The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States in 2016 was the culmination of a long history of geopolitical factionalism and resentment that had long defined, and indeed driven, the American political dynamic and experience. Some historians and political scientists define American political history through the party systems; the first party system; the second party system; the party system, and so on. This reading privileges the typical ideological understanding of politics. Instead, it is better to understand the movement of American politics through geographic tensions and that the various American constitutional orders have been premised on this internalized geopolitical dialectic—something visible even in the American Founding and the letters of Thomas Jefferson.
The First Geopolitical Order: Parity and Parity Lost
Slavery is a contentious issue in American history and politics and is related to the geopolitical tension and dynamism of the American political experience. There can be no denying, however, the constitutional settlement of 1787 accepted slavery. Thus, the first political order was based on the inclusion of slavery into the constitutional regime agreed upon by the states after the failed regime under the Articles of Confederation. This is not to enter the debate, historiographic, polemical, and propagandistic, concerning slavery and the American founding and experience. However, one cannot fail to accept the reality that slavery as an institutional force in America was not abolished in 1787 and concessionary acceptance of slavery was part of the constitutional settlement.
But slavery was not the defining characteristic of the geopolitical order that dominated American politics from 1789-1861. Slavery was attached to this geopolitical dynamic, but the tension between north and south—and the parity of power between the two regions: one slave and the other “free”—was the defining characteristic. In this struggle between north and south, two founding fathers reigned supreme: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton embodied the political vision and aspiration of the North(east): centralized, vibrant, commercial, and industrial nation. Jefferson embodied the political vision and aspiration of the South: decentralized, agrarian, communitarian, and republican. One vision saw the merchant, the banker, and the trader as the pulsating heart of the new nation. The other vision saw the yeoman farmer and the filial farm as the soul of the new nation.
Part of the constitutional compromise in 1787 was to keep a political balance between the two geographical poles of the new nation. The reality of this compromise came to a fore with the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to keep the compromise intact, but when the admission of California as a free state into the Union broke the parity between north and south, between slave and free, with the shifting dynamics of North American expansion, the movement to a new constitutional order began. Bound up with the free-slave, north-south, Yankee-Yeoman divide was the geographic nature of this dialectic as already stated. While northern free states had many de jure laws of segregation—though no laws of enforced slavery—the growing rift between northern commercialization and abolitionist politics against southern agrarianism and “that peculiar institution” also meant a growing rift between the geographic north and the geographic south.
The Cousins’ War, by Kevin Philips, details the old cultural divisions in North America, especially the United States, which are equally important for understanding the cultural dynamic to the geopolitical crisis which climaxed in 1861. The Northern states were of Anglo-Puritan stock, moralistic and apocalyptically millenarian in their disposition. George McKenna, also describing this phenomenon, wrote that, “The Progressives loved America, but the America they loved was one that began in New England, traversed the North, and defeated the slave-holding south. Its religion was Protestant…It was the muscular, activist, strain of Puritanism.” Sacvan Bercovitch also wrote an important analysis of the Puritan psyche and the formation of the American mind and self-understanding in The Puritan Origins of the American Self.
The South had become dominated by the Scotch-Irish through a series of migrations while retaining its old cavalier aristocracy. Philips discusses this in The Cousins’ War, and numerous studies have highlighted this reality including the seminal Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement of Virginia. These Scotch-Irish mingled into southern society which was, in its earlier settlement, defined by the cavalier flight from England after their defeat in the English Civil War. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed discusses these cultural currents of early America which all students of American history and culture should read.
Thus there is not only a geographic pivot to American history and development but also a cultural division embedded in this geographical dialectic. The North was broadly Puritan or congregationalist, the South becoming Presbyterian and Baptist with a strong Episcopal aristocracy; the North was broadly Anglo-Puritan, the South broadly Scotch-Irish with cavalier echoes. The North suffered routinely from bouts of Protestant nativism but also had a growing immigrant Catholic population which entered primarily through northern ports while the South remained Anglo-Scotch Protestant save for pockets of Catholicism from the Acadian expulsion (settling in Louisiana) and from post-Revolution settlement (especially in coastal South Carolina and Georgia).
The Lost Cause Myth of the Confederacy is one of the most troubling aspects of American historiography, if only because it presents the false portrait that the American South was fighting for “states’ rights.” On the contrary, and southern documents of secession testify to this, it was northern nullification of federal law which was the cause of southern secession—in other words, it was northern nullification of north-south parity in federal politics that spurred the dissolution of the Union. As the Declaration of Secession from South Carolina emphatically states, “But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” The South felt the North had veered too far in promotion of states’ rights and nullification in rejecting the authorized federal slavery laws, like the Fugitive Slave Act. Following Locke’s political theory, a constitutional commonwealth which was no longer enforcing the agreed upon social contract no longer had a legitimate government.
