Is This an Epochal Election?

By Randall Margo, PhD
Global Commentator: Economy & Administration, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

Beyond expectations of pundits, pollsters and most political analysts, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. While the reasons for this outcome will likely be debated far into the future, it is meaningful to ask whether this vote ushered in a new epoch in American history, or a continuation of current trends. Few elections have changed the direction of our country; Jackson, Lincoln and the triumphs of both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt come to mind. Using their victories and the pivotal changes produced in their aftermath, we can speculate if this election result might result such an event.

The Jackson presidency ushered in both a political and geographical power shift. Politically, it formulated the beginning of the Democratic party and an accompanying populism that emphasized decentralization and states’ rights, thereby rejecting the dominant federalist philosophy at the time, as encapsulated in the establishment of the U.S. Central Bank. Geographically, it supplied the first president residing outside the 13 colonies, breaking the stronghold Virginia and Massachusetts had on furnishing previous presidents.

An argument can be made that Trump’s election somewhat changed the political landscape by winning the ‘rust belt’ states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. However, Republican Governors were already presiding in two of these states, and a Republican had held Pennsylvania’s Governorship as recently as 2014. In addition, while much has been made about white voters without college degrees swinging the election in Trump’s favor, yet, this has been a growing trend since Tea Party adherents emerged back in 2010. Moreover, it is hard to claim a monumental political shift when you lose the election by approximately 2 million votes. What can be argued is that Trump’s election stemmed the tide of Democratic presidential success that has relied heavily on a coalition of minorities, unmarried women, unions, and professional white collar workers. However, one could plausibly offer that Trump’s might have won a greater victory if he had been able to duplicate the vote totals of Governor-elect Sununu in New Hampshire, and the wide margin of popular support attained by Senators Portman of Ohio and Rubio of Florida.

President-elect Trump also has been characterized as a populist figure that seeks to rollback federal power, and in this regard has some similarities to President Jackson. Unlike Jackson, though, who had served in both houses of Congress and who had commanded armies in both the Indian Wars and the War of 1812, Trump has no background in either of these more traditional approaches to White House ascension. Instead, his election is more congruent with modern media’s ability to catapult well-known celebrities to political success, such as President Reagan, Governors’ Schwarzenegger and Ventura and Senator Franken. In essence, Trump’s background to becoming president is not something new, but a trend dating back to the 1960s.

Lincoln’s election resulted from unresolved issues festering since our nation’s founding. Before Lincoln ever took office, 7 states had already succeeded from the union. In a twist of history, Jackson had previously repulsed South Carolina’s attempt to succeed during his presidency over a tariff matter, contending that succession violated the constitution. After  2 efforts to negotiate an agreement failed, and a federal fort was attacked, Lincoln’s hand was forced, and therefore, whether he chose to fight or relent, either action would have created a monumental change. His election to the presidency was the catalyst for determining, when and how the issues of federalism, states’ rights and slavery would finally be resolved. By comparison, while President-elect Trump faces many serious foreign and domestic issues, none are currently of such magnitude as to threaten the nation’s ability to exist.

Theodore Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency was unanticipated and unappreciated by party leaders of his era, who had put him up for vice-president in order to limit his chances of becoming president. After the tragic assassination of President McKinley, Roosevelt created his own epoch by advancing historical progressive reforms, including the breakup of trusts, railroad regulation, pure food and drug laws, an ambitious conservation agenda, along with a much bolder foreign policy hallmarked by the construction of the Panama Canal. Consequently, his presidency offers similar parallels to President-elect Trump, but in an entirely different vein. Based on his campaign pronouncements, whereby he seeks to reduce America’s presence military abroad, pullback from global trade and climate change agreements, and cut regulations that he believes are impeding economic growth, his realization of these goals would not lead to a new epoch, but instead, revert to a philosophical approach more closely aligned to America between the end of World War I and the beginning of the New Deal.

This brings us to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Modern-day presidents are often judged against FDR’s record, not necessarily by political philosophy, but by the sheer volume of legislative and executive actions taken during the initial months and years of his presidency. While the nation’s condition was not as dire for FDR during his presidential campaign when compared to Lincoln, its economic circumstances were at a critical stage in American history, with unprecedented levels of unemployment, bank closings, and business and farmer bankruptcies. Consequently, the Congress gave FDR wide latitude in enacting legislative and executive reforms, some of which were later overturned by the Supreme Court. Unless something mp will not begin his presidency with the economic circumstances that befell FDR when he is sworn into office. However, he could match the level of legislative and executive measures FDR, pending of course the
cooperation of Congress and the Courts.

Therefore, it does not appear that an epochal election has occurred, if one were to compare it to former presidential elections that truly changed the course of American history. Trump’s election is probably most similar to Theodore Roosevelt’s inasmuch as he could have enough congressional latitude to transform American foreign policy on both the military and economic fronts from a position that has been in place since the end of World War II. Only time will tell if his foreign policy produces a new epoch in American history.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.