Commentary

Trump as a Teaching Moment

October 23, 2016

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
During this year of living with Donald Trump, I have mostly resembled the frantic fellow in Edvard Munch’s "The Scream." Hands clasped to my face and over my ears, mouth agape, bug-eyed, and barreling away from something dreadful coming my way. Ever since Trump’s declaration last year that Mexican immigrants are rapists to the recent revelation about his personal predilection for rape, my jaw keeps dropping and my blood pressure keeps rising.

Since last year, this reflex, I suspect, has become commonplace in the academy. And yet it is clearly a reflex best suppressed in the classroom. The great challenge, at least in the humanities, is how to respond to this electoral season as a teaching moment.

These moments often come wrapped in comparisons with the past. In order to explain the rise of Trump, the media have hawked a dizzying range of historical comparisons. The associations made in the real and virtual press between the Republican presidential candidate and various tin-pot dictators and totalitarian rulers, from Hugo Chávez to Benito Mussolini, have been legion. And, of course, we cannot forget Adolf Hitler, if only because comedians and commentators will not allow us to forget. A moment does not seem to pass when someone somewhere is busy validating Godwin’s celebrated law. From the comedian Louis C.K. to the book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, influential figures in American popular culture suggest we are lurching toward our own red, white, and blue Gleichschaltung.

My students swim in a virtual sea of such comparisons. And while the sea may be shallow, it is so wide that its waters lap up against the classroom door. Toss a line into the water and Google "Hitler Trump." By the time you do, you will surely catch more than the 30 million links I hauled in this morning. Beyond launching a million memes, the Hitler-Trump comparison has been the stuff of Comedy Central rants and YouTube riffs. Thanks, in part, to our entertainment-industrial complex, students have become connoisseurs of the art of slicing and dicing Trump. It has become a late-night staple, one that satisfies our Munch-like need to vent, but also risks recreating the same unsettling and unreasoning dynamic that shapes Trump rallies.

What’s a historian to do? Make comparisons, I’m afraid. This is, for better and worse, not just inherent to the workings of our profession, but to the workings of our minds. Human beings are condemned to think comparatively. The difference, when it comes to historians, is that we are better trained to account for crucial variables and discount glib analogies. Or so we might tell ourselves at 3:00 in the morning.

But historical events being so very complex, variables vary so drastically as to make the most careful comparisons either so general or so narrow as to be useless. As for historians, we are equally complex; as a result, when we are in front of the classroom, trying to engage our students, comparisons and analogies come fast and furious. We begin to resemble media celebrities, only with fewer jokes and more footnotes.

But there is, perhaps, a more self-aware and less direct approach to comparative thinking. Rather than pointing to one-to-one correspondences between individuals or events then and now, historians might consider turning to those writers who have turned to the past for enduring truths about human nature.

In one of my classes, we have just finished reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse. Though published more than 250 years ago, the book’s dissection of human relations based on the pursuit of desires and not needs, the reign of appearance and not authenticity, is as merciless and mesmerizing today as it was in 1754. We pause and parse certain passages, like Rousseau’s mythical account of the "fatal moment" when human beings slipped unwittingly from a state of solitude to the state of society, a world where "each one began to look at the others and to wanted to be looked at himself, and public esteem had a value." A few students glance at the smartphones on their laps, others bury them in their bags.

Or we stop at Rousseau’s probing of the dark side to human reason: "Our fellow-man can be murdered with impunity under our window; we only need put our hands over our ears and argue with ourselves to prevent nature, which rebels within us, from identifying us with the murdered man." Suddenly, the class finds itself discussing Syria. At the next moment, we move to the presidential debates when a student points us to this passage: "I would claim that if one sees a handful of powerful and rich men at the height of grandeur and fortune, while the crowd grovels in obscurity and misery, it is because the former prize the things they enjoy only insofar as others are deprived of them."

In another class, we have read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The work, Thucydides famously declared, was a possession for all time. But not, I suspect, because it offers ironclad rules for geopolitical or military strategies, or because Athens also confronted the challenge of shameless demagogues and discontented citizens. Instead, as we read the book, the students and I discover that it is a timeless possession thanks to its account of the relationship between language and politics, and how the corruption of one leads to the corruption of the other. Or, even more disturbingly, how Thucydides may well be suggesting that history is little more than the stage for tragedy — that human nature being what it is, we are no more exempt from making new mistakes than the Athenians were from making old mistakes.

Of course, such an approach is hardly the call to activism and engagement called for by groups like Historians Against Trump. But perhaps today more than ever, historians in the classroom need to recall that there are other forms of engagement — forms that require breaking free, if only for the 50 minutes of a class period, of the pressure of the media and relentlessness of the news cycle.

Our task is not to preach, much less to screech — though heaven knows I very much want to do so. Instead, our job is to dwell on the deeper comparisons and devote our time to dialogue with these works and one another. In his work The Historian’s Craft, the great Marc Bloch made a passionate case for the use of historical comparison, but one hedged with humility and humanity. On the basis of that, he declared, the reader will decide whether the historian’s trade is worth practicing. Or, we might add, teaching.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston.