The Atlantic

The Problem With High-Minded Politics

John Adams and John Quincy Adams’s virtuous disdain for partisanship was at the root of their failures.
Source: Jules Julien

Historians have not yet decided what to make of Donald Trump’s election, although some of us have been trying. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, I participated in a session at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting devoted in part to assessing the president-elect in historical terms. The gathering had been planned much earlier, with Hillary Clinton’s presumed presidency in mind, so we speakers had to shift gears in a hurry. The best I could do was summarize Trump’s links to organized crime.

As it happens, my offhand remarks contained some foresight about public revelations in store, but they hardly explained Trump’s historical significance. Some scholars have reached for analogies, likening Trump’s victory to the overthrow of Reconstruction or to the excesses of the ensuing Gilded Age. Others have focused on the roots of Trump’s visceral appeal. Jill Lepore’s recent survey of American history, These Truths, describes Trump as buoyed by a new version of a conspiratorial populist tradition that dates back to the agrarian People’s Party of the 1890s. In a new dual biography of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality, Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein trace Trump’s origins practically to the nation’s founding.

Not that Trump’s name ever appears in their book, but the connection is hard to miss. In a published symposium in 2017, Isenberg and

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