Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election stunned the political establishment as well as much of the academy, provoking scholars to search for answers to explain this unexpected result. His win is particularly striking considering that he is the antithesis of his successor, Barack Obama. As the nation’s first African American president, Obama embodies the triumph of the idea that “American exceptionalism” and commitment to the nation’s first principles can overcome America’s tragic history with respect to race. American exceptionalism premises itself on the idea that the United States, unlike Europe, lacks an “ancient regime” based on class hierarchy and aristocratic privilege. This article argues that this assumption is false: the United States does have an “ancient regime”—what I call white capitalist patriarchy. This “ancient regime,” unlike the ones in Europe, is based fundamentally on race and white supremacy. I argue that the perpetual cycles of racial progress followed by retrenchment throughout American history are best explained as evidence of the existence of this ancient regime and the reactionary political tradition to which it gives rise.

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