When a society is fallen into a state of anarchy, which is a return to the state of war which compelled humans to leave the state of nature in the first place, the task is to restore proper government. The great myth of Locke, on this point, is that he endorsed “perpetual revolution.” Anyone who has read the Second Treatise in its entirety knows this is a fabricated lie—Locke does not endorse such a concept, his famous chapter on revolution is about restoring legitimate government and not overthrowing governments at will. Locke’s “long train of abuses” clause gives the context to know when a government has become illegitimate and that is what the South had come to think leading to secessionist ordinances of the southern states to form their own legitimate government to protect the original compact.
Locke’s political theory was put to the test in the American Civil War. The southern states, which had legal institutional slavery, believed that part of the constitutional compact of 1787 was the inclusion of geopolitical parity between north and south, between free and slave states. With the standing and authorized laws being ignored by the northern states, southern states felt the constitutional compact was no longer in place and they decided to form a new government to honor that old agreement for themselves without the northern states.
The writing was on the wall for them too. Growing abolitionism and the ending of geopolitical parity after 1850, and the general abdication of federal enforcement of pro-slavery laws, caused the southern founding fathers to see the end of the 1787 compact. The northern states, backed by the power of the federal government won in 1860 election, took the equally Lockean view that the covenant of the political is once and for all—and that the government was still legitimate and had not reneged on any of the original social contract agreements from 1787. Therefore the southern states were part of these United States of America forever.
The Civil War is America’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” for many reasons. As such, the wars fought over the memory and interpretation of this event is often bitter and vicious to the very end. But the aftermath of the Civil War brought a new epoch of geopolitical reality to the American order. While the federal parity between north and south had been ruptured, the granting of the southern states “Home Rule” ensured a distinctive southern culture and character to local politics; and the occasional alliances with sympathetic northerners, like with the “Conservative Coalition” in blocking parts of the New Deal, meant that the South still had a distinctive voice in federal politics and through that voice able to protect Home Rule from federal (northern) encroachment.
The first geopolitical order to American politics, however, cannot be denied. The original parity between north and south, which Jefferson and Hamilton personally embodied leading to the compromise that brought forth the federal assumption of state debts and the location of Washington D.C. to the south, all point to this reality. As does the contentious issue of slavery and abolitionism which culminated in the Civil War.
The Second Geopolitical Order: Northern Hegemony and Midwestern Ascendency
After the Civil War the federal politics of the United States shifted away from north-south parity to a northern hegemony marked with a distinctive midwestern ascendency. The second geopolitical order, roughly 1877-1945 in my estimation, was marked by an internal dialectic between the populist, agrarian, and industrial Midwest and westerly Great Plains states, and the seafaring, capitalistic, and commercialistic northeast seaboard: Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. (Noam Maggor’s Brahmin Capitalism goes into detail about this dynamic to American politics.)
The geopolitical function that the South served, in curbing the hegemony of the east coast from 1787-1861, therefore shifted to the American Midwest. The industrial, agrarian, populist, and isolationist Midwest—both among its Democratic and Republican officials—was intensely skeptical of the eastern establishment. Coastal and Interior resentment grew in this period, climaxing, in different forms, with William Jennings Bryan’s populist crusade and the isolationism and anti-capitalism of the Midwest’s “America First” mentality. After all, Senator Gerald Nye, the ardent isolationist and anti-Wall Street prairie populist from North Dakota and isolationist voice in the years leading up to America’s entry into the Second World War, concluded that financial irresponsibility and the corporate war industry’s support of Britain and France was the cause of America’s entry into the First World War. Moreover, though the effort failed, part of the Nye Commission’s hope was to nationalize the financial leviathan emanating from New York City. Through the nationalization of the New York banking elite, Nye and other prairie populists believed they could curb federal politics back to being favorable to the agrarian and industrial Midwest with its general isolationist outlook.
If the first geopolitical order had a cultural and economic current to it, so too did the second geopolitical order. The Midwest was defined by its sweeping plains and growing industrial cities: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, etc. The east coast was defined by its sea lanes and financial institutions. There was also a stubborn agrarian and industrial isolationism part of the working-class culture of the Midwest with strong German immigrant roots. The contrast was the opposite in the east where an old money capitalism and wealthy Anglo-Saxon Puritan culture dominated with a growing concern for internationalism for the purposes of economic gain and expansion (as Nye put it).
To feed its growing needs, the Northeast began to move away from American continentalism and toward a new maritime internationalism. Continental Manifest Destiny morphed into the internationalist shining city. This shift from continental isolationism to maritime internationalism came at the expense of the ascendant Midwest which was firmly rooted in the geopolitics of the interior continent which propelled its own self-conscious isolationism. Self-sustaining and on the rise, the Midwestern mentality saw nothing but east coast shenanigans and troubles with the movement into the Caribbean and Pacific.
