One day after the 2016 election, an over-capacity crowd gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to hear a panel of Yale historians contextualize and analyze the surprising results.
History professors Joanne Freeman, Beverly Gage ’94 and Glenda Gilmore addressed more than 200 students, faculty and local residents who packed into a lecture hall Wednesday night, many of whom stood in doorways or sat on the ground. Speakers discussed the implications of a Republican president, Congress and Supreme Court, and touched upon the significance of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory.
“Tonight we come together as a community and as historians, to think about how we got to this moment, what in the American past can help explain it, and to see what can help us move forward,” said Alan Mikhail, director of undergraduate studies of the History Department. “This is both an intellectual exercise, and an affective and emotional one.”
A historian of early American history, Freeman began by recounting American political movements that featured backlashes against progressive change, and the long history of bullying and threats in American politics.
Emphasizing the complexity of American history, Freeman said recurrences of events and ideas over time can help people understand their current position in history.
“The particular amalgamation of the things we’re looking at right now may be distinctive but many of the pieces are not new,” said Freeman.
According to Gilmore, a series of events over the past few decades contributed to Trump’s rise.
Among these, she mentioned the growing popularity of the obstructionist wing of the Republican Party, which was led by Newt Gingrich and created a 20-year legacy of dysfunction in Congress, the growth of a more strongly ideological wing of the party, the rise of angry voters — “those the economy left behind and who public education failed” — and the failure of the Democratic Party to reckon with white working class voters’ grievances.
“Lines [for voting] skewed the vote to people with flexible work schedules and to older retirees,” Gilmore said, citing demographic groups that voted for Trump.
Gilmore noted the significance of this election for America’s future.
For example, early voting could cease to exist, strained international relations might arise as the U.S. veers toward isolationism, federal laws regarding gay marriage and abortion could change and a band of U.S. states that lack civil rights might surface, Gilmore predicted. She added that there could be a radical transformation in traditional political parties, as Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party morphs into Trumpism.
“This is the darkness before dawn,” she said. “This is the moment we organize to take our country back, [but] before protecting our country we must protect ourselves.”
Regarding clandestine activity, warfare and surveillance, Gage shared her worry that such powers will be handed off to a set of political actors with very different ideas of the use of such technologies, their constraints and America’s role in the world. She emphasized the potential detrimental impact of Trump’s presidency on Sino-American relations.
Gage drew parallels with the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Both capitalized on the resentment of voters who felt excluded from politics, Gage said, adding that Trump’s ability to rally the rage of the “forgotten” white rural Americans and champion for their voice contributed to his win.
This election was a moment of political realignment, according to Gage. New coalitions and identities might come into being, she said, such as the emergence of a new Democratic Party that combines Republican establishment figures who rejected Trump and the pre-existing Democrats.
“There are certain resonances with the past,” Gage said, “but this is also a situation that is in many ways truly unprecedented in American history.”
Freeman responded to a question from the audience about possible social mobilization against Trump. Because reactions to the election are strong and extreme, the collective fear will negate sociopolitical differences and bring the society together in a shared response, she said.
Freeman also emphasized the “we-ness” of the community gathered in the lecture hall.
“We are in an exclusionary moment in history where boundaries and lines are being drawn. However, by gathering and having conversations, we can move through this as a collective,” Freeman said.
Rora Brodwin ’18 said she is still processing the election results, adding that inaccurate poll predictions led her and many others to be emotionally unprepared for Clinton’s loss.
Lou Pressman ’73, a teacher at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, voiced his disappointment with the results of the elections.
“I’ve been in conversation with younger people, many my former students, and the degree of anguish and shock, rage and despair, really was striking,” Pressman said.