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Nevertheless, Trumpism persisted

Two new books argue that the former president’s darkest impulses aren’t a break from American traditions but a continuation of them.

A Trump supporter sported a "Make America Great Again" cap outside the US Capitol on the eve of Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration.ROBYN BECK

The most salient feature of Trumpism these days is not its shock value but its staying power.

It’s been nearly a decade since its namesake first declared for president.

And despite everything that’s followed — kids in cages, a bloody putsch, a raft of criminal indictments — he’s still with us.

It’s that longevity that explains the despair settling on so many of Donald Trump’s critics this campaign season.

How is it, they wonder, that a man who has broken so extravagantly with the country’s fundamental commitments to democracy and decency could remain at the center of national life?

The answer, two new books suggest, is that even as Trump has flouted America’s storied liberal tradition, he’s made powerful use of its less recognized alter ego: an illiberalism that has always shadowed the country’s highest ideals.


A dark tradition that has never gotten its due.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Steven Hahn’s “Illiberal America: A History” is a broad survey of that tradition — and a bracing argument for its significance.

The country’s authoritarian impulses, the book insists, are to be found “not at the margins of evolving American society, not as dark threads that occasionally surface, not as paranoic and backward-looking responses to disruptive change, but as central fields of political and cultural force.”

Steven Hahn argues in his new book that Donald Trump's appeal isn't something new in American politics, but a return to a long tradition of illiberalism. W.W. Norton

Hahn starts at the country’s mythic roots, suggesting that John Winthrop, the Puritan father of the nation, was no paragon of liberty.

He sailed to Salem on the Arabella with eight servants in tow. He put enslaved Natives and Africans to work on his farm on the Mystic River. And he opened his famous “city upon a hill” speech — that urtext of American exceptionalism — with an encomium to Old World order. Almighty God, Winthrop reminded his followers, had decreed that “some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie, some mean and in submission.”


This was the ethos of the Plymouth, Salem, and Massachusetts Bay “plantations” that are often remembered as the seedbeds of American democracy — communities bound not by rights and representation, Hahn writes, but by faith, deference, exclusion, and coercion.

Traditional, hierarchical communities show up in “Illiberal America” again and again — homogenous, suspicious of outsiders, and willing to resort to illiberal means to defend themselves against enemies real and perceived.

That could mean slaughtering Native Americans on the frontier or lashing out at Catholic immigrants trickling into the city.

On Pope’s Day, a riotous festival of anti-Catholicism, gangs from colonial Boston’s North and South Ends brawled over the privilege of burning the pope in effigy. A Protestant mob torched a convent in nearby Charlestown in 1834. And in the decades that followed, the nativist “Know Nothing” movement grew its following with warnings of Catholic allegiance to “demon rum” and corrupt politicians.

Hahn’s achievement is connecting this sort of dimly remembered revanchism to more infamous episodes — Jim Crow, McCarthyism, South Boston’s violent revolt against school integration — and revealing a larger and more influential illiberalism than our popular history has allowed.

It’s so powerful it can sweep up even the most enlightened reformers; Hahn devotes considerable attention to the Progressives’ early 20th century embrace of eugenics.

And it’s so attractive it can draw broad swaths of the bourgeois public. When Robert Welch, founder of the far-right John Birch Society, went on speaking tours in the 1960s, he drew “large audiences, most of them middle-aged and from the upper middle class,” two observers wrote at the time. “They are not unemployed malcontents or crackpots; they are patient and enthusiastic men and women, willing to wait on a line, four abreast, for an hour, to buy tickets to hear him.”


When Robert Welch, founder of the far-right John Birch Society, went on speaking tours in the 1960s, he drew “large audiences, most of them middle-aged and from the upper middle class,” two observers wrote at the time. “They are not unemployed malcontents or crackpots; they are patient and enthusiastic men and women, willing to wait on a line, four abreast, for an hour, to buy tickets to hear him.”

In this context, Trump’s big crowds — and bigger vote totals — feel less like the stunning break from America’s liberal tradition that many of his critics have conjured and more like a continuation of its underestimated illiberal tradition.

But Hahn’s account, if often persuasive, can falter.

At times, it feels like he’s straining to find illiberal narratives in periods of liberal ascendancy — especially as his narrative draws closer to the present.

Yes, Bill Clinton accelerated mass incarceration. But free-market evangelism — so central to America’s classic liberal tradition — was the hallmark of his administration. NAFTA, deregulation, a high-tech ascendancy: Liberalism won the 1990s. And by a considerable margin.

Indeed, one is struck, reading Hahn’s book, by just how often liberalism has prevailed. Victory over the Confederacy. Women’s suffrage. Civil rights.


Part of the reason Trump’s rise was so jarring was that it marked a real break from generations of liberal dominance.

Before Trump’s election, the illiberal right had never come especially close to installing someone with authoritarian aspirations in the White House.

Though it had certainly dreamed of doing so.