Federal politics in this period oscillated between Midwestern agrarianism, populism, and isolationism over and against a growing an east coast WASP politics, commercialism, and internationalism. Both Roosevelts exhibited the latter perfectly; the long list of forgettable Ohio presidents and the insurgent campaigns by Bryan, the Irreconcilables, and the America First Movement the former. But this dynamism between Midwest and east coast was equally captured in American literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has Nick Carraway as the Midwestern protagonist who drowns himself in a world of sensual consumerism and life without roots. F. Scott Fitzgerald was, himself, from Minnesota. Poets like David Bates and Henry Holcomb Bennett rose to fame. As did Illinois native Ernest Hemmingway.
In many ways, the literary wars of the turn of the century equally captured this heartland vs. east coast dialectic. The cultural productivity of the Midwest at this time was fed by the Midwest ascendency in national politics and American identity. After all, when one thinks of baseball and apple pie, one doesn’t necessarily think of Boston or New York but the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the “Field of Dreams,” and makeshift cornfield baseball parks. As Leo Marx has written concerning this dynamic in American literature, “Nick’s final gesture is a mere salute to the memory of a vanished America; and the book ends on a sadly enervated note of romantic irony.”
Because the South had Home Rule, which contented it enough during this period, the Midwest exercised a greater exertion in American politics. The populism and isolationism of the region was taken seriously. Most of the Irreconcilables hailed from “Flyover Country” and prevented America’s entry into the League of Nations. Labor politics and anti-imperialist sentiment stretched from the Ohio River to Rocky Mountains. Even the promotion of the Wilderness Campaign can be understood as a bowing before the newfound importance of the Midwest and her geography which calls urbanites out of the sterile metropolis to rediscover the sublime if even for a few days or a week. National parks weren’t exactly propping up in Massachusetts or New York City.
Even the beginning of America’s national electoral process, the Iowa Caucuses, and the language of “the Real America” harken back to this Midwestern ascendency and primacy. Walt Whitman’s praise of the Midwest as “A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude” which was also “[t]he crown and teeming paradise” of the United States captures so perfectly the Midwest’s political heritage and memory. The Midwest was, during this second geopolitical order, in the words of Professor Jon Lauck, the “warm center” of American culture and politics.
If adolescent America was defined by its colonial heritage and the north-south dynamic, the maturing America was defined by Midwestern dynamism and the “American Gothic.” But there was the always oscillating pull to the east coast at the same time; this parity between the Midwest and North Atlantic seaboard finally ruptured in that defining event which transformed the United States from continental republic to the imperial New Athens and the pulsating heart of the Rimland alliances—the Second World War.
The Third Geopolitical Order: Coastal Hegemony and Maritime Imperium
The shifting poles of American geopolitics began in the Second World War and continued through the 1950s and 1960s. In the post-war settlement, the isolationism and industrialism, indeed, the populism, of the Midwest was defeated. Some noted isolationists, like Senator Arthur Vandenburg, became internationalists. The last old guard of isolationists, from William Edgar Borah, Gerald Nye, and Robert Taft (all of whom were Republicans) had either died, retired, or were defeated in their elections. The remaining isolationists were pilloried as stooges of the Soviet Union as the Cold War heated up. Even ardent anti-communists like Robert Taft were lambasted as closeted communist agents for their more pacifistic stances on the emerging Cold War.
As the federal political identity of the Midwest was shattered, so too was the regionalism of the American South. The civil rights movement shattered the vestiges of the post-1877 compromise and Home Rule, characterized by the segregationist Jim Crow laws, and eviscerated southern political culture and identity. Its Home Rule was broken just as its last influence on federal politics was broken as anti-segregationist Democrats allied with Republicans to pass federal civil rights legislation.
The South was exiled out of the constitutional order by the 1960s which forced reevaluation of the South’s political purpose and destiny—to be a servile sycophant to the American Empire. The Midwest’s hold on national political culture was cracking too, reaching its first bubbling point after NAFTA and the populist campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot before erupting in 2016. Discontent and resentment in the Midwest is aimed, of course, and the coastal hegemony and overseas empire that has arisen after the Bretton Woods settlement which turned the coasts into the prime movers and beneficiaries of America’s newfound superpower status since 1945.
America’s eastern seaboard situates itself on the open waters of the Atlantic. The natural maritime and Rimland civilizations of the Old World, Spain and Britain, had either long been displaced as the global sea power or were coming to the realization that their empire under the sun was setting. The transference of maritime power from London to Washington in 1945 cannot be understated in the transformation of the third geopolitical order which has come to define American politics and culture since 1945.
