American history scholars generally bifurcate the nation’s timeline in 1877. The Compromise of 1877 removed all U.S. forces from the southern states and, at least in name, offered a glittering promise for a bright future for all American men. In 1877, we marked the end of Reconstruction and sought to satisfy the ideals the framers of our nation outlined for us. Using this year to distinguish events in American history from one another has been beyond useful in looking to the actions of our predecessors for answers to modern solutions, in comparing events to glean universal truths regarding the American experience, and in simply serving as an endpoint for survey-level college courses. However, 1877 will not be relevant forever. Late-nineteenth century Americans have little in common with the modern man. Only recently has there been a contender for a year in which the events preceding and following it are so stark in contrast: 2016.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election, likening everyday government doings to The Twilight Zone became commonplace. The line between news and satire became obscure. Usually, elements of both reared their heads. When the Associated Press called the election for Joe Biden after five grueling days of tallying votes, there was an assumption that life would soon return to normal. After all, it was 2020, not 1877. No one event could alter the course of American history as Reconstruction did. As it happened, this assumption has proven untrue. Trump’s reign as number forty five might be over, but the implications of his administration will extend far beyond his four years.
Trump has no comparable predecessors. We could not look to actions of the past to gain any sort of insight or familiarity with a President taking to Twitter as his first line of defense. Both major parties fundamentally disagreed how to diffuse the situation of having an impulsive reality television star behind the big red button. Coupled with preexisting infighting among Democrats and Republicans, the gradual tension buildup from those fundamental disagreements has caused substantial schisms in both parties.
The Republican ideals of populism and truth, justice, and the American way are long gone. Senators Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney might try to fight the good fight, but Trump established a new status quo within the GOP. GOP voters, especially those who have felt alienated from traditional Ivy-league educated politicians, like leaders with grit. However, not in the Teddy Roosevelt, Wild West, “me and mine will be fine” sort of grit. Instead, voters feel most compelled to support those who will sponsor a bill turning Texas citizens into bona fide bounty hunters hunting women who have received abortions or those who will offer a financial incentive for unvaccinated police officers to move to Florida. While these radical Republicans have existed for a few election cycles, they have been the exception to the party rather than the rule. Those on the fringe have become the norm which, in turn, pushes the fringe even farther away from the ideological middle. Traditionally moderate candidates have become discouraged because they feel as though they will not receive support from the party on the national stage, and thus, the cycle perpetuates itself. If only radical politicians run for office, we will only elect radical politicians. In correcting for this ideological shift, we also lose a great deal of hope for any collaboration across the aisle. As the left moves more to the left and the right moves farther right, any chances of ideological intersection decrease exponentially.
This increased polarization impacts more than the talking heads of both parties. Though Trump undoubtedly changed the status quo to embrace extremism, the Moderate American is not dead yet; however, if this cycle of increased polarization and radicalism on both sides of the aisle, they will be soon. Voter turnout rates in America are already abysmal. Constituents want politicians that reflect their wishes. When there are only candidates on either side of the fringe in the race, moderate voters will feel equally detached from both options and will likely stay home on Election Day. To them, it does not matter who wins on a Tuesday in November because they cannot connect to either option.
In addition to the rise of politicians on the fringe, Trump’s actions following the 2020 Presidential election will inform the American rules for order for the foreseeable future. In calling into question the results of the election, Trump fostered feelings of governmental distrust among his followers which eventually culminated in the events of the January 6th insurrection.
By providing only a half-hearted attempt to discourage his disciples from attacking the Capitol building, he delegitimized the federal government by implying that attacking the National Mall would yield positive results for the outcome of the election. Since an insurrection now lives within the realm of possibility in the matter of expressing political malcontent, the propensity for a similar act of domestic terrorism to occur has skyrocketed.
By and large, politics are cyclical. Democrats and Republicans have played cat-and-mouse in the pursuit of both making a lasting difference and securing a legacy among political giants for ages. However, the implications of the Trump administration are far too large for any idiom to capture. We will grapple with the effects of heightened polarization on our oldest-standing political machines, voter turnout, and overall quality of representation and policy for multiple election cycles to come.
In delegitimizing the efficacy of the federal government in its ability to protect our nation’s Capitol and proffering the notion that holding a siege on a federal building could change the outcome of an election, he has encouraged the American people to act on violent, primal instincts as a viable vehicle for change. 2016 marked the beginning of a new era for the nation. Much like 1877.