What Will History Books Say About 2018?






Donald Trump

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History Dept.

16 top historians predict the future.

At the end of last year, POLITICO Magazine asked historians if 2017 had been the craziest year in American politics. That was before 2018, when several of President Donald Trump’s onetime cronies were indicted for financial crimes, when rapper Kanye West delivered a soliloquy in the Oval Office and when an accidental alert had Hawaii residents convinced nuclear missiles were inbound for a full 38 minutes. That was before one midterm election and three government shutdowns, before the Trump administration ordered migrant children be separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and before the president’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It was before the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and before 13 federal agencies issued a dire report on climate change that the White House attempted to bury.

How will history remember this wild year? Which events were significant and which were distractions? POLITICO Magazine asked the smartest historians we know to put all that happened over the past 12 months in its proper historical context—by literally writing the paragraph that history books of the future will include about 2018. Here’s what they had to say:

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The year of distraction
Joseph J. Ellis is the author of American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.

It is difficult to believe, but exactly a century ago, in 2018, the American media was obsessed with the fractured and frivolous presidency of Donald Trump.

Unmentioned, what they might have called “unbreaking news,” were the following movements in the historical templates fated to shape our own world: the ascendance of the Asian Empire, then called China; the crisis of confidence in all three branches of the federal government, which led to the calling of the Second Constitutional Convention and our current American Confederation; the accelerating erosion of the Greenland glacier, which eventually forced the evacuation of our coastal cities.

For all these reasons, 2018 has come to be called “The Year of Distraction.”

***

The end of American exceptionalism
Jacqueline Jones is a professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, and author, most recently, of Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical (2017).

The year 2018 was reckoning time for those stubborn optimists who believed that the end of the Cold War would inevitably bring a more prosperous, interconnected world. At the dawn of the 21st century, free trade, advanced technology and social media seemed to hold great promise as engines of worldwide peace and security. By 2018, however, the global economy was enriching a few and consigning the many to ill-paid jobs. Social media users sought to undermine free elections at home and abroad, and fanned the flames of hate and division via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The late 20th-century ideal of a world moving inexorably toward universal human rights and the eradication of poverty crumbled under the weight of terrorist attacks, civil wars, massive displaced populations, and environmental disasters such as droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods. Meanwhile, enemies of democracy joined with reactionaries to embrace authoritarian “strong men” who vowed to bring order out of chaos and restore nations to their mythical former glory.

In 2018, striking, irrefutable evidence of this encroaching revanchism appeared in the piece-by-piece dismantling of the American “city upon a hill” story—the notion that the United States represented a beacon of enlightenment and progress in a craven world. Many Americans seemed willing to accommodate themselves to the casual destruction of values and institutions that the country had long claimed were proof of its own “exceptionalism.” President Donald Trump, buoyed by the cult-like devotion of his Republican base, mocked the principle of a free press, calling journalists “the enemies of the people.” He tried to treat the Department of Justice as his personal law firm, and dismissed the idea that truth and facts should be honored as standard currency in political discourse. Trump openly ridiculed people of color as “low-IQ individuals,” and called for the jailing of his political opponents. He took credit for the stock market when it was up, and blamed the head of the Federal Reserve when it was down. He cozied up to dictators and prioritized money and arms deals over human life. He scorned science and declared climate change a “hoax,” opening the way for the despoiling of land, air and sea. Though erratic, petulant and willfully ignorant, he held in his thrall even the most powerful Republican lawmakers, who were terrified that someday he might “primary” them. The traditional narrative of the United States as a noble world leader and defender of human rights was slipping away, and by the end of Trump’s second year in office, the country was in danger of sliding into a garden-variety authoritarianism. To paraphrase the historian Henry Adams, the progress of evolution from President Lincoln to President Trump was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

***

Insignificant, or an earthquake—depending on 2020
H. W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Andrew Jackson and other works of American history.

