Donald Trump’s deadly strategy: His attack on government has led to riots before, and could again

tags: election 2016, Trump

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

When Donald Trump tells his supporters that if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination: “It’s a rigged system; it’s a corrupt system, it’s 100% crooked,” he is resurrecting a theme that created some of America’s darkest hours. Trump is trying to solidify his support by attacking the legitimacy of the political system. While Movement Conservatives since Newt Gingrich have attacked the legitimacy of Democrats in Washington, Trump is going further: delegitimizing the government itself. Americans have been in this place before. In the late nineteenth century, when the nation’s economic and political tensions looked much like today’s, unpopular politicians trying to overcome overwhelming odds did the same thing.

What they wanted was to be elected. But what they got was a wave of vigilante justice.

A century ago, attacks on the legitimacy of the nation’s political system grew from a set of conditions that sound familiar today. A volatile economy bred extremes of wealth and poverty. Industrialists built fabulous mansions on Fifth Avenue and in Newport while parents and their children worked punishing hours for pennies, worried always that the immigrants pouring in the country would take their jobs. What was the government’s role in this chaotic era? Should it protect those Americans suffering in the new economy or defend the businessmen whose industries were fueling unprecedented economic growth?

Americans struggled mightily over this question, but as early as 1871, a self-defined “middle class” began to draw some important ideological lines. Its spokesmen began to accuse the government of being in thrall to what it called “special interests.” They argued that African Americans, poor workers, and immigrants who wanted the government to level the economic playing field were “corrupting” the government. Those groups wanted laws that benefited them distinctly—such as, for example, an eight-hour workday– rather than benefiting everyone, and they voted only for politicians who would deliver such special legislation. Middle-class Americans began to argue that these interest groups were corrupting the government for, if government were operating properly, it would treat everyone equally. They insisted that government should work for the hardworking man who asked for no favors rather than privileging any special interest group.

The idea that the government had been hijacked by a special interest was an easy rallying cry for politicians who opposed the party in power. Their opponents’ government, they insisted, was corrupt; it was catering to a special interest group in a cynical bargain to get enough votes to override the true will of the people. Politicians from all parties used the argument at different times. It became the central argument of both major parties in the presidential election of 1876, a crisis in which each party claimed victory based on the other’s corruption, and which almost led to a second civil war. By 1880, people had lost their faith in the political system. ...

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