Skip to main content
Long Waves of American Politics

Trump Rode the Last One

Finally, Trump has officially authorized the transition to a Biden Administration to begin. Even though he has not actually conceded, and probably won’t, his four-year ride will soon be over.

It is tempting to focus on his many failings, his disregard of the damage he was doing to our political order with his quixotic effort to overturn the result. But his policies embodied the free-market conservatism that Republicans have stood for since Reagan. And his racist politics channeled Republican electoral strategy since Nixon.

Trump's policies embodied the free-market conservatism that Republicans have stood for since Reagan. And his racist politics channeled Republican electoral strategy since Nixon.

Think of American politics in terms of decades-long waves. Before the Civil War, the country was dominated by the conservative Southerners who held slaves; they seceded from the Union when it became evident that their dominance was at an end. The Union victory in the Civil War led to a push for justice for the freed slaves, the time we call Reconstruction, which lasted only to 1877. From about 1880 to the Great Depression was a long conservative hegemony of Big Business, notwithstanding substantial challenges from the Populists in the 1890s and the Progressives after 1900. This conservative regime strengthened itself by tolerating disfranchisement and segregation in the South.

The Great Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated a long progressive era that lasted through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (1963-69). This was a time when government assumed responsibility for managing the economy and for what came to be called a “social safety net” that included Social Security (adopted in the 1930s) and Medicare (adopted in the 1960s). Johnson’s Great Society also saw the enactment of major civil rights and voting rights laws the sought to finally bring African Americans to full legal equality with Whites, after enduring centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Johnson famously said, as he signed the Voting Rights Act, that he had doomed the Democratic Party in the South for a generation. He was too optimistic. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for president in 1964, and Richard Nixon’s presidency (1969-74), the Republicans pivoted from the pro-civil rights “Party of Lincoln” to the party of Southern Whites who had been abandoned bye Johnson’s Democratic Party. 

Nixon inaugurated a long conservative wave that lasted to the present time, right through the Democratic presidencies of Jimmy Carter (1977-81), Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Barack Obama (2009-2017). During this half-century, conservatives have consistently controlled the Supreme Court, have had at least one chamber of Congress most of the time, and controlled the presidency from 1981-1993, 2001-2009, and 2017-2020. The three Democratic presidents of the era were all fundamentally centrists, and were in any case fenced in by the Republicans in Congress and the Courts. The Republican presidents (Reagan, GHW Bush, GW Bush, and Trump) also had to tack and bargain, but they were better able to set a conservative agenda than the Democrats could set a liberal one.

There were two basic thrusts to the Republican agenda. The first was to roll back the extensive government role in managing the economy and providing a social safety net. The goal, supported by Big Business, was to get back to an unregulated free market economy in which the disadvantaged would have more incentive to work because of a shredded safety net, and the rich would get even richer.

The second thrust was to undermine the civil and voting rights gains of the 1960s, so that White hegemony could be restored in the South and elsewhere. Thus could the GOP supplant the old Southern Democrat “Solid South” of the Jim Crow era. The South became the new popular base for a Republican Party that stood on the side of White hegemony.

Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this half-century reaction. He consistently pushed for deregulation and lower taxes on the rich and corporations, half of the Republican bargain. His tweets, public rallies and other symbolic acts displayed his sympathy for White Nationalism, the other half of the bargain. By packing the judiciary with his nominees, he guarantees that the courts will remain conservative for the foreseeable future.

impeachment unavoidable

Biden’s presidential victory at least promises to put an end to Trump’s manifold abuses. If both Democrats win their runoffs in Georgia, that would give Biden control of the Senate, a much stronger hand. But the conservatives have set the rules of the game.

John Peeler