Scenario A (Donald Trump was not elected to a second term):

The year 2018 was full of sound and fury signifying, in the end, very little. Trump’s boorish model of leadership was repudiated by voters at the first opportunity, and his polices on trade, international security, immigration and the environment were sooner or later undone.

Scenario B (Trump was reelected to a second term):

The year 2018 marked the moment when America’s abdication of its role of leadership in the world, begun in 2017, grew more pronounced and irreversible. Trump called into question or flatly rejected America’s commitments to its allies, to free trade, to the rule of law, to democratic norms and to a global effort to avert the most dire consequences of climate change. He made America, in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, a rogue state. The president of the United States had long been the most consequential person in the world; that distinction shifted to the president of China in 2018. The world has never been the same.

***

When we saw the fault lines after the earthquake
Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.

In 2016, a political earthquake hit the United States. In 2018, we got our first real look at the fault lines it exposed and the extent of the damage that it did.

In the midterm elections, women’s rage transformed into women’s power as historic numbers of women, almost all of them representing the Democratic Party, won congressional seats. That blue wave came on the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault accusations and Supreme Court confirmation, an event that drove even more women into the Democratic camp—while driving even more men into Trump’s.

The election also took place against the backdrop of escalating hate crimes against people of color, Jews, and women, including the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. While progressives organized to transform the face of American politics—electing the most diverse set of officials in the nation’s history—the administration set out to fulfill its restrictionist vision, separating migrant families, erecting detention camps at the border and using teargas on refugees. At the end of 2018, both parties had organized a clear response to 2016’s earthquake—responses that could not have been more different.

***

The moment the parties switched their bases
Geoffrey Kabaservice is director of political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.

Half a century later, 2018 stands out as the point at which it became evident that the Republican and Democratic parties had switched their political bases. The 2016 elections already had confirmed that the white working class—the foundation on which New Deal liberalism was built—had become overwhelmingly Republican. But the 2018 midterms gave the first real indication that Donald Trump’s self-destructive presidency, combined with conservative ideological zealotry in Congress, had broken the long-standing GOP loyalty of college-educated, suburban voters, and that this group would reliably support Democrats going forward. It would take several more electoral cycles for the implications of this switch to become obvious. But by 2036, the Democratic Party—whose middle- and upper-class constituents were deeply disturbed by the impending threat of national bankruptcy—had become the fiscally conservative party. The Republicans, meanwhile, had become the party more supportive of government spending—so long as that spending was on universal social benefits like Social Security and Medicare, as well as the spending programs that were the sole economic lifeline for the 30 percent of the population that still lived in the semi-inhabited small towns and environmentally ravaged rural areas of the American heartland. The peculiar arithmetic of the Electoral College meant that Republicans still commanded supermajorities in the Senate, even though Trump had been the last Republican to occupy the White House. But the Grand Bargain of the 2030s rallied the whole country around the slogan, “Build the Walls!”—the massive seawalls, constructed mostly by the white working class of the heartland, that saved the coastal cities from inundation by rising oceans.

***

The decline of America’s dominance
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. He is currently a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton where he is writing a history of the Democratic Party.

The slow decline and eventual fall of America’s dominance in the world began with its debacle in Indochina 50 years earlier. But that decline accelerated in 2018. A delusional president who thought his daily threats and boasts could replace shrewd diplomacy was unable and unwilling to prevent China from expanding its markets and influence in East Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders in such nations as Hungary, Russia and Iran aggressively carved out their own spheres of influence, undeterred by protests emanating from the State Department and Congress. Dismissive of climate change, Trump’s actions also made that problem a good deal worse, although the massive flooding in Miami Beach, Cape Cod and Norfolk that caused millions to flee those areas in 2021 did not begin until after the president left office. In his one unhappy term in the White House, the man who vowed to “Make America Great Again” made it less powerful and persuasive around the globe and more vulnerable to environmental damage at home.

***

When we realized the past isn’t so past after all
Lizabeth Cohen is the Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and Howard Mumford Jones professor of American Studies, Department of History.

