It’s unquestionably true that what is happening now in our politics is surreal, dangerous, violent, disorienting, and terrifyingly conflictual. The feeling that 2016 has been a break from politics past cannot be denied. I certainly don’t deny it—in fact, when I began embarking on my own writing about the Trump phenomenon, I felt like I had to reconsider everything I thought I knew about conservatism and the Republican Party in order to responsibly handle the job. Please note that well, all of you writing me all those just like, just like, just like messages.One of the stranger elements of Election 2016 has to do with the collective historical amnesia of even the self-professed political history buffs. They seem to want to argue that the thoroughly unprecedented Trump has us on the edge of an "apocalypse" deliberately failing to acknowledge the latent threads and forces in American society that allow a Trump to happen. At the same time, they're just as quick to read Perlstein.. or at least tune in to a CNN nostalgia documentary... and proclaim, "Whoah this is just like 1968!" or whatever.
But what I want my readers to grasp most deeply is that all of American history is more surreal, more dangerous, more disorienting, and more terrifyingly conflictual than we typically want to believe. Focus on all the parts in my books where I dwell on the pundits, political leaders, and other gatekeepers of polite opinion and their willful insistence that America is fundamentally a society of consensus. Recall that they’re never more insistent on the point than when signs of chaos are all around them: Walter Lippmann was pronouncing his “united and at peace with itself” celebration not long after Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs ushered in the most violent phase yet of the civil rights revolution.
But where have these people been in the meantime? What cognitive dissonance allows comfortable liberals to have some basic knowledge of their turbulent history but also behave as though that history somehow stopped happening at some point? (Probably around the time they closed on their houses.. but that's another talk.)
Of course Donald Trump is his own unique iteration of the surreal and the dangerous in American politics. But American politics has always been surreal and dangerous, pretty fucked up, generally. A central theme of Perlstein's most recent book about the rise of Ronald Reagan is the veer away from an opportunity to honestly examine the fucked-uppedness and into an active denialism of it. Today we call this "American Exceptionalism" and it's extremely popular with Democrats now.