The sort of foreboding that pervaded Washington on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration is not unprecedented, but it hasn't been felt so strongly in a long time.
Indignation about the usurping of democracy erupted when President George Bush was inaugurated in 2001. But the protest at the swearing-in of a lightweight dynast appointed by Supreme Court decision was not fearful. At the time, Bush was seen as a pretender, not the incompetent menace he proved to be. His inauguration was not boycotted like Trump’s has been.
Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969 when the country was riven by rioting, assassination and a deeply unpopular war, but no one could doubt Nixon was the man most Americans wanted in the office. He was known as Tricky Dick, but he was more trusted than Trump.
In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated at a moment when the country’s economy had collapsed and the ruling class was in in disarray. But FDR was both popular and had the confidence of the economic elite of which he was a scion. Even his enemies extended FDR goodwill as he came to office. Trump gets little goodwill from his defeated rivals because he extends none.
Today's fears are not nearly so ominous as they were in March 1861. Faced with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, an anti-slavery Republican, the southern state prepared to secede. Lincoln felt obliged to say, “there will be no bloodshed unless it is forced upon the Government,” a caveat some doubted he would enforce.
Historically speaking, the fear and loathing that accompanies Trump’s ascendancy in 2017 most resembles the mood of Washington in 1829. Then as now, the capital’s political recoiled at the inauguration of a brash outsider contemptuous of the educated and financial elites. As the inauguration of Andrew Jackson approached, the political class in the nation’s capital — lawyers, lobbyists, clerks (now called bureaucrats) and newspapermen (the media) — feared and mistrusted the incoming president. Like Trump, Jackson was seen by many in Washington as an aberration and as incipient tyrant. Jackson, a war hero and slave owner, lauded common (white) men as the key to American greatness and excoriated the East Coast elite as their nemesis, thus coining two enduring themes of American politics that Trump tapped with demagogic skill.
Of course, the parallels are not exact. Jackson was genuinely popular, while Trump is genuinely unpopular. Jackson gained the presidency by winning the popular vote handily. Trump lost the popular vote and was only elected by the archaic mechanism of the Electoral College. The Jacksonian insurgency had a popular legitimacy; a democratic character, at least in the white male electorate, that Trump does not have in multiracial America.
So while Trump’s inauguration is not prelude to civil war, it likely portends an epic struggle over the nature of the American government. Like the Jacksonian insurgency, the Trump ascendancy is a threat to the country’s ruling elite. Like secessionist south, the Trump ascendancy is a threat to democratic and constitutional government.
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne calls it the "most ominous" inauguration in modern history, citing Trump’s hostility to democratic norms. Yahoo News’ Matt Bai sees the "end of the American century," citing Trump’s repudiation of the structures of American power since World War II such as NATO, the United Nations and the global regime of free trade.
But Trump’s capture of the White House was made possible by the very weakness of those norms (which didn’t quite extend to the Bernie Sanders campaign or voters disenfranchised by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act) and the evident failure of those power structures (which in recent decades have delivered growing inequality and unsuccessful wars, not economic security, to most Americans).
Behind the democratic deficit and economic dysfunction — and Trump’s triumph — is the exhaustion of American exceptionalism, that enduring civic creed that holds the United States is, or should aspire to be, a light unto the world, a "shining city on a hill.” In American politics, the term American exceptionalism (let’s call it AE) often has conservative connotations. But the notion that America is destined and entitled to extend its dominion over the world has deep roots in American history.
In 1942, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce coined the term the "American Century” in retailing the idea that only America deserved to be the world’s pre-eminent power. After World War II, liberal intellectuals played a leading role in building the national and international institutions that enforced American domination. Since the election of Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party has mostly deferred to this corporate order rather than reform or restructure it.
A conservative version of AE was popularized by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan never tired of invoking the “shining city on a hill” even as his administration funded CIA dirty wars in Central America and subverted Congress with the Iran-Contra scheme. A neoconservative version of AE helped propel President George W. Bush into Iraq, believing that U.S. military force would remove Saddam Hussein and the grateful Iraqi people would adopt our politics and emulate our institutions. The neoconservative version of AE proved to be the gift wrapping on a package of folly, war crimes and defeat.
Barack Obama was denounced by John Bolton and other right-wing critics for not believing in AE. Obama’s heresy was to note that other peoples and countries think of themselves as exceptional — and so they do. But Obama avowed he believed in AE "with every fiber of my being." He just had a different version of AE.
While Reagan and Bush’s AE tended to be nationalist, militaristic and implicitly Christian, Obama offered a more internationalist, diplomatic and multicultural variation. It was America’s evolution as a multiracial democracy (culminating in his own rise to power) and liberal post-war leadership (ditto) that made the United States a light unto the world, he said.
Obama’s AE was relatively attractive, at least to the college-educated. His personal story offered hope that the country had transcended its racial heritage and in some ways it had. But while Obama orchestrated stabilized and regulated the U.S. and global economy, he relied on the national and international economic elites to lead the country out of the Great Recession. He did not attempt any restructuring of the institutions that embodied and powered America’s exceptionally ambitious role in the world since 1945. He advocated progressive tax and health care policies, but he left job creation to the corporations who had every incentive to outsource.
Obama was successful, especially in comparison to his successor. But his economics results were, at best, unevenly distributed. The free-trade deals that Obama touted offered little and delivered less for American workers without college degrees. Poverty didn’t begin to decline until his last year in office, and even that is disputed. To a lot of voters, Obama’s multicultural AE looked like the gift-wrapping on economic abandonment.
Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” may sound like an AE slogan, but it isn’t. Trump does not want to be America to be an example to the world any more than he aspires to be an example to your teenage son. He doesn’t trust the globalized economic regime because it has abandoned the working-class white voters who admire him most. Trump doesn’t want America to be exceptional — as in unique, just and inspiring. He wants America to be great, as in powerful, pre-eminent and independent.
So the opposition gathering in Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration has a double challenge: to resist Trump’s government of generals and billionaires while offering a vision of American government that doesn’t rely on the idea that America and its institutions are exceptional. Not with Donald Trump in command.
It won’t be easy. Trump’s opponents are united in opposition to the man, but still divided on tactics. While the battle cry "Not My President" voices a visceral feeling, it is hardly inspiring to tens millions of Trump supporters who want a president who puts American workers first every day. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton campaigned on the certainty that Trump’s sexual misbehavior would discredit his anti-elitist message. She assumed cosmopolitican AE would trump provinical #MAGA. She was wrong and here we are, filled with foreboding.