History and Its Limits Under Trump

The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have made my day-to-day work as a historian feel pretty inconsequential. Diving back into the past can feel a lot like sticking your head in the sand while the world around you goes up in flames. There is, of course, an urgent place for history and historians under this particular administration, in part to meet a wider hunger to understand just what the hell is going on in our country. A lot of historians have stepped up and offered their perspective and expertise (just glance through this list). This is useful and necessary work. At the same time, there are limits to how history can and should be used.

I’m not going to venture into the dark, twisted swamp of how Donald Trump and his supporters abuse history. I doubt any of them will read this and I doubt even more that anything I write would change their minds. Instead, I’m writing this for those on the left who are marshaling “history” as a tool of resistance. Two core ideas have been articulated again and again in the last two weeks: “we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past” and “history will judge you.” Broadly speaking, I share these sentiments. And to the degree that they help spur action, let’s continue to use them. But we also need to understand their limitations and the ways in which they can actually be counter-productive.

The first idea is a variation on classic “those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.” You can see this, for instance, in the parallels being drawn between Trump’s immigration ban and when the United States turned away Jewish refugees in the 1930s, hundreds of whom later died in the Holocaust. There are some surface similarities between the two episodes, which is part of what makes it an effective rhetorical tool. This parallel nevertheless implies that these sorts of historical episodes were “mistakes” - momentary, if calamitous, fuck-ups from an otherwise virtuous norm. In the case of immigration, it assumes that closing off our borders is a deviation from our true historical identity as a melting-pot of immigrants. The history of the United States is, indeed, a history of immigrants, but it is also a history of immigrant-haters.

The Jewish refugee episode, as reprehensible as it was, did not represent some momentary lapse. It was firmly anchored in the xenophobia, isolationism, and anti-semitism of the era. Prejudice, fear-mongering, and the exclusion of particular religious or racial groups from entering the United States have been part of national politics for a long, long time. Just because a Muslim ban fits within the longer tapestry of American history, however, doesn’t make it justified - any more than a history of denying women a political voice justifies repealing the nineteenth amendment. A ban on Muslims is wrong because it violates the moral and legal standards of the United States today. We shouldn’t have to turn to history to make that case.

Perhaps most broadly, the “doomed to repeat history” line can also lead to false equivalencies between the present and the past. I’m currently living in Munich, Germany. As I walk past the very same plazas where Hitler held rallies and gave speeches, it’s hard not to hear those echoes in today’s political climate. Listening too closely to them, however, is often counter-productive. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, as much as they might share disturbingly similar political tactics. If you start to seriously compare the two, Trump - for all of his terribleness - is always going to fall short of the man who engineered the most destructive global war in history and the calculated genocide of millions of people. In my mind, this lets Donald Trump off the hook. We shouldn’t be evaluating his actions primarily in terms of their similarities to past fascist regimes. That’s an incredibly low bar.

The problem with historical parallels is that they can also blind us to actions that don’t have easy historical precedents. If we’re only on the lookout for the symptoms of Hitler-esque fascism, we’re going to miss all the other danger signs of, say, a more modern autocracy. In fact, given the sheer intensity and speed with which this administration has assaulted so many things I care about, I think that constantly trying to draw lessons from the past can actually serve as a distraction. It’s well worth debating which of the Andrews (Jackson or Johnson) serves as a better parallel for Donald Trump; in the meantime, he’s installing a climate-change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency or making a racist ethno-nationalist one of the most powerful people in the world.

The second line that I’ve heard again and again is that “history will judge you.” This is most often aimed at Republicans in an attempt to force them to weigh long-term legacies against short-term agendas. Yes, Trump might help you repeal Obamacare. But do you want to be the next George Wallace? Are future generations going to laud you for standing up for basic decency or deride you as someone who helped pave the way for hatred and bigotry? I happen to firmly believe our grandchildren will look back on Donald Trump in horror, but predicting the future is a slippery business. There is no archive that I can draw from to “prove” where our country will end up and how future Americans will think about the Trump presidency. Someone on the other side of the political spectrum can just as easily believe that history will look back on Donald Trump as a savior, and that anyone who supported him will have helped steer the United States off the dangerous path it had been hurtling down. When we say to Paul Ryan, “history will judge you,” it’s pretty easy to meet that accusation with “not-uh.” Ultimately, the only way to tell who’s right is to wait and see.

“History will judge you” rests on the assumption that a) our country inherently follows a particular kind of trajectory, and that b) it will continue to do so. The “arc of history” is one of Barack Obama’s favorite lines, itself an adaptation from (most famously) Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This might be comforting for those of us hoping that our progressive values are destined to win out in the end, but it also offers false comfort. Historical trajectories look very different depending on whose trajectory you consider and what you decide to use as a end point.

The Reconstruction Era is a useful example. For many, many years the dominant understanding was that the North’s attempt to “reconstruct” the former Confederate states was needlessly punitive and a tyrannical overreach of federal power. Violent efforts by paramilitary groups to suppress freed slaves were, in fact, honorable attempts to restore the proper, natural social order of the South. If you were to look backward from, say, the 1940s, “history” had indeed judged these groups and found them not only innocent, but heroic. For African-Americans, meanwhile, the moral arc of history had in many ways bent backwards - from the dramatic gains made during Reconstruction to the crushing boot-heel retrenchment of the Jim Crow era. History does not follow one single trajectory that moves inexorably upwards.

If history is an arc, then it is an immensely pliable one that can be bent in any direction. Over the next four years, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are going to bend that arc in disturbing ways. There is no way around it. Whatever built-in resistance that arc might have - institutions, political norms, democratic checks and balances - have proven much weaker than we originally thought. It’s going to bend, and it’s going to bend badly. History is not self-correcting. There’s no guarantee that it will magically straighten itself out somewhere down the road. The thing we need to do is grab on as tight as we possibly can and keep it from bending in ways that prove permanent. I do not want to leave it in the hands of “history” to judge Donald Trump. We - the American public - need to judge him right the fuck now.