Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.
You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!
This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.
Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.
So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility. Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.
We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.