My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in political science, but the chief work that helped me to understand the practice of politics is one of history: The Stakes of Power: 1845–1877, by Roy F. Nichols. Political science shares with sociology a bias toward presentism, describing political structures as they currently exist with no sense that they will ever change (at least not in the short run) or, for that matter, have ever changed. The more scientific practitioners of both disciplines claim to be, the more likely they are to become like economists, captives of “laws” of their own making, abstracting from real people making real decisions at a personal level in favor of masses of men who are (or at least seem to be) easier to quantify and to predict. That is why most political-science programs require students not to read Plato and Aristotle or even Machiavelli but to study statistics and to demonstrate their ability to design research projects to find hither-to unnoticed correlations in decades’ worth of polling data. Indeed, the fruit of such projects, over the last 20 years or so, has helped modern political polling occasionally to produce astonishingly accurate predictions, in a manner reminiscent of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s famed Foundation series.
As a teenager interested in politics, mathematics, and physics, I was fascinated by the idea behind Asimov’s work, though even at that young age I could tell that Asimov was a hack, and an untalented one at that. (One sure sign: As the series continued, the books got longer but no more deep.) Oddly enough, I recognized the fatal flaw in Asimov’s conceit at about the same time that modern polling techniques seemed to be proving that conceit true: Predicting the future on the basis of current trends is really just a way of describing the present. No matter how predictable a person or a group of people or all of mankind seems, there’s no way to account for the workings of free will. Just as economic laws break down when we try to apply them to the behavior of actual human beings (a mother’s love is more precious when it is in greater supply, not less so), history is not the story of men behaving predictably, but rather the chronicle of all the times when they have not done so.
By definition, historians are more interested in the past than in the future, yet the best of them—the least “scientific” of them—have a technical (in the strictest sense of the term) advantage over their more self-consciously scientific counterparts in sociology and political science. They don’t have to worry about how to minimize the effects of free will, because the core of their work is to weave a narrative describing those effects. A political scientist or sociologist looking at the United States from within the year 1850 would be hard-pressed to predict with any accuracy how the historical impasse between North and South, slave and free, capitalism and agrarianism would be resolved in a period no longer than the time between September 11 and today; but it was resolved, and from his vantage point beyond the resolution, the historian can tell us how—provided, again, that he is a good historian, and not one with an ideological ax to grind.
Roy F. Nichols (1896–1973) was a good historian, as was Frederick D. Williams, the longtime professor of Civil War history at Michigan State who introduced me to his book. Examining in turn the struggle for power between North and South before the war, the stakes of power within each union during the war, and the forging of a unitary nation-state afterward, Nichols treats nothing as a foregone conclusion but examines with Machiavellian clarity the ways in which old alliances broke down and new alliances formed, and the cultural and economic trends that informed, though never determined, the political decisions of men. To the amateur student of the Civil War, as I had been since the latter years of grade school (when I devoured the entire corpus of fellow Michigander Bruce Catton, before moving on in junior high to the far greater work of Shelby Foote), the book is a great aid to understanding the nature of the conflict; but to the politically minded trying to understand the stakes of power today, it is, to my mind, indispensable.
Consider just these few lines from Nichols’s Introduction:
[T]he desire to exercise the power of government shapes human behavior in many ways. It arouses among men the deepest of emotions and stirs them often to great exertion. These emotions and drives are no less strong when this power is the power of self-government in a variegated society than when the power is despotic and concentrated in the hands of a dictator or an elite. Power is desired to satisfy ambition, to give assurance of status, to afford material gain, to insure protection. Many will strive to secure it but an even more intense striving may be stimulated by fear of losing it.
Any reader for whom those words do not immediately shed new light on the struggles between the states and the federal government in our time, not to mention the battles between the two major national parties and the current fight within the Republican Party, suffers from a lack of historical imagination. It is no coincidence that Nichols first gained prominence for his work on the cultural and economic factors that rent the national Democratic Party asunder in the 1850’s.