The year 2018 was notable for giving many Americans a living lesson in history. Let me explain what I mean with two examples. For many of us, our understanding of the deep divisions that led our nation to Civil War in the 1860s is based on textbook explanations of the irreconcilable differences of the past: disputes over the fate of African-American enslavement or the extension of slavery into the territories or what kind of economic future the United States would have—a manufacturing-based one dictated by the North or a market-oriented agricultural alternative desired by the South. Suddenly, the election of Trump in 2016 and the two years of his presidency that have followed, particularly the last year, have thrust many of us into the reality of living in a nation severely divided. Certainly, we already knew that there were red and blue Americas, and divergent rural and urban experiences and opportunities. But few of us had any idea how deep were those cultural chasms, how intense were those economic resentments, how sharp were those political disagreements. And both the new social and the traditional media—ranging from Fox to MSNBC—have caricatured and then amplified these distinctive worldviews, creating echo chambers in which our disagreements reverberate and louden. The United States is not on the brink of another civil war—there are still values and commitments that continue to unite us as Americans and institutions like the courts that put checks on the screaming matches. But some days it feels like we are close, particularly when it’s a day when Trump chooses to fuel the divides between his “base” and his enemies, immigrants and “real” Americans, blacks and whites.

The other example I would point to is how recent events have shocked many of us into realizing that we can no longer assume that “it can’t happen here,” that the United States is somehow immune to the kind of fascism that arose in Nazi Germany and traumatized the world in the mid-20th century. Here, too, it had been easy to distance ourselves from the past, from the kind of xenophobic, nationalistic and anti-Semitic fervor that had plagued Europe, in particular Germany. But as we have lived through events like the frightening white nationalist march in Charlottesville, the cruel family separations at the Mexican border, the brutal synagogue shooting, the racially motivated killings (including by law enforcement), the deliberate voter suppression, the attacks on a free press, and more, it suddenly seems possible that American democracy too could be seriously jeopardized. And were that to happen, we the American people would have no one to blame but ourselves. As we move into 2019, let us hope that we can learn, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, to be touched “by the better angels of our nature” and reconnect with American aspirations for tolerance, compassion, morality and equality under the law. It is commonplace to say that knowing history helps us understand the present. Today, the present may also be helping us to better understand the past—and to heed its warnings.

***

A Manichean year of rage and violence
Bradley Birzer is a history professor at Hillsdale College.

The United States of America—the most noble attempt at an ordered and free republic since the beheading of the Roman Cicero in 43BC—had not been so polarized since 1968, a full half century earlier. Led by a mercurial president, known more for his passions than his restraint, the people of America found themselves awash in a whirligig of dualistic propaganda, country against city, race against race, gender against genders, and party against party. It was though the ancient Christian heresy of Manicheanism—that which had posited evil the co-equal of good—had once more reared its divisive head. Not surprisingly, the streets of major cities were as violent in action as were the screams in the halls of government. The extremes of left and right predominated, each filled with hatred and rage. Rarely had a people been so strongly at odds with themselves. Though America had found itself the sole world power in 1991, the years following were years of the “forever war,” mostly waged against the peoples (innocent and not) of the Middle and Near-east. There seemed no end of history. As the country militarized abroad, it militarized at home, war becoming the habit of its people. Niggling away at a myriad of conflicts and restless at home, America felt the challenge of other powers in 2018—such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. America’s time had seemingly come and gone. The next few years would prove decisive as America decided whether or not to lead by example or force.

***

A pivotal year for the American worker
William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota.

