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Historian Eric Foner: Trump is Logical Conclusion of What the GOP Has Been Doing for Decades

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For a historical perspective on the 2016 race, we speak to Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor at Columbia University. His books include “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, during our debate special on Wednesday night, we spoke to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner of Columbia University and with Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Nermeen Shaikh began by asking Professor Foner a question.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the reasons, just to bring in Professor Eric Foner, that this election season has been so extraordinary, as many people have pointed out, has to do with the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump. So, as an American historian, Professor Foner, could you explain what you think accounts for this extraordinary rise?

ERIC FONER: Well, you know, looking at history, I think Trump is almost a combination of a number of figures, both in our history and abroad. There’s no individual predecessor to Trump, really, but there are precedents, and he didn’t just come out of the blue. You might say he’s a combination of George Wallace, who really was the first to show how white resentment against the gains of the civil rights movement, overt racism, could be really mobilized in a modern campaign and be pretty successful, not only in the South, but he did very well in primaries in Michigan and other states like that—but Wallace was not really talking about the economic issues that Trump is.

You might throw into the hopper Ross Perot in 1992, who is the model of the sort of businessman who had no political experience, and came in with that as his selling point, you know? “Nobody can bribe me; I’m a billionaire. And, you know, I can fix things. I know how to get things done.” But Perot was also the guy who introduced trade into the political dialogue. Perot was the first one to say, “We are losing jobs because of these trade agreements.” Trump, of course, has picked that up.

But on the more personal element and the really, you know, wilder element of Trump, you have to go to a guy like Berlusconi maybe in Italy, who also had this kind of sexual element to his appeal, with his going to sex clubs and parties with young prostitutes and, you know, kind of reveled in this. And I think many of his supporters thought that was pretty cool, as—the male supporters, let us say—as many of Trump’s male supporters don’t seem to be pretty bothered by all the revelations that have come out.

So, there are precedents, but you put them all together, and, as was said, it’s a kind of oddball election, no question about it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Eddie Glaude, you know, this election—tonight’s debates come as both Clinton and Trump are among the most unpopular candidates, I mean, in decades, in American history. And younger voters are reportedly especially dismayed by the state of the race. A recent survey, which was reported in the BBC, found that many younger voters would rather see a giant meteor destroy the Earth than vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. So, Professor Eddie Glaude, can you talk about that, first what Springsteen said about Trump’s appeal and then where young voters stand today in this race?

EDDIE GLAUDE: Well, really quickly, I want us to be very careful in terms of how we characterize Trump. We try to characterize him in this way, and I think, for the most part, Bruce Springsteen is right, but we’re describing him in such a way that it almost distances him from what the Republican Party has been doing for decades.

So, talk of voter fraud, this is the justification that was used for voter ID laws in North Carolina, in Texas, the attempt in Pennsylvania. We’ve heard this language before. And when Donald Trump talks about “Look at Philadelphia, look at Chicago, look at St. Louis,” I mean, that’s not a racial dog whistle, that’s a foghorn. He’s saying to his voters, “These black and brown voters are going to steal your election.” We’ve heard this before.

When he talks about a liberal media stealing or rigging the election, we’ve heard this going all the way back to the '80s and even before then. We've seen it on the attack of PBS, on the attack of NPR, even the attack of Sesame Street. There has been this idea that there’s a conspiracy on the part of the liberal media to kind of—to block out conservative views. So, he’s just ratcheted up.

And this question about the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of the election of Hillary Clinton, we’ve been experiencing this for the last eight years around President Obama’s election. So, the fact that you have this manufactured outrage on the part of Republicans about what Donald Trump is doing, he’s just simply transporting what they have been doing over the last few years, over the last decade or so, into the presidential campaign season. So that’s the first thing. So we don’t want to make that differentiation to start.

In terms of young voters, I think what we see, right, is the fact that they are, in some significant way, fed up with this duopoly. They’re fed up with this two-party system, many of them are. And they see that their life chances cannot be defined, right, by business as usual. So, the Republican Party is bankrupt, right? The Democratic Party is hardly distinguishable, and they’re bankrupt. And so, what you see are millennials, in interesting sorts of ways, groping for a different kind of politics, trying to speak to the fact that their student debt, right, has overwhelmed, right, credit card debt, trying to—trying to understand how they’re going to enter into a labor market where they don’t seem to have a place, even though they may have a college degree, trying to understand, right, what does it mean to imagine the U.S. as an imperial power under these conditions and to be wholly against this fact. They’re growing up amid five wars. How are they going to talk about that we’ve just went through or experienced the hottest month or year on record, right, in terms of our stewardship of the planet?

So I think what we’re seeing—and this is really important for long-term implications, right, of the election cycle—I think we’re seeing young people, I think we’re seeing people of color, right, look at what’s going on in this election cycle, and I think they’re drawing a number of conclusions. But one conclusion that they’re drawing is that it seems as if white people are losing their damn minds.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Foner, on that, do you think that—to comment on what Professor Glaude said, you spoke earlier of the historical antecedents to Trump. Would you go so far as to say that Trump is the natural culmination of where the Republican Party—what the trajectory has been of the Republican Party?

ERIC FONER: Well, what Professor Glaude just said is quite right. Yeah, much of what—much of what Trump is saying is in—a much more kind of forthright and extreme version of things that have gone back to Nixon’s Southern strategy. It was Vice President Agnew who launched the attack on the press—that’s a long time ago—and certainly voter suppression, all those sorts of things, yes. But it’s a little bit different, you know, just the way he does it.

But I think, you know, Trump has—according to the polls, which may or may not be accurate, you know, 85 percent of Republicans are going to vote for Trump. So, he is, in many ways, a mainstream Republican candidate, even though he’s a little more—you know, the way he goes about it is not quite the same as, let us say, Jeb Bush or someone like that in the language he uses. But most Republicans recognize him as a, you know, acceptable Republican. Now, he’s lost some. Hillary is getting 95 percent of the Democratic vote, according to these, so there’s a gap. But that’s not that gigantic a number of Republicans who are saying, “No, I’m fed up with Trump. I can’t stand Trump. He’s impossible. He’s, you know, a demagogue,” etc.

So, yes, Trump is the logical conclusion of a lot of things the Republican Party has been doing. Really, I think Nixon, for all his sins, was also the father of a lot of this with the Southern strategy, which was based on, you know, getting whites in the South to shift from the Democratic Party, which they had been in for almost a century, to the Republican Party based on resentment over the gains of the civil rights movement. And that’s really planted the seeds for the transformation of the Republican Party into what we see today. And Trump is the conclusion of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Professors Eric Foner of Columbia and Eddie Glaude of Princeton.

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