John Fund at the National Review recently compared Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump. Citing also this blog, he argued that there were similarities between the two presidents and the dilemmas they posed, or pose, for their parties. While Fund is not wrong in comparing Johnson’s grandiosity and self-centeredness to Trump’s, the two politicians should be considered opposites in both their policy goals and in their views on not only the role of government, but also their takes on the process of governing.
Johnson, underneath all his bluster and bravado, was a consummate political operator, adept at moving the levers of power in favor of the social justice policies he favored. His great strength was a savvy for strategy and for convincing (often through less than aboveboard means) the various players in the various branches of government to act on his behalf, or at least to refrain from acting explicitly against his wishes. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson contributed significantly to keeping the United States on even keel and from slipping into a prolonged panic. He sought to bring together many varied opinions and positions. When he saw no path to reelection after his exacerbation of the Vietnam War had become unpopular, he did not stand for the presidency again.
Trump, in contrast, has so far blundered through a month of ad-hoc executive orders and alternate-reality-based pronouncements that have rattled domestic political opponents in both parties and many American voters, as well as foreign governments. The two presidents stand for very different political programs, but this is not their most important difference. Johnson fascinates historians because he was a uniquely contradictory figure, a personality seemingly at odds with himself. This is reflected also in the appreciation many liberal historians harbor for Johnson. To state, as the title of Fund’s article proclaims, that liberals “idolize” LBJ is a foreshortening of their image of the man. There is no view of Johnson’s achievements to be had without reference to his many failings. There is certainly no level of liberal idolization to be seen regarding Johnson akin to the one Ronald Reagan enjoys in conservative quarters.
Unlike Johnson, Trump is all surface: he means what he says and says what he means, but either side of that equation is ultimately disposable. President Trump’s conception of government appears to be that of an aircraft carrier of which he is the captain and that goes where he wants it to go – and on which he can punish for insubordination those who will not assist him. President Johnson’s was closer to that of a pirate ship on which he needed to convince people to row in the same direction when the winds stilled.
Fund touches on something fundamental when he writes that
…in the 1960s, there was a sense that the legislative process and the wheels of government still had to turn. Back then, the country didn’t tolerate blind obstructionism and attempts to delegitimize the presidency.
The rise of such obstructionism and delegitimization began in the 1990s. This was in no small part due to the tactics employed by Newt Gingrich, later an early Trump supporter, during his tenure as Speaker of the House. Historical analogies are always flawed to some extent. To compare LBJ with Donald Trump, however, is especially fraught with problems because of this shift in how Washington behaves, which occurred between the two presidencies. Because of it, even if Johnson and Trump appear temperamentally similar, any lessons supposedly to be drawn from the Johnson years for how Trump’s supporters or detractors should act must be taken with a pinch of salt at least as huge as the two presidential personalities.
We pick our heroines and our heroes and we pick our battles and our places to stand. We may be wrong in these choices sometimes, but if our compass is true then what matters is that we do pick and stand for something, not nothing.
It is December the 27th, 2016. Today I finished watching, for the umpteenth time, the Star Wars trilogy. I watched it in my parents’ home. In the living room, the same room where I first glimpsed the adventures of a few mythical spacefarers and their quest to defeat the clearest representation of evil.
It is the same house and same room in which I first heard David Bowie sing. Sing songs so different from what I was used to. I heard them on the radio, and on cassette tapes on repeat. I never quite appreciated their inventiveness and their sheer exuberant otherness and how they gloried in highly crafted experimentation until much later. No matter. Here is where I first heard them, and it’s important that I remember this now.
This year, many icons died who I first came across while living here, in a shielded and happy place. Today I heard of the death of Carrie Fisher, yet another icon. A writer and image and actress and voice unparalleled in her iconoclasm, who sent postcards from the edge of her own sanity and refused to be cast in any one role, despite the role that made her famous and iconic in the first place. She stayed true to herself and no one else, and would not give convention the time of day.
I miss so much, now that 2016, a true annus horribilis, is winding down, but apparently not slowing down in killing off more icons and giving shelter to the worst instincts of humanity. I miss, I ache, and I sit down to write because that is what I do when I don’t want to face the wall and feel my eyes tear up, and rock back and forth in despair. You may find this overly self-centered or overly emotional. Fine. I do not care.