2018 was a pivotal year in the history of American workers, both in deepening a half-century-long erosion of income, labor rights and political power and in the rise of new forms of organization and mobilization aimed at addressing those same trends. The year opened with speculation about the potential impact of Janus v. AFSCME, a Supreme Court case that, as expected, delivered a blow to the ability of unions to represent public employees. Coupled with administrative decisions weakening protections for independent contractors, workers employed by franchises and federal employees, and open attacks on immigrant workers, the year saw a continuation of trends going back to the 1970s. Paradoxically, however, 2018 also saw a resurgence of working-class activism that promised to reverse those patterns. Most dramatic was the strike by thousands of teachers in West Virginia, followed by similar protests in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado. Emerging in conservative states known for low wages and weak labor laws, those actions demonstrated that legal setbacks would not necessarily spell the end of organized labor. Workers also displayed renewed militancy in places where unions were strong: striking against Marriott hotels in Massachusetts, Michigan, California and Hawaii; winning recognition for unions of teaching assistants and contingent faculty at Harvard, Columbia and other colleges; and forcing Amazon to negotiate with Somali immigrant warehouse workers in Minnesota. Finally, unions mobilized politically; defeating Scott Walker, the anti-union governor of Wisconsin, and helping elect a pro-union senator, Jacky Rosen, in Nevada. And increased militancy did not seem to damage the public image of organized labor. Late in 2018, a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans approved of labor unions, up from 56 percent in 2016 and just 48 percent in 2009. After a 50-year decline, the union representation rate held steady and the total number of union members increased.

***

Trump fiddled while the climate burned
Elizabeth Cobbs is professor of American history at Texas A&M University and the author of The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.

American politics in 2018 were characterized by a colorful blur of human activity: the #MeToo Movement, the Mueller Investigations, the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice accused of sexual misconduct and Trump’s declaration that he is “A Tariff Man.” At the global level, nature took center stage. Weighed against five millennia of recorded events, the big story was humanity’s failure to slow climate changes that flooded coastal habitats, sparked fires in dry inland areas, sped the extinction of flora and fauna and devastated food crops. The United States attracted special condemnation as the largest producer of greenhouse gases behind China and greatest consumer of beef behind Australia. American historians focus on domestic squabbles of the era, but world historians highlight the melting of Alaska while Trump opened new public lands to oil exploration, reduced the size of national parks and waived protections for endangered species. They also point to record-breaking wildfires sparked by drought, and note the parallel to ancient history: Trump fiddled while California burned.

***

The fight between authoritarianism and democracy
David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, and author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

In 2018, the fight to beat back populistic authoritarianism and uphold liberal democracy ground on, with no resolution. Countries worldwide elected populists of the left (Mexico) and the right (Italy, Brazil); in Russia and Turkey, Putin and Erdogan shored up power; once-free Eastern European nations like Hungary and Poland slouched toward fascism; reformist hopes in North Korea and Saudi Arabia were dashed. In the U.S., Donald Trump oversaw unending chaos and mendacity, provoking an onslaught of outrage that dispelled worries that his norm-breaking would be normalized. Still, Trump confirmed fears that his reckless hypernationalism amounted to a break from the older Reagan-Bush conservatism—even as most Republicans followed him down his treacherous path. He provoked controversies with his reactionary, heartless immigration policies, clumsy trade wars and shortsighted abandonment of international protocols. Throughout America, a rising intolerance of political difference led to firings, suppression of speech and ugly public confrontations. And mad violence, from Parkland to Pittsburgh, showed how easily rage was now proving lethal, even commingling with ancient hatreds like anti-Semitism. As the year closed some big indicators—abrupt volatility in an otherwise strong economy, Robert Mueller’s prosecutorial doggedness, Democratic election triumphs—signaled that Trump’s strength might be ebbing. But in Europe, the three hitherto-solid Ms of stability—Merkel, May and Macron—faced major crises of legitimacy, offering paltry grounds for confidence that, come 2019, the center would hold.

***

A revolt against Republican control
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College.

