Remembering history won’t save us from Donald Trump

May 18, 2017

Trump’s reign is so erratic, unpredictable, and unprecedented that it is only natural that it has accelerated the media’s ingrained tendency to search for historical analogies to current events.

From the moment of Trump’s election to his recent firing of the FBI director, comparisons to previous historical epochs and events have flowed ceaselessly through the media. We’ve seen Trump compared to fascist dictators of every stripe, from ancient Roman tyrants to the European dictators of the 1920s to the Latin American caudillos, as well as to Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn; Reagan; and Nixon, Nixon, Nixon.

Reporters have always resorted to historical analogy to deepen readers’ grasp of the present. For decades it seemed that every few months, someone would quote that old saw from George Santayana, the poet and essayist: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s idea has become an article of faith in uncertain times.

But making such analogies to explain what is happening around you is a fraught enterprise. Connecting present and future is one of journalism’s crucial roles. But just as analyzing geological layers won’t prevent an earthquake, drawing connections with the past won’t prevent disasters in the present.

It was German scholars who perfected the study of history as an academic field, and there were perhaps no more historically minded people than the Germans as the Nazis rose to power.

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Yet historical knowledge worked against foreseeing the National Socialist takeover of the country and its consequences. No one could imagine the worst because the worst had never happened in that way. The unknowable became the unimaginable. In that case, knowledge of history made people blind to the way history was being made all around them.


Instead of looking for the future in the misty past, we should be looking for it in the inchoate patterns of the present.


It is unfortunate that journalists quote only Santayana’s famous line, and not the entire passage in which it occurs. “Progress,” Santayana wrote in the same paragraph, “far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement…”

Santayana was a political conservative, and his famous axiom must be seen in the light of his politics. He mistrusted, even feared, radical social change. The Life of Reason, where the axiom appeared, was published in five volumes between 1905 and 1906, the time of the first Russian revolution, which saw the rise of terrorism as a political tool in the form of waves of assassinations. Versed in the aims of the most radical Russian revolutionaries, Santayana himself must have been thinking of the past, in particular the French Revolution, during which Robespierre proclaimed the abolition of history and established a new calendar, starting with Year One.

Yet knowledge of the past could not prepare anyone for Robespierre and the terror he imposed after the revolution. And all the knowledge about all the tyrannies and mass murders throughout history could not foresee either the Nazis or Stalin’s murder of tens of millions. All the historical analogies now being made on a daily basis between Trump and various historical villains are not going to protect us from the worst that Trump will do.

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Once the comparison between Trump and, say, some Latin American dictator is made, alarm rises and then, gradually, complacency sets in. Trump is like Pinochet, some commentators write. But social turbulence preceded Pinochet and his coup had the backing of the Chilean military, not to mention the active support of the American government. You read the analogy, look out the window, see that nothing like that is happening, and start to relax. The fact of the analogy having been made, and then having been proved false, induces complacency.

This doesn’t mean that Trump doesn’t pose a grave threat to the republic, as every passing day makes more clear. It means that should the threat materialize it will be as unprecedented as Trump in the White House is himself. Instead of looking for the future in the misty past, we should be looking for it in the inchoate patterns of the present.

The most vicious legislation, in the form of the House health care package, made its way to the Senate, soon eclipsed by Trump’s firing of Comey, which itself was overshadowed by reports that Trump revealed highly classified national security information to visiting Russian diplomats. Now we have the bombshell of Comey’s claim that Trump pressed him to discontinue the FBI’s investigation into Mike Flynn. How long until the next bombshell eclipses that one? With each new revelation of incompetence or potential wrongdoing, each revelation becomes outdated and nearly forgotten.


For a lot of people, historical analogies in such a historically unprecedented time are a kind of prayer, but one in which the reader or viewer or listener orients herself toward the world not by what the world is, but by what the world was.


These days it seems that the people who remember the past are doomed, not to repeat it, but to miss what is happening in the present.

This became explicit one night, shortly after Trump’s firing of the FBI director, when Carl Bernstein appeared on CNN to talk about the event. Asked, inevitably, to detail the similarities between Trump’s actions and Nixon’s dismissal of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Watergate break-in, Bernstein shook his head, smiled, and began instead to detail all the ways Trump’s firing of Comey and Nixon’s of Cox differed, the main one being, as Bernstein observed, that there were no prominent Republicans this time around to condemn the president’s actions, as there had been in 1972 when Howard Baker denounced Nixon.

Ironically, some other journalists repeatedly quoted Baker’s famous question as vice chairman of the Senate Watergate committee–“What did the president know, and when did he know it?–in order to invoke a wistful analogy, wishing aloud for a Republican to play Baker’s role. But few media people made it clear, as Bernstein did on CNN, that the absence of such figures was one reason the analogy didn’t hold.

Or as USA Today put it, “[Trump] has something Nixon never did–immunity by congressional majority.”

Hegel once wrote that “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.”

For a lot of people, historical analogies in such a historically unprecedented time are a kind of prayer, but one in which the reader or viewer or listener orients herself toward the world not by what the world is, but by what the world was. The present dissolves, and we are left with the reassuring past, which is over and done with, and out of which America emerged triumphant. This too, the analogies tell us, shall pass.

The result of such remembrance of the past is often to dull people to the realities of the present. But events that become historical happen for the first time. That is why we remember them as history. The truth of this is now unfolding before our very eyes.

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Lee Siegel , a widely published writer on culture and politics, is the author of six books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism.