The Chronicle Review

Trump and the Problem of History

Alex Williamson for The Chronicle Review

March 27, 2016

Donald J. Trump’s bloodcurdling, breakneck drive toward the Republican presidential nomination has been met with shock, revulsion, and a torrent of historical analogies. Some journalists reassure us that we’ve seen the likes of Trump before, pointing to quixotic American demagogues like George Wallace or nativist tycoons like Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst. Others find Trumpian precedent not in this country’s political heritage but rather in Europe’s. With not-unjustifiable concern, analysts recall ancient Rome, weigh the fascist credentials of the GOP front-runner, and publicly wonder if we’re not retracing Weimar Germany’s descent into catastrophe.

Many commentators appear to be searching for the Goldilocks explanation, the just-right historical comparison that makes sense of Trump’s position in American politics and forecasts his future. They won’t find it. While certain analogies are more persuasive or illuminating than others, none of them is ironclad. The 2016 election is sui generis.

Yet we should also consider whether so many past parallels are making it easier or more difficult for us to defend democracy. Do they help us identify and understand threats to the common weal? Or are they leading us astray? When are historical analogies justified, and what are they good for?

Appeals to history are wickedly hard to resist. For one thing, they’re almost always good politics. The most effective historical analogies condemn and canonize all at once, turning policy debates into morality plays and draping candidates with ersatz seriousness. (This is why Republicans have been so keen to frame President Obama as our generation’s Neville Chamberlain; it allows them to play Winston Churchill.) Historical comparisons also serve a more essential function by allowing human beings to safely encounter and organize a world in flux. Experience and previous categories help us evaluate new threats and opportunities while protecting us from information overload. History appears to tame epistemological chaos.

We know, of course, that historical parallels are crude and imperfect tools for making sense of the present. We make false comparisons on the basis of distorted information or neglected facts, warping the past (and present) to our particular ends. Or we forget that history, even if it rhymes, never does repeat itself. After all, individual decisions matter. And any particular compound of causes will ever exist only once, not least of all because our choices and alternatives are influenced by historical memory itself: our sense of what’s possible, the lessons we think we’ve learned.

The greatest civic danger, however, is complacency. Peddling certainty and solace, many historical analogies make beguiling but dangerous promises about what will happen next. When we compare Trump to George Wallace or Henry Ford, similar men who never became president, we feel worse about the Donald’s chances and better about ourselves. But historical analogies offer only the illusion of sense. And as they move things strange and shocking back to familiar terrain, as they reassure us that the past explains the present, many historical comparisons invite us to disengage. We know the script. We know how it ends. Instead of sparking our political imagination, the past can sometimes short-circuit it.

Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.

We might start by considering how deeply language matters, how the words we use set the boundaries of political action. In medieval Europe, anti-Semitic rhetoric preached from pulpits led to real, bone-breaking violence against Jews. Crude sexual insinuations published by the French gutter press in the 1780s steadily corroded the political conventions shielding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, making it possible for their subjects to imagine both revolution and execution. Germans supported Hitler in part because Nazism had become salonfähig, the socially acceptable stuff of polite conversation.

When Trump mocks the disabled or wishes that he could assault protesters or predicts riots should he be denied the nomination, he widens our shared sense of what is politically possible to think, say, and do. Here the past offers not a script so much as a crucial, destabilizing insight: Words, especially words uttered in public, can have incantatory power. They can summon demons.

History owes nothing to our better angels. It suggests that rules can, in fact, be broken.
Mercenary and disinterested, history owes nothing to our better angels. It suggests that rules can, in fact, be broken. Systems do fail. Consider, for instance, the confidence of European leaders in 1913, men who would have chortled at the suggestion that their stable geopolitical order could ever collapse. A century later, we still remember the millions of men killed at Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, and the Somme.

The Weimar Republic can be useful for the same reason: not for breezily labeling Trump an American Hitler, but to remind us more generally that political order can be remarkably fragile, civilization only skin-deep. After all, despite volatile economic conditions and the lingering trauma of wartime defeat, Germans in the 1920s lived under the most progressive constitution in the world: a radical democratic system of proportional representation, equal rights for women, and a guaranteed right to housing. Political disagreements worsened and polarization increased, but Germans had no reason to doubt that they lived in a modern, civilized country. It took only a few elections for the land of Beethoven and Goethe to succumb to its darkest instincts. Sheer disbelief kept many Germans from emigrating when they had the chance.

The past warns us that systems work until they don’t. Watching Trump prepare to seize the Republican nomination, it’s easy to surrender to a kind of civic paralysis that’s equal parts horror and glee. We should bear in mind, however, that this election is under no obligation to settle out safely. Political orders do not automatically sustain themselves.

Caught in the throes of such an unusual presidential campaign, it’s no surprise that we’re turning so enthusiastically to the past for reassuring answers and explanations. Historical comparisons can’t tell us for sure what Trump represents or what he’ll do next or even how we should respond. But when used to emphasize the contingency of events, history can radically and constructively expand our political imagination.

As Trump racks up delegates, we could do worse than listen to Walt Whitman. In a breathtaking 1871 essay titled "Democratic Vistas," he pondered "the main portions of the history of the world" and observed, rightly, that "justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of their protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not."

True historical thinking saves us from fatalism. Bringing the contingent, complicated past to bear on the present, it reminds us that things could always have turned out differently. Rejecting certainty, it offers hope. And it helps us to believe, as did Whitman, that "there is an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate."

Ian P. Beacock is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @IanPBeacock.