2018 marked a pivotal year in the demise of the political era that began in 1981 with the election of Ronald Reagan. For a generation, Republican leaders had tried to kill New Deal-era government policies that regulated business, protected social welfare and promoted infrastructure. In 2018, in control of Congress and the White House, they enacted their agenda. Congress slashed taxes for the very wealthy, while the Trump administration gutted government regulation and tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act. Since 1981, Republicans had argued that the taxes necessary to pay for an active government simply redistributed money from white men to undeserving minorities, and in 2018, Americans watched attacks on minorities escalate as the Trump administration called immigrants terrorists and incarcerated refugee children in camps, killing at least one. Finally, in October, the administration forced through the Senate confirmation of the highly controversial Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who had been credibly accused of sexual assault and whose previous political record was largely concealed during the nomination process. This inspired widespread anger at what appeared to be an attempt to pack the judicial branch for Republicans in violation of norms and precedents. The extremes of the Republican Party inspired grassroots opposition, especially among women and people of color, and the 2018 midterms were a wave election that flipped 39 seats and put women in two-thirds of them. Overall, 2018 resembled the pivotal year of 1856, when a revolt against the Democratic Party’s control of the federal government in the interests of wealthy Southern slaveholders prompted Americans to reject the Democrats and begin the process of taking their democracy back.

***

The year Trump broke the mold
Meg Jacobs teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University.

The year 2018 was when American politics pivoted. At the time, it appeared that Trump took a beating in the midterms, surely in the House, and his approval ratings remained stuck at a low level. Each day the chief executive found himself in greater and greater legal jeopardy. By the end of the year, with some of his chief advisers accepting plea deals for their illegal campaign activities and with Democrats ready to assume their majority standing in the House, it appeared that Trump’s days in office were numbered.

Yet, in hindsight, 2018 turned out to be the moment when Trump finally broke the mold of American politics, a fissure that was in the works for decades. Despite all the indications of declining popularity and rising political vulnerability, Trump remained standing. His durability suggested that, in an age of polarization exacerbated by the fracturing of the media, the traditional markers of political success no longer applied. As a candidate and then as a president, even one under siege, Trump appreciated that no longer did he need to be loved by all or even by a majority of the public, no longer were there consequences to having your own version of the truth, and no apologies were necessary for what half the country, if not more, thought of as unpresidential, if not illegal, behavior.

What mattered most in 2018 was playing to the loyal Trumpian base that voted for the GOP in 2016 and turned elections in Trump’s favor. While the GOP lost the House midterms and Trump’s fearmongering, Twitter-based outreach backfired in many districts that flipped in favor of the Democrats, the president chose to double-down on a race-based strategy of stirring up anxieties and animosities as part of his populist appeal to white working class Americans. To the extent that the rest of the GOP appreciated the president’s support of tax cuts, deregulation and other standard Republican policies and felt that this approach would deliver the White House again in 2020, they stuck with him.

It is not that Trump was the true Teflon president—rather, he governed in a polarized media-driven atmosphere in which many of the norms were changing. He himself helped to rewrite the rules of the game and no one excelled better than he in controlling the news cycle and even generating the cycle. A large part of why Trump won his election and, by his own measures continued to succeed in his first two years in office, was because he knew how to appeal to his segmented base.

When The Apprentice was a hit TV show, it was not for everyone. But millions of fans loved it. Until they didn’t. The downside of a media-based presidency, premised on securing ratings just high enough to hold your audience, was that like the TV show that made him famous, he, too, could jump the shark. While Republicans remained loyal to Trump throughout the year, they had to consider how long to stick with the president before tuning in to a different show, where the cameras turned on the star and they said “you’re fired.” Either way, 2018 proved that Trump could stir hatreds, engage in intentionally shocking and possibly treasonous behavior, whip his supporters into an appreciative frenzy, and yet command support among Republicans. While historians might cringe, the base got exactly what it wanted, and Trump started 2019 thinking ahead to his 2020 reelection campaign.

***

The year of cruelty
Mary L. Dudziak is the Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University School of Law.

2018 will be remembered as the year of cruelty. The United States separated thousands of migrant children from their families and created prison camps for them. The country aided Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe seen in images of starving children. Trump refused to sanction or even criticize Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump told Californians devastated from the loss of homes and loved ones to fire that the tragedy was, in essence, their own fault. He said the same to victims of mass shootings. The list goes on and on—there is too much cruelty for one paragraph. Congress, and the American people, aided the president’s cruelty by failing to do whatever it would take to stop him.

