Julian Zelizer, a history professor and CNN political analyst, emphasized the Trump presidency not as a cause, but a product of the deep partisan polarization of American politics today, in his Nov. 7 lecture “Political Polarization and the Road to the Trump Presidency.”
“Julian is probably the most prominent person working today in American political history,” said professor Gerald Gamm, Chair of UR’s Political Science Department. Gamm continued, “With everything going on in the American political realm today, there’s nothing more exciting than to get some historical perspective on the issues and personalities that we’re discussing..”
Zelizer, who was at UR as part of the Phi Beta Kappa visiting lecture series, is a professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and author and editor of 20 books. Zelizer said that there are four key points that make a Trump presidency possible, and popular with the Republican party: political polarization, a changing media landscape, the persistence of illiberalism, and the survival and expansion of presidential power after Watergate.
“In some ways, he [President Trump] sees our political world more clearly than the centrists and unifiers who wish it [was] different,” Zelizer said. He continued, saying that Trump relishes America’s increased polarization, using it to solidify support from both Republican Party members and his voter base.
Zelizer spoke of two major trends in American politics that have enabled Trump to act divisively: a trend towards greater partisan polarization beginning in the ‘60s, resulting in the loss of influential party centrists, and the Republican Party retaining an incredible degree of internal cohesion as they move further right than Democrats do left.
“I feel like many people — including myself — only see Trump’s actions as unplanned and chaotic,” sophomore Izzy Murphy said. “But Dr. Zelizer looked at it from a different perspective that I don’t get to hear a lot, seeing Trump’s actions as helpful for himself and for the new Republican Party.”
Zelizer stressed the changing media landscape, specifically Trump’s prolific use of Twitter, as one of the most useful weapons in the President’s political arsenal. The lack of focus in modern media makes it difficult for journalists to build interest in a story that could be damaging to the administration, he said, and allows Trump to use negative coverage by the news to inflame discussions that are beneficial to him.
“The Trump administration is a new example of an old concept — ‘imperial presidency,’” Zelizer said. “[The term was] used to describe excesses and abuses by the Nixon administration,” he continued, pointing out that institutional reforms cannot restrain a president who does not respect institutions.
“I thought [Zelizer] was accessible to a broad audience, not just political science students,” said senior Skylar Cerbone. “I think he speaks well to current concerns and says it in a way that really wouldn’t be divisive in any way and can speak across party lines.”
In response to people asking if universities are in crisis because of the recent inundation of controversies, Zelizer said on the contrary, he has met students all over the country who ask great questions about big issues, adding, “It’s been a really refreshing year and it’s nice to end my fall tour here at Rochester.”