The catastrophic blow suffered by the Democratic Party on Tuesday shattered the illusion that the United States, with all its shortcomings and difficulties, was nevertheless marching slowly over the years toward gender equality, cultural tolerance, and racial openness.
The apex of this illusion of progress was of course the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008. Analysts then heralded the beginning of a post-racial era and the Democratic Party celebrated its coalition of women, young people and minorities that was meant to assure it a steady majority in presidential elections.
For the American left and its allies around the world, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was to emerge from a dream into a brutal reality in which the old America – Christian, male and white – had come back to life, as strong and as confident in itself as ever.
Although it’s impossible to overestimate the significance of Trump’s election and the aftershocks that will result, one must remember that this is far from the first challenge posed to the decades-long campaign to turn America into a more just country.
All along, the great achievements of the 1960s, such as the social safety net, the elimination of racial segregation, the new feminism and the struggles on behalf of migrants, Native Americans, and LGBT people confronted serious obstacles both at the polls and beyond.
Although the most extreme politicians who fought against the Sixties reforms, Alabama Governor George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, didn’t succeed in getting anywhere near the White House, others did the work for them.
In 1966, shortly after the climactic moments of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King tried to bring the struggle from southern towns into the northern cities and to dismantle the informal system of housing segregation that existed there. In Chicago he encountered forces of hatred and opposition that he said he had never experienced even during the most difficult moments in Alabama.
The year 1968 was perceived as a year no less gloomy than 2016, with the assassinations of both King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, the brother of the late president and the great hope of the liberal camp, and with the bloody riots all over America that cast doubt on the notion that blacks and whites could ever live together.
It was a time when long-term processes seemed hopelessly stuck. School desegregation in the South did not really occur in the first decades after it was ordered by the courts, and although the violent white protests stopped, the passive but effective resistance of millions of whites yielded results similar to those achieved by the Jim Crow laws in their time.
As a political party, the Democrats have faced far tougher and more experienced rivals than Donald Trump. Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968 after eight years of Democratic rule, entered the White House with a law-and-order agenda and a mandate to stop what was seen as a rampage of hippies and blacks throughout the land.
Ronald Reagan, who today is considered a consensus figure admired by Democratic icons like Obama, was perceived when elected in terms not far from those being used today about Trump – as a second-rate Hollywood actor, incompetent and lacking the substance needed to occupy the highest office in the world.
As president, Reagan turned out to be an effective executor of the Republican agenda and made great efforts to dismantle many of the achievements of the 1960s. He stopped affirmative action in hiring for blacks, dealt heavy blows to labor unions, and launched his famous war on drugs, which was actually a war against black men in poor and neglected urban ghettos. His landslide victory in 1984 with the help of a large number of Democrats who switched sides was interpreted as a convergence of all of America under the wings of the Republican Party.
In 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected despite a tremendous effort by the Democrats and his entanglement in the war in Iraq, his adviser Karl Rove said that Bush would oversee the creation of a permanent Republican majority in American politics. In those days, this forecast was not inconceivable; no one at the time could have predicted the dizzying rise four years later of a barely known young black politician who would lead the Democrats back to power.
There’s no reason to elaborate on all the ways Trump differs from the Republican politicians who preceded him. The contempt and hatred he conveys toward anyone who isn’t a white male, the lack of basic human decency in his conduct and his subversion of American democratic principles make him a unique phenomenon.
But Trump is not the first person, nor will he be the last, to try to obstruct the effort to change America and demolish its inherent racial and gender hierarchies. It’s too early to assess how much damage he will do, but this movement will not be wiped out.
The writer teaches history and American studies at Tel Aviv University.
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