Were Roy Nichols to return today, four decades after his death, he would very quickly understand how and why Donald Trump has amassed enough delegates to capture the GOP nomination for president. Not so Nate Silver, founder of the much-touted FiveThirtyEight.com, who has been lauded for eight years now as a political wunderkind, on the strength of having correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 presidential election in 49 of the 50 states. (He called the results in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2012 as well, though so did almost everyone who wasn’t employed by Mitt Romney’s campaign.) Silver, who started out as a sports statistician (FiveThirtyEight.com is owned today by ESPN), has, to put it kindly, struck out this year. He declared early and often that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the Republican nomination, and even after it became clear that he would do so, Silver seemed certain that he could not win the presidency. As I write, he has published several posts now trying to explain how he got it so wrong—none of them (in my opinion) at all convincing—and the featured headline on FiveThirtyEight.com on May 31 now reads “Of Course Trump Can Win.” (Considering that Silver’s track record this year is on par with Bill Kristol’s, that may finally spell trouble for Trump.)
Certain Trump supporters, with lots of hand-waving and vague pronouncements, have tried to draw parallels between the rise of Trump and the initial founding of the Republican Party, with the implication that Trump is a new Lincoln. The analogy falls apart on the barest examination; whatever parallels there may be between Lincoln’s nationalism and Trump’s (and the differences in cultural and economic circumstances mean that those parallels are frequently overblown, too), Lincoln was chosen as the national candidate of a very young political party, while Trump has wrested control of the reins of a very old one. No matter what happens in November, the Republican Party is not going to fade away, as the Whigs did, to be replaced by a Trumpian alternative; it is more likely that, should Trump triumph, a new party may arise representing some coalition of neoconservatives and establishment Republicans. Considering Trump’s age (he would be eight months older at his inauguration than Ronald Reagan was at his first), even that is unlikely; it would be far simpler for members of his own party to undermine him behind the scenes with the intent of regaining the reins of power four years from now.
A better analogy can be drawn with the Democratic Party of the 1850’s, in the sense that Trump has advanced as far as he has not by stressing party unity but by exposing cultural, economic, and even geographical divisions that have long cut through the heart of the party, and in so doing has attracted disaffected Democrats and previous nonvoters by appealing to cultural and economic interests that they share with a large portion of the Republican base, but that they share not at all with either the neoconservatives who dominated the George W. Bush administration or the establishment Republicans who perpetually control the party machinery. Trump captured the nomination not in spite of dividing the party, but because he did so. He never could have amassed the votes that he needed had he played along with the neoconservatives and establishment Republicans who have spent the better part of three decades marginalizing the typical Trump supporter.
Since the last of his opponents dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump has frequently announced that he will now switch gears and work to unify the party. Each such announcement has been followed within days, and often within hours, by another divisive speech or press conference or interview or tweet storm, greeted with glee by Trump’s opponents and with dismay by some of his supporters, no matter how much the latter may still enjoy the attack. The conventional wisdom, which Trump himself seems to accept, is that, at some point in the campaign, he must start acting “presidential.”
But must he? Consider a few more lines from Nichols’s Introduction:
Power, therefore, can invite conflict to secure it; but it must also be recognized that it can cause conflict to prevent its loss. Indeed, a most significant conclusion can be drawn, namely, that the fear of losing power may be a stronger influence to conflict than the desire to obtain power.
If Roy Nichols is right, then conventional wisdom is likely as wrong in this case as it has been throughout the primary season. Trump gained political power by fomenting conflict within the Republican Party; to maintain that power, and to expand his (rather than the party’s) electoral base, he may need to continue to do the same. His failure to live up to his promises to “unify the party” and “act presidential” may in fact stem from an intuitive and well-founded fear that, by doing so, he would more likely lose ground than gain it.
If you were expecting the road to the White House to be gentle and smooth, Donald Trump has some yuuuge steaks to sell you.