Donald Trump’s aides, understanding their leader, vie to be most ostentatious about calling his victory “historic.”
That claim deserves close inspection. Certainly Trump’s rise to the White House was unusual and surprising, even if only because it produced the least politically experienced and probably least qualified president in American history. It could also have lasting consequences: the shape of the Supreme Court, the prospects for war or peace, the shredding of regulations and the social safety net.
But the truly historic elections reshape or realign U.S. politics. There are many reasons to believe that 2016 isn’t one of them.
Generally, political historians believe there were three clear realigning elections. The first was in 1828, when Andrew Jackson mobilized populist passions, moved the center of power westward and ushered in an age of expansionism. Then, in 1896, William McKinley refined the coalition of business and successful farmers that kept Republicans in power for 28 of the next 36 years. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal forged a Democratic Party coalition that also ruled for 28 of 36 years.
Thus, according to Walter Dean Burnham, an authority on American elections, realignments come in 36-year cycles.
Two other elections also shook up voting patterns. One was the contest of 1980, when Ronald Reagan united southern evangelicals and northern working-class Democrats in the Republican fold. Then in 2008 younger voters, suburbanites and members of minority groups made Barack Obama the first African-American president. But these gains proved less decisive and durable.
The same can be expected of 2016.
“The current evidence doesn’t suggest this was a realigning election when voters who are Democrats decide to be Republicans or who are Republicans decide to be Democrats,” says David Carpenter, professor of American government at Harvard University.
Big shifts of voters from one party to the other didn’t occur last month. Both Republicans and Democrats voted 10 to one for their nominee. The difference between Hillary Clinton’s 2.1-percent popular-vote advantage and Obama’s 3.9-percent margin four years earlier was a slightly higher Republican turnout and a little bit of Democratic drop-off. Trump won in the electoral college by doing better in strategically important swing states.
The difference between realigning elections and all the others is striking. Jackson, McKinley and Roosevelt all won decisively in both the popular vote and the electoral college and changed the face of American politics for a generation. Reagan and Obama also had big victories but their coalitions didn’t last.
Today, it isn’t even clear what Trumpism is. He ran as an anti-Wall Street populist, singling out Goldman Sachs for criticism, then tapped present and former Goldman executives for top roles. A centerpiece of his angry campaign was a promise to shake up Washington by “draining the swamp” of special interests. Now former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a sometime adviser, says that was just a campaign gambit. Trump’s former campaign chief, Corey Lewandowski, has moved to form a consulting company to help corporations deal with Trump’s government.
It’s unclear whether Trump can remake the Republican Party in his image, whatever that turns out to be. Will it become the party of protectionism, opposition to immigration and white nationalism? That won’t sit well with mainstream Republicans.
And will some of the lower- and middle-class whites who rely on federal healthcare and retirement assistance warm to the anti-government fervor of House Speaker Paul Ryan or the right-wing Freedom Caucus?
What Trump did successfully was to capitalize on the resentment many voters feel toward the urban and academic elites who they believe look down on them. To many of them, Clinton personified that attitude. Anecdotal evidence suggests that support for Trump and registration in his strongholds increased in September after she consigned half his supporters to a “basket of deplorables.”
The challenge of turning this into a permanent majority is daunting. “This will be a very difficult coalition to keep together,” Professor Carpenter said.
If by 2052 Republicans with a Trump imprimatur have dominated presidential elections, 2016 will deserve to be called a realigning election. The odds of that occurring aren’t much better than Vladimir Putin becoming a Jeffersonian Democrat.