The wager was ten dollars. It was 1944, and the law students of Howard University were discussing how best to bring an end to Jim Crow. In the half century since Plessy v. Ferguson, lawyers had been chipping away at segregation by questioning the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine—arguing that, say, a specific black school was not truly equivalent to its white counterpart. Fed up with the limited and incremental results, one student in the class proposed a radical alternative: why not challenge the “separate” part instead?
That student’s name was Pauli Murray. Her law-school peers were accustomed to being startled by her—she was the only woman among them and first in the class—but that day they laughed out loud. Her idea was both impractical and reckless, they told her; any challenge to Plessy would result in the Supreme Court affirming it instead. Undeterred, Murray told them they were wrong. Then, with the whole class as her witness, she made a bet with her professor, a man named Spottswood Robinson: ten bucks said Plessy would be overturned within twenty-five years.
Donald Trump is 70 years old. He has always, clearly, been an incoherent thinker, contradictory and prone to self-gratifying delusions. But if, for much of his life, he was able to pass as an intelligent and well-informed man, it was probably just because he religiously read newspapers, especially the New York Times. That was and is a decent way to sound like a smart person, at least for a few minutes, which is long enough to impress most rich people. Now, though, Trump is older, his thinking more rigid, his favored media outlets less trustworthy and more likely to reinforce reactionary tendencies. Cable news has largely replaced newspapers as his primary source of information about the world. He has also taken to reading conspiratorial websites run by kooks and con artists. Perhaps, if you have a white parent or grandparent over 60, this sounds familiar?
Trump was always venal, dishonest, genuinely deluded about his financial acumen and business success, and, you know, a wildly misogynistic accused rapist and sexual harasser. But for most of his public life, he also clearly knew the right sorts of things to say to sound like a reasonable person, albeit a mostly ridiculous one. Donald Trump the deranged believer of bizarre untruths about the world at large is actually a fairly recent development. This is why, when he flirted with presidential runs in the past, he spoke positively of universal healthcare. This is why, when he planned to win the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000, he attacked Pat Buchanan as a right-wing extremist. This is why he spent many years claiming to have opposed the Iraq War—which he did, albeit after it was too late, and not before. Trump learned what to think about the world at large from the media, and for most of his life, he was a consumer of the mainstream media.
Donald Trump today is a cruel dolt turned into a raving madman by cable news and Breitbart.com. You could see the descent happen during the Obama era, in concert with the broader maddening of the GOP. The major difference between Trump and the other old white men who’ve been radicalized by the conservative press is that his was a strangely self-directed conversion, based on his desire to make himself known as a plausible Republican presidential candidate.
Early nativist fury in the US. Of course there was earlier nativism in the colonies, but this time the mass media of the day became an important vehicle. There are parallels with Trumpism.
American Protestants felt threatened, economically and culturally, and their pervasive fear found its most sinister, unhinged form in depictions of Catholic nunneries. Demand for exposés increased after the success of Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent, another supposed autobiography published a year before Monk’s detailing a brutal system of forced indoctrination at the Ursuline Convent. (Although it wasn’t published until 1835, the manuscript of Reed’s work was passed around Protestant circles the year before its release, and some have speculated that it contributed to the Ursuline school burning.)