This is part 4 of a series that retroactively seeks to understand how we got to January 6th, 2021. Part 4 is being run out of sequence.
On 9 Thermidor, year II (July 27th, 1794), the French Parliament overthrew the Robespierre revolutionary government and its “Reign of Terror” and, instead, instituted its own (brief) reign of terror before settling back into what passed for more “normal” times. Since then, the term “Thermidorian reaction” has come to mean “a moderate counterrevolutionary stage following an extremist stage of a revolution and usually characterized often through the medium of a dictatorship by an emphasis on the restoration of order, a relaxation of tensions, and some return to patterns of life held to be normal.”
Sometimes when one is in the midst of turmoil, it can be hard to see things for what they are. So, too, with the election of Donald Trump and his presidency. But try imagining standing far away from recent history and looking back on today. Or, perhaps, hovering 100 miles above America and looking down. Maybe what one would see is a classic Thermidorian reaction. That is, a perceived extreme event followed by an opposite extreme event before settling back into something more normal. Or to be more precise, if (as I suggested in part 3 of this series) the election of Barack Obama was a radical departure from a perceived norm, then perhaps the election of Donald Trump is not so surprising.
To be sure, there is much that paved the way aside from Obama himself. For many years we have been talking about the demographic changes occurring in America, the so-called browning of America. After Bush 43, the Republican Party talked about trying to expand its outreach to Black and Brown communities because the demographic changes coming to America were undeniable and inevitable. Whites were going to be a minority in the not-too-distant future. Gay people were out in the open and increasingly accepted in most places in the country, although the legalization of gay marriage shocked some. Women increasingly insisted on having a place in both their personal and working lives on a par with men. And women loudly insisted that sexual harassment of any kind by anyone at any age was unacceptable and, perhaps, should be criminalized. They insisted that, the problem wasn’t that women didn’t keep their legs closed (as one Republican senatorial candidate insisted) but that men needed to keep their pants zipped. America was riddled with drugs from the biggest cities to the smallest towns. Unacceptable behavior became increasingly criminalized in federal and state legislatures by both Republicans and Democrats. Regulations kept piling on top of one another. One could be forgiven if one didn’t know all the countries in which our military was actively involved, much less who or why we were fighting. And, of course, there was the digital revolution that was invading every area of life. People were now interacting through social media and text rather than conversation. Jobs, from the executive offices of the largest corporations to workers on the factory floor were being changed by the digital revolution. The internet was ubiquitous even if the urban poor and rural citizens had little access to it. To many, the world seemed to be changing faster than they could keep up with it.
While some people said we haven’t gone far enough, others were saying, “STOP. We’ve gone too far. We need to get back to something simpler.”
Many of those who considered themselves religious (as opposed to, say, social church goers or “cafeteria Catholics”), felt their religion was under siege. There was the much ballyhooed “War on Christmas.” The truth is that there was no such war. What there was, though, was a perceived falling off of the faithful, the increasing secularization of their congregants. The most conservative pastors wanted the government to intervene on religion’s behalf. They wanted the government to promote the interests of religion over other interests. School prayer. Statues of the Ten Commandments on government property. Funding of sectarian schools. Prohibition of abortion. Even more, the most conservative pastors advocated the false notion that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the Constitution was a God inspired document, and that man-made laws should be subservient to the Bible.
But above all was Barack Obama, the Black president. There was nothing particularly radical in his policy proposals. It was he, himself, who was the radical in his very being. Trump was the anti-Obama. He was White. Obama was Black. Obama was measured. He was angry. Obama was reasoned. He was anything but. In retrospect, Donald Trump conducted a campaign based on race from the very outset. His claim that Obama wasn’t really an American, repeated over and over again by him, broadcast over and over again on CNN (not to mention Fox and Rush Limbaugh), struck a chord with many Americans. Trump and fellow so-called “birthers” claimed that Obama couldn’t have gotten into Harvard, much less been editor of the Law Review without affirmative action. Where was his birth certificate? Where were his college grades? Though Obama finally produced a birth certificate, it really didn’t matter; maybe it wasn’t real. The damage was done among people who wanted to believe in Trump, wanted not to believe Obama. Trump said he sent investigators to Hawaii to find the truth and that was the last we ever heard of it. For the years of his presidency, Trump tried to erase Obama from the history books. Talk about cancel culture! In the mind of many Trump followers Obama still isn’t an American.
When Trump inveighed against “political correctness”, he gave permission to people to publicly express their prejudices, just as he expressed his own. His anger at opponents, real or imagined, was mirrored by his followers on social media. Facebook and Twitter were filled with angry statements, arguments, rejoinders, deliberate distortions, and often lies by both him and his followers.
Trump’s grievances against Hispanics (Americans or not), Muslims, and Blacks filled the airwaves. Cities were hotbeds of Black carnage. The description may have seemed unreal to city dwellers but it played well in the rest of America and that’s all that mattered. Hordes of brown murderers and rapists were caravanning to the border to invade America. Muslim extremists were secretly infiltrating the country. Best keep them all out. Keep everyone out. Expel everyone who isn’t a citizen. The Chinese cheat. The Iranians lie. And isn’t Vladimir Putin great? Oh, by the way, reduce taxes for corporations, himself, and his fellow billionaires.
Nixon’s list of enemies was a secret. Trump loudly trumpeted them. The FBI, Democrats, Republicans who doubted him, military officers who understood things differently, intelligence officials who gasped when they heard his plans, Nancy Pelosi, anyone who voiced an objection to him or to his policy impulses, all were against him. He was beset by enemies on all sides. Woe is me. Fight.
As for those Christian nationalists, they decided to hitch their wagon to the most amoral man to ever run for president. Self-proclaimed prophets said, in effect, God has sent us a sinner to do His work. Trump is the Chosen One. There are still some who proclaim it. Trump himself, in a moment of candor, pride, satire, or with a wink and a nod, said on the White House driveway, that he was the Chosen One. Maybe he believed it. Maybe not. It never was (and still isn’t) possible to know when Trump is telling the truth about anything because he so rarely does.
Whatever the problems with this country were, at home or abroad, he assured his supporters that he was the solution. Only he could fix it. Millions of people believed him. Millions still do.
Make America Great Again, he bellowed. America First.
If you’ve been reading this series, it will not surprise you if it sounds eerily familiar. Though it comes straight out of Hitler’s playbook, it is a formula followed by would-be dictators for 100 years and more. Let me be clear: I am not saying that Trump is Hitler. I am saying, though, that he knew enough about Hitler to
understand how Hitler came to power. And if he didn’t, Steve Bannon certainly did, as did Putin, who followed a similar route to power. Grievances of workers combined with fear and racism, alignment with religion and the wealthy. It was a winning combination for Hitler. It was a winning combination for Trump.
To be continued
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.