So it begins. It seems a reasonable bet that the election of Trump will join Brexit in the category of Momentous Events of 2016, at least within the horizon of l’histoire événementielle, joining various developments whose significance we haven’t recognised yet in hammering an extra stake into the heart of that ‘End of History’ nonsense. But the beginning of what? Competing narratives before the election seemed to be offering a choice between the Return of American Greatness and the Rise of the New Nazis as the likely outcome; now that it’s actually happened, we can add ‘small earthquake, relatively little damage’ predictions like Trump as the new Berlusconi to the mix. History offers us a myriad of possibilities; we don’t know which one (if any) is the better comparison, or how far our choice is driven by emotions (fear, hope, desire, loathing) rather than any sort of reason. History offers comfort, if that’s what we’re looking for; it offers reasonable grounds for buying gold and a copy of The Zombie Survival Handbook. It doesn’t offer any kind of certainty.
This is a problem, at least for historians who genuinely want to use their knowledge for the benefit of their fellow humans and/or are desperately trying to jump through the hoops of Relevance and Impact. As I’ve argued in a recent piece in Aeon, we don’t offer the sort of knowledge or understanding that policy-makers or industry value, precisely because there are too many possible analogies, most of which can be interpreted in different ways, implying different conclusions and courses of action. We complicate things rather than simplify them; we multiply possibilities rather than narrow down the options. This could be considered unhelpful, however true this picture actually is.
What of the wider public, the ordinary folk whom we can help to think better about issues? The past does matter to people; just not all the past (indeed, only a very small selection of it), and not necessarily (or usually) the past of the academic historians. Nevertheless, that interest and engagement in the past would seem to offer a starting-point for conversation. As I said, the run-up to the election did see a variety of historical comparisons, from knowledgeable specialists as well as journalists and commentators; drawing not just on obvious material like the rise of European fascism, but on numerous other periods. Obviously I’m most familiar with the classical ones: Trump as Nero, Caesar, Catiline, Alcibiades, Cleon; along with 2016 as a general re-run of the collapse of the Roman Republic.
Did any of these work, or help, or sway opinion, or do whatever it was they were supposed to do besides offer their authors a chance to write about their specialist topic and peg it as relevant? In the absence of any research on this, I’ve no idea, but my guess is no, because of the nature of the exercise. Hypothesis one: historical analogies can be considered on a scale of full to empty in terms of their potential significance and present resonance, depending on their degree and nature of their connection to the bits of the past that matter to the target audience – put crudely, comparisons with Han China, however persuasive the parallels might appear to a specialist, are unlikely to say much to the median American or British voter. Hypothesis two: in practice, today if not universally, the middle of the spectrum is largely vacant, and analogies tend to be either empty or over-full.
The empty analogies are easiest to deal with. For most possible comparisons, the reasonable non-academic response is: who cares? Historians may weigh up even the most unlikely comparisons in a serious manner, because we’re professionally committed to the idea that the past can be relevant and that parallels can be made on many different bases, but everyone else? If the example doesn’t immediately resonate, it’s simplicity itself to highlight the inevitable differences between past and present, between different cultural contexts. Even if you can keep the conversation going, and persuade your audience that they should take C14 Florence seriously as a comparator, is it really plausible that this will make anyone change their established political convictions or habits? At best, we’re hoping for a “that’s interesting”.
This is true of all those classical comparisons. Yeah, USA founded on Roman constitutional principles, all those neoclassical buildings in DC, yadda yadda. Come off it. It’s a parlour game; it’s a source of handy bits of rhetorical abuse for people who already share the background knowledge and assumptions, or a means of winding up the opposition by adopting aliases like P. Decius Mus. It turns a figure like Trump into a pantomime villain, not to be taken seriously. The alleged deeds of a Nero or an Alcibiades are historical colour, not the stuff of nightmares, and so Trump as Nero doesn’t resonate, except as mockery for the already-converted. It persuades nobody else of anything; it may have served to disguise the real threat.
What of the history that does resonate? The problem here is that such comparisons are already saturated with meaning, and already in play before the historians get involved, and hence devalued before the conversation even starts. Trump and the rise of fascism; yes, I’m pretty sure there’s a serious historical case there, but it’s not a case that gets taken seriously because fascism has already risen again too many times. Godwin’s Law was invented for a reason: the ‘Nazis are Bad, This is Bad, therefore Hitler’ gambit has been deployed for Saddam Hussein, feminism, internet censorship, Islam and women writing comic books, to name just a few. The fact that now it’s a Serious Historian saying, okay guys, we can ignore Godwin this time, shit just got real, doesn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already persuaded – everyone else can easily dismiss it as partisan rhetoric, or even hypocrisy. At best it just gets lost in the noise; at worst, it looks like another of those damned experts talking down to people and dismissing their Serious Concerns by labelling them fascist.
I’m not saying that the comparison can never illuminate. It certainly looks as if it may be important in the process of trying to understand what has happened – but that is the familiar task of employing historical material in the process of historical analysis and interpretation. The problem lies in the attempt at using historical material to address the present and the future.
Does this imply that history is indeed bunk? No; the error is to think of history in terms of its content, at least as far as the history of events is concerned (there is a much stronger case that we do need to know about the history of longer-term social, economic and ecological processes in order to understand our present situation). What we need to take beyond the academy are the skills and habits of thought that can be developed through engagement with historical material – any historical material. Helping people to make sense of the world around them and its impact on their lives; giving them the tools to take apart the lies and half-truths they’re told by politicians of all tendencies, all manner of public and private institutions and all shades of the media. mainstream or otherwise.
I wouldn’t claim any special status for history in this, it’s just that I happen to have ended up as a historian – other humanities and social science disciplines have equally vital cognitive skills to impart. It’s about education; but education understood in terms of skills and understanding, not the mindless acquisition and regurgitation of information that dominates the UK school system ((I can’t speak for elsewhere). What we have to offer is not, as we tend to assume, our superior knowledge and understanding of everything, that just needs to be packaged in the right sort of pre-digested, bite-size chunks for the masses; it is our skills, such as they are, in using this material to help people learn how to think about it for themselves.