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Professor Theda Skocpol addressed the student body to discuss former President Donald Trump and the upcoming election year.

April 14, 2024

“Trump’s Victory in 2016 May Be a Permanent Turning Point in American History,” A.D. White Professor-at-Large Says

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“Please rise for the horribly treated Jan. 6 hostages,” former President Donald Trump’s campaign announced to Dayton, Ohio rally attendants in March. Seconds later, the national anthem played — sung by the J6 Prison Choir, a group of jailed Trump supporters charged with crimes related to the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection.

In a highly anticipated election year, Americans of all political affiliations anxiously brace for Trump’s campaign and electoral outcomes over the next few months. But to most, what’s going on — and what to expect — remains uncertain

Theda Skocpol, the Harvard University Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, contextualized the rise in Trump’s popularity and associated extremism in an April 9 keynote lecture titled “Rising Threats of U.S. Democracy – Roots and Responses” in which she described what Americans can anticipate in the upcoming 2024 election.

Skocpol, who studies socio-political transformations, is one of 19 current A.D. White Professors-at-Large selected by the University. The Professors-at-Large program was formally established in 1965 to ensure that Cornell remained academically well-connected despite its remote location.  

Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, who introduced Skocpol at the lecture, described non-resident professors of the program as “the world’s greatest scientists, artists and scholars,” brought to campus from other institutions to “advance our intellectual and creative life in a manner that transcends traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.”

Skocpol visited the University to deliver three public lectures, though Cornellians in social sciences disciplines often read her research year-round.

“[My students] know that [they] can’t get out of any course with me without having read some Skocpol on the syllabus, sometimes a few times,” said Mettler, who teaches Government 1111: Introduction to American Government and Politics.

What’s Going On

Skocpol believes that Trump is “neither the cause nor the propellant” of rampant political polarization. Rather, she finds that Trumpism — an extreme right-wing ideology associated with the policies and rhetoric of the former president — is rooted in a decades-long conservative embrace of ethnonationalism to combat the declining competitiveness of the GOP. 

Skocpol argues that far-right multibillionaires inadvertently shifted the Republican Party toward extremism, permitting the rise of ethnonationalists such as Trump. During the 2000s, the Koch Network — a collective of wealthy, right-wing political donors — redirected Republicans to favor small-government and low-tax policies.

“Cold pressures and inducements hollowed out the [Republican] party’s internal balancing capacities,” Skocpol said. “[The Koch Network] push[ed] agendas that were not just unpopular with most Americans but with a lot of grassroots conservatives who voted for Republicans.”

Skocpol believes that rapid immigration from 1965-2008 was the “final ingredient in the ethnonationalist revolt against both the Republican Party and Democrats.” While multibillionaires within the Koch Network favored immigration for cheap labor, politicians like Trump capitalized on conservative fear.

“People who thought of their immigrant neighbors as hardworking people [and] family people suddenly realized that [immigrants] might be voters, and they might be protestors,” Skocpol said. “That aroused certain kinds of anger that bubbled in Republican Party politics.”

According to Skocpol, growing dissatisfaction among conservatives permitted the rise of Trump.

“Trump didn’t create the popular ethnonationalism [of] the Republican Party, but he did centralize and focus it,” Skocpol said. “He dramatized what Trumpism would mean — a strong ethnonationalist appeal combined with a commitment to eliminate Obama policies and nominate judges to support the preferences of the NRA gun networks and the Christian right.”

Skocpol believes that the Trump presidency may have forever changed American politics by organizing the convergence of these formerly fragmented radical interests. 

“Trump’s victory in 2016 may turn out to be a permanent turning point in American history,” Skocpol said. “[He] create[d] a synthesis of originally separate elite and popular radicalizing strands, particularly giv[ing] expression to the anti-immigrant strand of ethnonationalism.”

What to Expect

Skocpol points to Hungary — where Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have fostered a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” since 2010, according to the European Parliament — to predict what continued support for Trumpism could mean for America’s future.

“[Orban] quickly started modifying the constitution’s rules on elections, judges, media regulations and all kinds of other ingredients that go into building a legally installed authoritarian regime,” Skocpol said. 

Skocpol believes that federalism — which aims to prevent any branch of government from acting too powerfully — provides the U.S. with sufficient protection against facing similar constitutional changes as those seen in Hungary. However, she argues that the contemporary Republican ethnonationalist shift concerningly parallels Orban’s rise.

“The key changes in Hungary were to the [Fidesz] party itself, long before 2010 [when] Orban took over what was originally a group of young men in Congress, purged all of the descenders, created a highly nationalized party and then turned it in the direction of ethnonationalist popular appeals,” Skocpol said. “That’s much closer to what’s happening in the Republican Party in the United States.”

Skocpol contextualized these parallels within the 2024 election, stating that if Trump were to be re-elected, the United States could see several abuses of power.

“[The case of Hungary] suggests that the Trumpist purge and refocus of the GOP has been a crucial step in bringing the U.S. to the verge of an authoritarian fusion of party and government powers that would use legal means where they could — but also threats of violence where they couldn’t — to accomplish something similar [to Hungary],” Skocpol said.

Skocpol retains hope that Americans can preserve democracy by supporting pro-democracy groups and mobilizing young voters, but she finds a major flaw in the discussion of democracy that must be fixed first. 

Skocpol notes that threats to democracy are mostly discussed by those involved with higher education, excluding a majority of Americans from critical conversations about the state of democracy, how it’s being threatened and how Americans should respond.

“[We] have to stop talking in academic language and start talking in concrete language about what the lack of democracy means. What happens if your immigrant neighbors who run the restaurant down the street get taken away?” Skocpol said. “Abstract discussion of democracy appeals to the college-educated, but for understandable reasons, it’s not front-and-center for many other people.”

PJ Brown ’25, a government student, described Skocpol’s address as a “human-centric” and an “emotional response” to the endangerment of democracy that emphasized the urgency of encouraging Americans to come together this election year.

“It was a very existentialist talk [because] it laid out the necessity of fixing everything,” Brown said. “We need to be explaining how democracy is at stake. It is people like [Skocpol] that make me hopeful for democracy [because she] sees that we need to be able to point out what’s usually explained in academic terms in language that people can understand.”

Skylar Kleinman is a Sun Contributor and can be reached at [email protected].