***

Liberal democracy vs. Trumpism
Richard Steigmann-Gall is a history professor at Kent State University.

Many historians of fascism wondered whether 2018 would see a Reichstag Fire moment, when Trump would confect a national emergency or take advantage of a real one, to consolidate dictatorial power. That did not transpire. In fact, the liberal constitutional state continued to function, with a remarkable election result in the midterms, which can reliably be understood as a reassertion of parliamentary power in the face of a strongman presidency. However, it was a mistake to construe Trump’s failures to consolidate fascist power for a lack of ambition to be a fascist. However well the liberal constitutional state still functions, it was very much in spite of Trump, not because of him. His closest White House advisers—especially Stephen Miller—as well as his fellow travelers in the media, pushed Trump to scornfully defy the rule of law whenever he could. Trump showed no interest in the consensus that is the basis of a true parliamentary democracy, choosing instead time and again to impose his will by fiat until stopped by the legislative or judiciary branches. We could not describe the U.S. government in 2018 as “fascist”—but those who failed to recognize Trump’s fascist aspirations continued to underestimate the danger of Trumpism.

***

2018 and the Turning of the Tide?
Timothy Naftali is a history professor at New York University and co-author of Impeachment: An American History. From 2007 to 2011, he directed the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

In the year 2018, the Earth continued to warm, with greenhouse gases reaching their highest level ever. In the greater scheme of things those data points may ultimately matter most. But when thinking of years instead of decades or centuries, 2018 saw the intensification of the struggle in the developed world between the ideas and movements associated with modernity—of which worrying about climate change is a part—and the forces of reaction, largely defined by nativism, protectionism and an aversion to science. In the United States, the struggle largely centered on the id and reputation of one man, Donald J. Trump, a provincial New York City developer and reality TV star, who won a hard-fought campaign in 2016 by a total of less than 100,000 votes in three key states.

Over the course of 2018, the U.S. government experienced more turmoil at its highest level that at any time since the Watergate-sodden year of 1973. Trump forced out his secretary of State, secretary of Defense, attorney general, national security adviser, chief of staff and secretary of Interior. Meanwhile, his personal lawyer in the White House, the White House counsel, the director of the National Economic Council, the director of White House Communications, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency and the permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations also chose to leave.

In foreign policy, the collapse of Trump’s first national security team heightened the significance of the whims of the occupant of the Oval Office. As a result, for the first time since 1945, the United States was like an aircraft carrier with three of its four propellers broken. Many of those fired or forced out had tried to preserve some of the traditional U.S. commitment to a liberal security environment by softening or redirecting the president’s preference for an amoral, transactional, protectionist and unilateral approach to the world. In each case, Trump prevailed. The vanity and stubbornness that prevented him from taking domestic advice, however, made Trump a soft target for foreign flattery. After berating and baiting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un early in the year, Trump abruptly changed course and ushered in a love fest at a summit in Singapore. Neither approach moved Kim toward unilateral nuclear disarmament as predicted by Trump. At a joint news conference a month later, Trump embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worldview in—at best—a childish attempt to show his domestic fans that the U.S. intelligence community, which consistently warned (and leaked) about the Kremlin’s malevolent intentions, was not getting the better of him. At the end of the year, Trump did favors for both the strongmen of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Excusing one for killing dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil and then paying off the aggrieved Turkish leader by withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria to allow him to finish off his enemies—the Kurds—there. In both cases, Trump’s willfulness signaled the strategic and moral bankruptcy of U.S. leadership. Meanwhile, China fought back against Trump’s reflexive steel tariffs by targeting industries critical to Trump’s electoral base, later contributing to historic Democratic gains in the farm belt. Even allies figured out how to play the Child-Emperor. Both Mexico and Canada convinced Trump that by renaming the North American Free Trade Agreement and making microscopic changes he could declare victory on that front, despite having repeatedly called NAFTA “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made” and promising to tear it up. As Trump raged at the world and came up empty, the deaths this year of Senator John McCain and former President George H.W. Bush, both lions of U.S. global responsibility, put a fine and solemn point on this historical moment being, at least temporarily, the close of a 75-year era of U.S. foreign engagement.

