We are living through unusual times, and the tendency is to reach for extreme historical analogies. I have seen this era compared to the run-up to the Civil War, to Watergate, to the dawn of Nazi Germany, to the presidency of Andrew Jackson, to the rise of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, to the fall of the Roman Empire.
But the most persuasive analogue is nearer both in time and in space. What this period most closely resembles, argues political scientist Brendan Nyhan, is the aftermath of the 2004 election, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. Then, like now, a culturally polarizing Republican candidate was narrowly elected after a campaign waged atop nationalistic, identitarian appeals. Then, like now, the GOP gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then, like now, the winner had no clear policy mandate, and quickly suffered massive legislative defeat (Social Security privatization for Bush, Obamacare repeal for Trump). Then, like now, the president watched his favorability ratings tumble into the 30s, and appeared to be headed for a severe backlash in the midterms.
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I would take the analogy yet further. Trump's callousness and indiscipline has left many liberals yearning for Bush's more dignified and decent bearing. A poll in October found that a majority of Democrats now hold a favorable opinion of the 43rd president. But in 2004, Democrats absorbed Bush's reelection as more than a defeat; it was a cultural rejection and a political crisis. Democrats warned that it was "the most important election of our lifetime." If John Kerry didn't win, the results could be, would be, catastrophic.
But Bush crushed Democrats with a campaign that, as Robert Reich wrote, was "not just God and gays but also true grit in fighting the evils of Saddam Hussein and global terrorism." This was the age in which Bill Clinton warned that "when people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right," the era of flag pins, of Swift Boat Veterans, of books with titles like Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane.It was the era of anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives, of Democrats panicking over the loss of white Christian voters.
When Bush won, the left absorbed it as a trauma — proof that they had lost touch with the heartland, that they no longer understood the country they called home. The 2004 election, wrote Paul Starr in the liberal American Prospect, confirmed that Democrats were "no longer a majority party." In the same magazine, Alan Brinkley wrote, "the greatest success of the modern right has been transforming conservatism into a populist phenomenon."