In May 1972, several people broke into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters in Washington DC. The DNC housed its head office in the now infamous Watergate complex. During the break-in, the prowlers planted “bugs” and photographed documents. But, the wiretaps proved faulty. So, a month later, the burglars broke into the complex a second time. And, this time a security guard caught them in the act. The guard called the police and the burglars were arrested. Initially, the entire event seemed strange. Why, on earth, were these seemingly random burglars trying to monitor the DNC’s headquarters?
How did we get here? I can barely even type the words that will encapsulate our collective future: President Donald Trump. Even now, I have a visceral reaction to typing out those words. But, that is enough about my emotions. This piece is not about my personal distress over the election of Donald Trump. I know a number of good people who voted for Trump. I do not want to alienate them; I do not want to argue with them. Rather, I want to understand their position. Moreover, as a historian, I want to unpack how we got to this place so that we can learn from the historical factors at play.
Donald Trump spent half as much money and had far less official infrastructure for voter turnout than Hillary Clinton, but he still won the election. Trump won fifty-one percent of voters without a high school diploma. He gained the rural vote by sixty-two percent and the suburban vote by fifty percent. Fifty-three percent of men backed Trump and fifty-eight percent of white voters went for Trump. One of the few people to predict a Trump win was historian Allan Lichtman. Lichtman, who was also my PhD advisor, explains Trump’s victory as being a result of the larger forces that shape American politics. According to Lichtman, presidential elections are primarily a referendum on the performance of the party in power. Despite President Obama’s strong approval ratings, the American people wanted a change from the Democratic Party’s leadership.
This past August marked exactly 70 years since American bombers dropped an uranium gun-type bomb (nicknamed Little Boy) on Hiroshima; this was an event that witnessed the obliteration of a large city in the blink of an eye. Hiroshima did have a military presence, since it contained a naval base and the home of the Second General Army Headquarters. Nonetheless, American strategic planners aimed the bomb not at the army base, but at the very center of the civilian part of the city in order to maximize the bomb’s devastation. On August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital with a yield equivalent to 12,500 TNT. The temperature at ground zero reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, which immediately created a fireball within half a mile. The absolute devastation roasted many people alive; thousands of charred bundles were strew in the streets, sidewalks, and bridges. The instant destructive power of the bomb also vaporized many others. The bomb, for instance, left only the shadow of one man imprinted onto the granite steps of a bank; he had been waiting for the bank to open before the bomb hit. The blasts that followed the original explosion obliterated thousands of houses. Of 76,000 buildings in the industrial city, 70,000 were destroyed. Altogether, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima killed around 90,000 to 100,000 persons instantly; by the end of 1945, the number of those lost had risen to 145,000 (only about 20,000 of them soldiers).
In response to Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black Americans attending bible study during the night of June 17, 2015, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina commented, “I just think he was one of these whacked-out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.” In a similar vein, South Carolina Governor Niki Haley asserted that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” These comments mistakenly suggest that Roof’s motivations are somehow inscrutable and unknowable. Yet, in several different instances, Roof explicitly expressed his reasons for committing such a heinous act of violence. During the actual massacre, for example, Roof exclaimed to his victims: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” As well, in the months leading up to the massacre, Roof posted on several social media outlets pictures of himself proudly displaying the Confederate battle flag in addition to a manifesto that outlined his desire to start a race war in the hopes of reclaiming what he believed to be the rightful domination of white Americans over black Americans.
Rioting is a central part of America’s political tradition. As historian Heather Cox Richardson describes it, “If there is one constant in American history it is rioting.” A prime example of such rioting is the Boston Tea Party of 1773. During this famous incident disgruntled American colonists, disguised as Native Americans, boarded three ships and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea overboard. Today, the valuable cargoes of tea would have been worth about $1.7 million; yet, Americans have often looked back upon this episode of vandalism with a sense of pride.