes, he talks about “law and order,” but his campaign has a much rawer, more vicious feel to it. It is deeply, atavistically racist. Indeed, he has even been slow to disavow the support of white supremacists. And it is not surprising therefore that he has revived and given strength to this most despicable element in American politics.

The final, fifth strand Trump has drawn from is populism. One must be careful in speaking about populism. There is, after all, a healthy form of populism, one which looks to relieve the burdens of the oppressed, that seeks to improve the lot of all people, and that sees the need to balance the economic playing field. These populists — Bernie Sanders is among them — appreciate that justice can only be achieved when there is real equality in bargaining power between persons and classes.

Trump’s populism is not of this sort. Trump’s populism is more reminiscent of that of Huey Long, the Louisiana demagogue who governed that state in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Long was an authoritarian. He was corrupt. He championed the cause of the poor, but he was cynical about it, not sincere. He meant to exploit them, not improve their lives. That is the model of populist Donald Trump is.

Donald Trump is not a well-read man. He certainly did not do any deep reading in the American political tradition. But somehow, instinctively, intuitively, he has brought together some of the foulest elements of the American political experience and transformed these elements into the essence of his campaign. He has created a foul, noxious, toxic stew. And he must be defeated in November. He is manifestly unfit for high elective office.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."