In June of 2015, Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of National Interest, an international relations journal, received an op-ed submission from a young woman named Maria Butina.

A Russian exchange student at American University, she had a splashy affinity for guns and a secret mission from the Motherland; she’d later plead guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent.

For now, though, she was a writer with a curious argument — that the Republican Party, which had long viewed Moscow with hostility, should form an alliance with the Kremlin.

In his new book, Jacob Heilbrunn traces the arc of the American right's infatuation with dictators.Liveright

“I was bemused,” Heilbrunn writes in his new book, “America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators,” “emailing her that I looked forward to publishing the ‘audacious’ essay. It seemed far-fetched, to say the least. That conservative Republicans would cozy up to Putin? No way.”

The Trump campaign, though, soon upended expectations.

The candidate was a vocal admirer of Putin’s tough-guy act. And a substantial segment of the broader right came to embrace the Russian president and figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as avatars of Christian nationalism.

But what seemed like an unthinkable break from conservative orthodoxy, Heilbrunn writes, was really nothing of the sort.


The right had been besotted with foreign dictators for generations — seeing, in the distant objects of their affection, the strongmen they could never have at home.

The book starts a century ago with Kaiser Wilhelm II, the contemptible leader of imperial Germany.

Bullheaded and vain, he ran roughshod over German democracy, proclaiming at the height of his power that “there is only one person who is master in this empire, and I am not going to tolerate any other.”

Wilhelm led a genocidal campaign against the Herero people of Namibia.

And when he was forced to abdicate after his defeat in World War I, he took no responsibility for the German humiliation — foisting the blame on the Jews and suggesting they be gassed to death for the offense.

But none of this dissuaded “Kaiser Bill’s” right-wing supporters in America.

Among the most prominent was the journalist H.L. Mencken. Enormously ambitious and bitingly funny, he had an influence that’s hard to overstate. The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared that he’d “done more for national letters than any man alive.”

Mencken’s German heritage helped explain his sympathy for the kaiser. But he also saw in the Prussian leader the embodiment of the conservative dream of a restored aristocracy.

Leaning into his self-described “bias against the rabble,” Mencken penned a piece for The Atlantic Monthly at the outset of the war praising Wilhelm for creating “a true democracy in the Greek sense” — that is to say, an empire “governed by an oligarchy of its best men.”

After the war, fear of an encroaching Russian Bolshevism took hold in America. That coincided with a growing backlash to immigration from Eastern and Central Europe. And prominent figures on the right fused these anxieties together — charging Jewish emigres with carrying a dangerous foreign radicalism to American shores.

The industrialist Henry Ford published the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his Dearborn Independent newspaper and spouted conspiracies about a Jewish plot to overthrow the government.

The poet Ezra Pound moved to Fascist Italy, where he railed against the “Jewspapers” in a series of antisemitic and anti-American radio broadcasts that eventually got him indicted for treason.

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst, known as “Hitler’s Man in America,” commissioned pieces from the Führer and Benito Mussolini for his publications.

And after World War II, as the depravities of the Fascists came into full view, elements of the American right turned to revisionism — a central preoccupation of its decades-long love affair with totalitarians. There were claims that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack before it happened and critiques of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

“Were the German gas chambers really a greater crime against humanity,” the right-wing intellectual Freda Utley asked, “than our attacks on such nonmilitary objectives as Dresden?”

The Cold War that followed presented the country with a moral quandary: Was it permissible to support a strongman with a questionable human rights record in the name of pushing back on Soviet authoritarianism?

The right, though, did not seem especially conflicted.

William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine published fawning portraits of anti-Communist dictators like Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

In his “Letter From Spain” in 1957, Buckley called Francisco Franco “an authentic national hero” who alone had the strength to “wrest Spain from the hands of the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists, and nihilists that were imposing upon her, in the thirties, a regime so grotesque as to do violence to the Spanish soul, to deny, even, Spain’s historical identity.” Never mind Franco’s own soul-killing deployment of rape, torture, and mass execution.

This sort of bankrupt realpolitik got some purchase in Ronald Reagan’s administration.

His United Nations ambassador, a steely academic by the name of Jeane Kirkpatrick, was an enthusiastic defender of any authoritarian regime that aligned itself with the United States. After El Salvadoran soldiers raped and murdered four American nuns in December 1980, she averred that “the nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. . . . The answer is unequivocal. No, I don’t think the government was responsible.”

Still, Kirkpatrick didn’t have free rein. Figures like Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who loathed her, were powerful counterweights. And Reagan himself, however underhanded his dealings in Latin America and other parts of the world, remained a sunny spokesman for political liberty and free markets.

Trump’s openly autocratic ambition represented something new: A century of illiberal fantasies about an American strongman finally coming to life.

Trump’s incompetence prevented those fantasies from reaching their fullest expression in his first term. But we may know soon enough if they can be realized in a second.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him @dscharfGlobe.