While the American Northeast finally achieved its hegemony that Hamilton had always envisioned after nearly 200 years of struggling to break free from the constraints of the South and Midwest, the West Coast was opened to the world too. While American expansion into the Pacific had already been occurring, the sparsely populated American West Coast suddenly boomed in the post-war environment. A combination of Dustbowl flight and post-war settlement transformed the West Coast into a new cultural and economic powerhouse. The advancements of air technology came to link east and West Coast and transformed the lands of the old warm center and ancient geographic compromise into Flyover Country. The power and influence, indeed, prestige, held by the Midwest and the South, both at the federal and local level, the parity once shared with the Northeast, are broken—and seemingly broken forever. The new geopolitical parity that has defined this third geopolitical order has been between the West and Northeast. And if the Northeast has become the New Athens, the West Coast has become the New Atlantis.
The West Coast opens itself up to the vast Pacific Ocean where its openness makes it a gravitational center for the East Asian peoples and nations. Due to its border with Mexico, it is also the general arrival point for Central Americans seeking a new life in America. The West Coast doesn’t open itself up, as the east coast does, to the global sea—since the eastern seaboard of the United States opens itself up to the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and those who may traverse the Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic and then up to the eastern coast of the United States. Furthermore, there is a paradox in the open yet isolated West Coast which is not burdened by the global demands of Rimland leadership which naturally falls on the east coast. As such, the west is truly the New Atlantis rather than the New Athens for its openness to the Pacific and Asia, coupled with the ongoing digital and technological revolution centered in Silicon Valley, making it the natural candidate for building a new utopia. The east coast, as the New Athens, is burdened by the responsibilities of global Rimland leadership which marks the Washington to Boston corridor as the heart of post-war internationalism and the imperial establishment.
The land, and people, west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Rocky Mountains, have an entirely different geopolitical constitution than do the coasts. The same can be said for Canada, where British Columbia is but an extension of the New Atlantis of the West Coast and the eastern part of Canada, from Ottawa to the Nova Scotia, are very much tied up with the culture and politics of the New Athens. The prairie heartlands of Canada form, with the interior United States, a sort of prairie imperium isolated from coasts and filled with rich natural resources which make these regions stubbornly self-sufficient, rural, and traditional. The coasts do not touch them, and neither do modern airliners which primarily function to connect the coasts or to draw heartlanders out of the interior and to either coast in a much more efficient manner than Nick Carraway did.
When one looks at the politics of American reaction, one finds an undeniable geographic element to it. The lands that fueled Donald Trump’s victory are the former states that were once called the “crown and teeming paradise” of the United States. These states once had particular and distinct political cultures that represented their interests with a furious sense of rootedness and particularity that is now largely eviscerated but the memory remains. Though they still have senators and representatives, there is the growing discontent that these elected representatives from the interior heartland do not serve the interests of the Midwest or the South but the interests of the coasts (the “Deep State” or the “Establishment”). For, as Theodor Adorno noted, late capitalism wields money as its arm of power, and the money of America is located on the coasts and bound up with Pacific brain drain to Silicon Valley and the maintenance of the maritime imperium.
What Does the Future Hold?
This current geopolitical order, which sees parity between the coasts, has therefore ravaged the South and Midwest into the “Ragged Edge” of American political life in the language of Professor Lauck. The geopolitical regimes of America have depended on a certain geographic parity and dialectic: North and South; Northeast and Midwest; East Coast and West Coast. The current order is unconducive to the regions that once held that parity in the past which adds to their feeling of alienation and resentment. Furthermore, the previous constitutional orders were never universally dominated by coastal regions—there was always a balance struck between the sea and agrarian and industrial interior.
Donald Trump was the hand grenade into the coastal hegemony and maritime imperium which has defined the third geopolitical order since the end of the Second World War. The reaction against Trump, naturally, from the coasts has been predictable since they are the regions that stand to lose the most in a geographic and political realignment. The prospects of a fourth geopolitical order remain uncertain, especially given the fact that there is no other candidate besides the United States to fulfill the position of maritime and Rimland leader.
Yet the destabilization of the geopolitical order of coastal hegemony has not sorted itself out either. It seems that Democratic Party is solidifying itself as the party of the coasts with its interior holdings largely situated in large urban metropolises which also benefit from the maritime imperium. The “Trumpist” revolution is the boiling resentment and discontent over the loss of parity, influence, and prestige—and the reaction by coastal elites is as much revealing as disconcerting, furthering the perception from the rest of America of an out of touch, arrogant, even malevolent elite. The 2020 election will undoubtedly bring greater tension and dynamism to this unfolding geopolitical reality inside of the United States, and may also point to whether a fourth political order is assembling or a reassertion of coastal hegemony is the indefinite future of American politics.