In the first year of the Trump crisis, observers—including this historian—had hoped that senior presidential advisers, nonpartisan civil servants and traditionally Republican congressional leaders would be willing and able to contain the worst instincts of the novice president. The second year showed that the most effective containment would have to come from newly empowered Democrats, the judiciary and the results of the ongoing Mueller investigation. In the November midterm elections, some of the political laws of gravity had held and public revulsion toward Trump translated into a blue wall of support, allowing Democrats to win about 40 House seats and take the majority. Although the year saw Trump put a second justice on the Supreme Court—whose confirmation hearing highlighted the sectarian fervor of Trump supporters who passionately embraced a deeply flawed human being for a lifetime appointment—he had no more success with the third branch of government in 2018 than in 2017. Indeed, in 2018 the judiciary buttressed the work of the Mueller inquiry, arguably the institution that most symbolized that the U.S. constitutional system was not buckling under Trump. Despite a torrent of invective from the president, the former FBI Director Robert Mueller and his team of nonpartisan lawyers continued their investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election. The indictment and sentencing of the Trump family lawyer, Michael Cohen, would not have been possible in the authoritarian regimes that the president so admired. In Turkey, Russia or Saudi Arabia, it would be the prosecutor who disappeared to a cell or worse. But in the United States, despite Trump, it was not only Cohen who faced justice but prosecutors left breadcrumbs leading to the Oval Office itself.

As the year ended, the victory of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections (with its promise of subpoena-led investigations and accountability), the hollowing out of the Trump regime, the president’s consistently low approval ratings, and the possibility that the Mueller inquiry would produce evidence of Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator either in financial crimes or collusion with Russia signaled for some observers that the tide in the United States, at least, had turned against the nativist wave of 2016. On the other hand, there was no reason to believe that the dark populism of Trumpism was fading outside American cities and suburbs or that Trump and his acolytes were doing anything but digging in for a long struggle, whatever the political, human or economic costs to the nation or the world.

***

Tech disrupted
Maragaret O’Mara is a history professor at the University of Washington.

By the end of the 21st century’s second decade, America’s largest technology companies had amassed wealth and influence impossible to imagine at the dawn of the digital age 70 years before. With user bases in the billions, market capitalization in the trillions, and products and platforms that had become ubiquitous and essential tools for modern life, Big Tech had disrupted nearly every other business sector and become celebrated as a shining example of American innovation and entrepreneurship.

The mood changed abruptly in 2018, amid a cascade of new revelations about the role of social media and other internet platforms in fueling the era’s political discord. Both in a fractious United States and in fragile and volatile democracies overseas, the open and connected platforms of techno-optimistic Silicon Valley had become weaponized in ways that their creators had never intended. It was hardly the first time that a new communications medium had been accused of upending politics—newsprint, radio and television had been vulnerable to nefarious influences when they too were new on the scene—but the scope, speed and scale of online media dwarfed all that came before.

With cooling sentiment about some tech products came also a new skepticism toward big tech companies that made them. After decades of wanting to become the next Silicon Valley, cities started to look at tech’s presence with new wariness. When online giant Amazon concluded its headline-making search for a second headquarters city by announcing that it would locate tens of thousands of workers in New York City and suburban Washington D.C. (receiving billions in local tax incentives in exchange), the news was greeted with as much trepidation as celebration.

The extraordinary reach of these remarkably young and market-defining firms—Facebook was 14 years old in 2018, Google was merely 20—recalled the rapid-fire growth of the great oil, steel and railroad trusts in the late 19th century’s Gilded Age. And 2018’s freshly combative stance toward tech in the nation’s newsrooms and its corridors of political power recalled the growing calls for reform in the early 20th century’s Progressive Era. Would Washington once again increase its regulatory power and flex its antitrust muscle to curb the power of big business as it did in the age of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson? Our textbook’s next chapter will hold the answer.

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