If Trump had a doppelganger in history, it was probably Don Diego de Peñalosa, Governor of colonial New Mexico from 1661 to 1664. If history repeats itself, we may be able to learn something about our future.
Colonial New Mexico
By 1661, most of New Mexico had been under Spanish rule for several generations. The society was feudal, consisting of dozens of Pueblo communities representing the serf class, wealthy Spanish landlords, and the Spanish authorities, which included political rulers, a small army, and Catholic priests.
When Peñalosa was appointed Governor by the authorities in Mexico City, he was obsessed with his inauguration. As he journeyed north to Santa Fe, he expected nearby colonists to accompany him in a grand procession. In pueblo after pueblo, he demanded expensive receptions. When a priest failed to come out and greet him six miles from a town, Peñalosa was livid. Once in power, he demanded indigenous musicians, one from each pueblo rotating each week, to play for him while he dined.
Violating political norms and conflicts with the judiciary
His rule began with provocative executive orders and political appointments that pushed the bounds of established protocol. Checks and balances in colonial New Mexico mostly involved two branches of power: church and state. Peñalosa was in constant conflict with the priests, usually fighting over the use and taxation of Native labor. Each side wanted to exploit them. When a priest sought to re-build a church in Taos, Peñalosa appointed a Pueblo man that had murdered the previous priest as the new mayor and forbade construction of the church. When the clergy protested, he threatened them, saying he had secret authorization to kill them, though his claim was certainly false.
Early removal from power
Peñalosa’s turbulent reign came to an end over the issue of sanctuary. When he sent troops into a church to arrest a fugitive, the colony’s head priest threatened Peñalosa with ex-communication. Peñalosa responded by throwing this head priest in jail, an act unprecedented in New Mexico history. This would be akin to jailing the head of the Supreme Court. In this case, authorities in Mexico City intervened, Peñalosa was forced to resign, and was subject to a lengthy investigation that lasted years. The final verdict was all too poetic. Peñalosa was made to “walk bareheaded and barefooted through the streets of Mexico City carrying a lighted green candle as a symbol of repentance” (R. Silverberg, 1970, The Pueblo Revolt). He was then banished from the colonies and sent back to Spain. Demonstrating that he valued himself over his country, he offered his services to Spain’s enemies, England and France, to help them take over New Mexico and reinstall him as governor. He characterized the venture as a business partnership, with potential earnings based upon his own false report that continues to fool scholars even today. Neither England nor France were fooled, however, and both declined the offer.
Legacy of division and ultimate dissolution of the nation
Perhaps more troubling than Peñalosa’s reign is what happened in its wake. The colony fell apart. Peñalosa had so torn the fabric of political stability and accepted behavior that, among the Pueblo masses, acceptance of Spanish rule devolved into a total lack of trust. Sixteen years later the unthinkable happened. In one of the most complete and thorough revolutions ever seen in the New World (rivaled only by the Haitian slave revolution), the alienated Pueblo revolted. Literally every Spaniard was either killed or fled south of the Rio Grande.
Will the States still be united twenty years after Trump?
While there are plenty of differences between colonial New Mexico and the US in the 21st century, the stability of any societies depends on trust in political norms and practices, ranging from etiquette to respect for the rule of law. As a friend of mine likes to say, the US is a myth we all believe in simultaneously. It’s not a physical thing; it’s a social construct that depends on our faith and our participation in it.
As Trump tears at the fabric of trust and breaks political norms, all those things that rely on goodwill, rather than law or threat of force, become vulnerable. It began with impolitic and outrageous statements that slandered political opponents (e.g. Obama’s birth certificate or wire-tapping), offended our sensibilities (e.g. lampooning the disabled or bragging about sexual assault), and demonized minority groups (e.g. Mexicans and Muslims). Conventional wisdom was that he was unelectable. Trump’s administration has promoted previously unthinkable policies (e.g. banning thousands of foreign professionals and university students from certain Muslim countries, and defunding the National Endowments for the Arts and other valued institutions) and the rejections of past political agreements (e.g. Obama’s executive order on Environmental Justice to protect minority communities). While they are unprecedented, Trump can do many of these things legally.
Only two months into his administration, one wonders how much he will push the envelope of the rule of law. Will the checks and balances hold, or will the dam break? Trump’s self-identification with Andrew Jackson and the latter’s refusal to abide by Supreme Court rulings (specifically when it came to racial issues and ethnic cleansing) suggests the dam will be under pressure. Looking at a red/blue county map of the United States, those blue dots in the middle of the country that represent African-American communities in Kansas City and St. Louis (one of the key birthplaces of Black Lives Matter) and Indian reservations (that voted 90% Democratic and fought an oil pipeline) look like targets. The reservations are protected by treaties and law, but are certainly dependent on the continued goodwill of the federal government to sustain them. Will Trump, or a future Trump, make moves to abrogate the treaties, abolish Native sovereignty, and privatize the lands (thus replicating the Allotment Act of 1887)? Twenty years from now, in the face of unrelenting police brutality, continued shocking incarceration rates, unacceptable health care and public schools, and crushing debtor’s prisons, will there be another “great migration” of African-Americans from urban areas of red states to urban areas of blue states? Will Americans physically move north, south, east, and west to divide themselves into more red and more blue areas?
The 2016 election and voting trends suggest that, in future elections, debate over the issues will matter little. It’s already clear which districts are red and which are blue (over 90% of America’s counties were decided by double-digit percentage differences); the battle is simply over voter turnout.
The implications of this are severe. With each ensuing election, each side can put up extremist candidates and be assured of their party’s votes. Thanks to gerrymandering, the partisan rift has been widening at the legislative level for several decades. The nomination of Trump is merely the first obvious example of an extremist candidate at the presidential level. Trump is thus not just a cause of division, but a symptom. In future elections, losing counties and states may wonder why they participate or why they should accept the results. While such a crisis would not likely lead to a massive Pueblo-style revolution, the red/blue divide could lead to disrupted or utterly unaccepted elections, political crises, or the secession of states. If the history of Peñalosa repeats itself, twenty years from now the rise and (presumably) fall of Trump could be merely the first chapter in the dissolution of the United States.