Fearless, loud, and defiant: These three words embody Donald Trump’s candidacy for US president. His approach has deeply divided US citizens. Some fret that Trump’s unfiltered, zealous style would endanger the United States, while others see a candidate who can finally articulate their disgust with the state of the country. In the middle of this great divide, there are those few who admire Trump’s opposition to the status quo and intellectual elitism but don’t believe he is America’s saving grace. Personal judgements about Trump’s character or temperament aside, a cursory look at US history reveals that from a factual standpoint, “Make America Great Again” is bluster without a backbone. The central tenets of Trump’s candidacy, as much as he portrays them as inventive and fresh, are reincarnations of calamitous mistakes throughout US history.
Trump’s infamous proposal to ban all Muslims from immigrating to the US is remarkably similar to the Alien Acts of 1798, instituted under America’s second president, John Adams. The Alien Acts were enacted as a response to widespread fear of a radical minority which was fighting overseas in the French Revolution. This legislation permitted President Adams to deport any foreign-born person living in the US without needing to provide justification. Not only did these policies perpetuate stereotypes and intolerance, but they were met by resistance so fierce that the opposition movement, spearheaded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is regarded as the inspiration for the later secessionist movement that sparked the Civil War. Jefferson and Madison helped pass two legislative declarations, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which the respective state legislatures declared the Alien Acts were unconstitutional. They essentially aimed to undermine federal authority with state legislation. Madison feared that the Alien Acts would “necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood.” Yet, as the historian Gary Wills wrote, “Their [Jefferson and Madison’s] nullification effort...would have greater threat to freedom than the misguided laws.” In fighting systematic oppression, Madison and Jefferson inadvertently created schisms as dangerous and deep-rooted as the Alien Acts themselves. We need not look beyond the nation’s history to anticipate the unintended consequences that can result from policies from derived and enacted out of fear.
Last February, Donald Trump voiced his anger at the criticism he faced in the nation’s media, proclaiming, “I’m going to open up our libel laws, so we can sue them and win lots of money.” In 1803, a precedent for US libel law was set when Alexander Hamilton concluded that an expression of belief could be the basis of a lawsuit only if “false, defamatory, and malicious.” Prior to this decision, libel laws could be used to sue reporters if their claims were defamatory in any way, without consideration for the truth of their reports. In 1964, a Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan reaffirmed the tradition that falsity must be proven in libel cases in order to win a lawsuit. If one considers the accusations about him to be true, then, Trump has effectively boasted that he will modify a centuries old aspect of the US legislative and judicial system so that he can win money when he is publicly criticized. Not only would he be promoting the use of executive power to overrule the judicial and legislative systems, but he would also be doing so in a manner that prioritizes his own ego and bank account over the established system and structure of the US government.
Another central aim of Trump’s campaign is to revitalize the middle class and fight trade violations by imposing 35 percent tariffs on Mexico and 45 percent tariffs on China. This proposal echoes the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of1930. Congress introduced the punitive Smoot-Hawley Tariff as an effort to promote domestic employment in the midst of the economic decline that lead to the Great Depression. Economists have since evaluated the tariff on a scale from “mistake that contributed to an economic downslide” to “the single most significant cause of the Great Depression.” Today, global markets play an even more substantial role in the US economy than they did in the 1930s, yet Trump plans to introduce an even more drastic tariff policy. Trump brags about his ability to bring jobs back to America, but history indicates that his plan would do nothing but exacerbate economic concerns.
Lastly, Trump has threatened to abandon two of the United States’ largest international commitments, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He boasts that he will renegotiate the terms of NAFTA, or abandon it altogether if he is dissatisfied with those negotiations, and claims that he would only continue to send US contributions to NATO allies under certain economic conditions. While his desire to hold US economic and militaristic alliances to a high standard is admirable, the notion of abandoning fundamental allegiances out of diplomatic dissatisfaction endangers the US in a way not seen since the aftermath of World War I. After the conclusion of that war in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson negotiated the League of Nations alliance in Geneva and returned to Congress with the hope that they would ratify the treaty and join the League. But members of Congress were dissatisfied with some conditions of the proposal and prevented the US from partaking in the League of Nations altogether. Many historians consider this decision to have been a contributing factor in the ultimately dissolution of the League and the subsequent discord that would precipitate the onset of World War II. In 1918, the US Congress abandoned international diplomacy and cooperation and, in doing so, fueled animosity that would lead to the most fatal war in human history. While holding diplomatic relationships to high standards is essential, this must be done through dialogue and negotiation. The world learned early in the 20th century what can arise when the US forgoes communication and abandons allegiances with other countries. We do not need Donald Trump to teach us this lesson again.
Our founding fathers often referred to democracy in America as an experiment—an experiment defined by an insatiable appetite for improvement. On a superficial level, Donald Trump’s candidacy conforms to this American narrative, but examining the details of his ideas reveals their essentially regressive nature. Progress involves learning from failure, not simply repeating mistakes and expecting a second attempt to bring success. If hindsight is 20/20, the citizens of the United States must look to the past to understand that a future with Donald Trump as president would be contrary to this American endeavor of perpetual self-improvement. It would, instead, be a step into the past.