When Rep. Richard Hanna became the first sitting Republican congressman to endorse Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump, he observed that his party had “largely alienated women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, young voters and many others in general.” While this comment wasn’t the focus of his editorial, it spoke to a larger truth about the significance of this presidential election.
Every quarter-century or so, there is a single milestone presidential election that defines our national political scene for the next generation. This year’s contest will be that landmark election for our generation. Which is to say, there’s more at stake than four or eight years of President Donald Trump. The outcome in November will likely usher in a new political era that could last for decades — just as the major milestone elections of our recent past have done.
The first milestone election of the modern era was in 1932, when the onset of the Great Depression doomed Republican President Herbert Hoover to defeat. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, shrewdly spent his administration passing economic and social reforms that earned the allegiance of blue-collar workers, low-income Americans, and ethnic minorities, even while retaining the Democrats’ traditional support in the South. This so-called New Deal coalition kept the Democrats in control of the White House for 28 of the next 36 years, right until the party’s support for civil rights and other left-wing social programs in the 1960s alienated the South as well as conservative white voters from all economic backgrounds.
Although some scholars trace the dawn of our current era with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I personally believe that it began with the election of 1968. That was the year when Republican Richard Nixon capitalized on Southern and conservative white disenchantment with liberalism to not only defeat Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but forge a durable right-wing coalition that allowed Republicans to dominate presidential politics for 20 of the following 24 years. By the 1992 election, however, the ugliness of the party’s bigotry against African Americans, Latinos, women, and other marginalized groups began to take its toll. Although Democrat Bill Clinton’s defeat of Republican President George H. W. Bush was largely fueled by the floundering economy, the GOP had started to self-destruct by allowing its fringe elements to increasingly control its internal politics. Democrats recognized this, drew attention to it, and used it to help win four of the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012 - five if you count the 2000 election, in which they won the popular vote but lost due to chicanery in Florida. As the nation grew alienated from the Republicans’ reactionary reputation, and as the angry white men who had formed their core support since the Nixon era began to shrink compared to women and non-whites, a “Blue Wall” began to emerge.
If you haven’t heard the term “Blue Wall,” it refers to the 242 electoral votes that Democrats have been able to reliably win in every election since 1992… and it brings us to the stakes in the 2016 election. Because Trump polls very poorly among women, Hispanics, and basically any other group that isn’t already conservative, white, and male, his only chance of winning this year is to pick up the two largest states outside of the Blue Wall (Florida and Ohio) as well as Pennsylvania, a state that hasn’t voted Republican since 1988 (before the last milestone election). In addition to this, he must keep all of the states that Mitt Romney won for the Republicans in 2012, including ones that are very close, like North Carolina. This will not be easy given Trump’s polarizing reputation; even though both he and Clinton have high unfavorability ratings, Clinton has the luxury of being able to fall back on an electoral model that has worked well for her party’s nominees over the past quarter-century. Trump, on the other hand, has to break those precedents.
What if he does, though? Because he has staked his presidential campaign on bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims - and was nominated over the fierce opposition of the establishment in his own party - Trump’s ability to be elected despite the Blue Wall, or by breaking it, will almost certainly result in a transformation of the American zeitgeist. Instead of overt prejudice being viewed as politically toxic, it will instead be perceived as a potent way to shake things up and achieve victories. Rather than future Republican candidates looking at Trump as a latter-day William Jennings Bryan - i.e., as someone whose model needs to be avoided at all costs (he was the loser in the landmark presidential election of 1896) - it will be perceived as one to be emulated, redefining our political culture for years to come.
There are already early signs of this in Republican moderates like Chris Christie casting their lot with Trump, no doubt because they see his path as the way of the future. If Trump becomes president, however, he will be empowered by the existing Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and can mold the judiciary with at least one new Supreme Court pick (he’ll quite likely have more, as three of the sitting judges are over 75). This will give him an unprecedented amount of power over American policy, and will further compel the GOP to tow his line. The Tea Party revolution, instead of merely being able to throw sand into the gears of government, will have complete mastery over all three branches of the federal state.
By contrast Trump’s defeat will, at the very least, reinforce the notion that appeals to bigotry don’t play anymore on the presidential level. This was a conclusion that Republican leaders had already reached after the 2012 election, when the party’s postmortem analysis concluded that they needed to stop dismissing the concerns of women, the LGBT community, and minorities. Because many in the party’s base are unwilling to abandon their prejudices, they flouted the GOP leaders’ wishes and nominated a man who goes against the grain of that logic. They can only do this so many times, though, before it becomes clear that it will merely continue the electoral drought that they have suffered, largely, since 1992. If they want to win, they’ll need to find a candidate who espouses conservative ideals without tying them into racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and various other forms of hatred. It will behoove them to think more like Rep. Hanna and less like The Donald.
When you hear people talk about how the 2016 election is one of the most important in our history, this is why. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about Trump’s intellect and authoritarian tendencies - and both do raise significant fears about what would happen if the man actually becomes the leader of the world’s greatest superpower - but in terms of American political history, the real threat is that he will reshape American politics in his image. If he manages to defy a generation of precedent and defeat Hillary Clinton, he will usher in an age of Trump that will last long after his tenure in the White House has expired. America’s electoral map will have been redrawn by Trumpism, and it is his nation that we will inhabit for the generation to follow. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make it clear that America is still a nation that takes pride in its diversity … and that those who run against it will always lose.
Matthew Rozsa is a PhD student in history at Lehigh University. He has been a nationally published political columnist since 2012, with work appearing in Mic, Salon, The Daily Dot, The Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC, among other outlets.