Two important books of cultural history are worth a renewed reading as explorations of the late-20th- and early-21st-century roots of Trumpism. Together, they show how Trumpism was a symptom, rather than the creator, of grievance politics and our rigid polarization. He hardly invented the racism he employed, but he had honed it well in his plutocratic and hyper-entitled world.
In “The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good,” the theologian-historian Martin E. Marty posited that the motto “E pluribus unum” had collapsed into “almost shattering controversy.”
By the end of the 20th century, Professor Marty argued, Americans had engaged in myriad culture wars that rendered stories of any shared past all but impossible. He saw the country divided into “totalists” and “tribalists.” Totalists were people who felt left behind, cast aside by elites, and who craved a story of “wholeness” about the American nation. These folks felt assaulted by mass media and wanted nothing to do with complexity and conflicting identities.
The tribalists, who might assert race, gender, ethnicity or religion, demanded their story as the source of group cohesion against claims of any unifying whole. Professor Marty saw Americans retreating into “separatenesses” by choice, and he worried, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that “the chief source of man’s inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to the other man.”
In “Age of Fracture,” the historian Daniel T. Rodgers brilliantly studied the big ideas and debates in political culture over the past three decades of the 20th century down to the attacks on Sept. 11. Mr. Rodgers found a culture in which the very notion of “human nature” had changed from the post-World War II moment of stress on “context, social circumstance, institutions, and history” to a ’90s emphasis on “choice, agency, performance, and desire.”
Baby boomers, on the left and right, now ran the country, but they inherited a politics shaped by Reaganism, which thrilled to “city on a hill” mythology, but sought votes by stoking resentments and hatreds born of vast changes wrought by the 1960s. Ronald Reagan largely avoided explicitness, but his legion of followers believed civil rights, feminism and various liberation movements had gone too far. The sense of society as “imagined collectivities” shrank, Mr. Rodgers said. Americans were splintering into increasingly divided enclaves of thought. “The last quarter of the century,” he wrote, “was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.” The country may have unified in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, but soon broke into political camps already formed and growing in tenacity.
Mr. Trump’s presidency is the result of a long history of the Republican Party’s descent into moral bankruptcy, but also of a culture of social media-driven alienation involving all of us. The presidency of Barack Obama was startling progress, but the bitter reaction to him on the right came from well-cultivated precincts of media, think tanks, racial nationalism and corporate organizing.