I have heard many express feelings so similar to my own. Of tiredness, a tiredness so deep and sapping that there are not enough blankets to be pulled over the head. A tiredness and sadness that envelops, but can never be allowed to win. Life is a godawful small affair. But it’s ours. We have been lucky enough to be guided by crazy people, crazy in the wildest and happiest sense. They, in parts uncountable and often unseen, have contributed to who we are.
So, too have many real, flesh and bone people in our lives. To those who are still with us the living, I vow to tell them more often that they matter. There is no need to pin down a capacity in which they do so. To say they matter to me and not be able to say why does not feel like enough, but if I admit it to myself, it’s a lot.
As a rule, I haven’t been doing this nearly often enough. If you read this and I know you, know at least: you matter to me. Perhaps in only the seemingly most tenuous of fashions, but you do matter. To those who do not know me and who I don’t know, I can address only this: there are people you matter to, and who matter to you. Maybe not in overt and screaming ways. Maybe only in short glances and passing smiles and in a word here and there and a touch on the wrist that provides that last tiny smidgen of stability you needed.
That the small things are not enough and grand gestures instead always required is one of the most destructive myths our society perpetuates. In small kindnesses are contained entire worlds. I realize the pathos in these words, and yet, like so many of the role models and artists and dreamers that passed this past, devastating year, I don’t care.
As I try to glimpse through tears the horizon and a future in which so many icons are gone and I can no longer rely on the irrational comfort of faraway persons who do not know me to carry the weight of inspiration, I have to take this load from them and carry it myself. We all who were inspired were through this inspiration given the capacity to carry inspiration. And we all who care must now ourselves be our own source of inspiration and maybe, just a little maybe, we can pass on that crazy, loveable, absurd, and human inspiration to someone else.
As the lights below us fade we have to keep our flames shielded and rescue even the faintest glimmers of happiness and hope. If nothing else, this is what we owe our heroes and our heroines.
And if you find that too sappy and too emotional – I still, emphatically, don’t care.
What is terror, and who is a terrorist? The question comes up a lot these days. In Germany, the Berlin Christmas market attack was labeled a terrorist act pretty much immediately. The collective “we” of the media is less sure when it comes to the shootings at a Zurich mosque, or the assassination – all still on the same day – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. It hardly mentions terrorism committed in parts of the world that we associate with terror anyway, despite the fact that these have come with far greater loss of life.
Who is labeled a terrorist and who is not, and why, matters. Presently, we are quick to call terrorists those who commit crimes while looking foreign, and those who ally themselves with organizations, loose as they may be, that seek to destroy existing orders. The former has sadly become synonymous with terrorism, while the latter is really what it should be defined as.
This used to be more obvious in the late twentieth century, at least in Europe, when terror was everywhere and the terrorists were to be found among the white citizens of the very nations they were attacking. It is still true now. To connect terror and foreignness automatically is to short-circuit a complicated system of causes and effects to arrive at a naïve and simplistic explanation. In this naïveté, terrorism and the populists who now try to benefit from it to push their own right wing agendas are locked in a mutually beneficial spiral that is the opposite of beneficial to democracies anywhere.
What are we to do in the face of terror? Our approach must always be two-pronged: there can be no stopping terror without trying to understand and then trying to change the conditions that further the radicalization of individuals and groups. There can be no stopping terror without diligent, well-funded, well-organized, and presumably boring policework.
What does not stop terror is the screaming and screeching that passes for political discourse in some corners. They who fan the flames of emotion with the tinder of populism, nationalism, and racism mean only to destabilize the open society that is always and forever the only bulwark against oppression and tyranny.
As individuals we can refuse very visibly to be intimidated. Few things unbalance terror more than a collective nonchalance in the face of its actions. This alone is not enough surely, but it is a big part already. So stand tall. Stand up straight and don’t let fear guide your actions and turn uncertainty into despondency, despondency into hatred.
Democracy is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that contains within itself the constant potential for its own improvement. Is there anything as much worth defending? Life is dangerous, and you’re signed up for that danger automatically by being born. So be watchful, yes. Speak out and act. Against the conditions that mould terrorists, the plots of the terrorists themselves, and against those who would use fear to push an agenda.
That you may not have felt fear every day is a testament to the relative peace many, not all, sadly, but many of us living in democratic states have been able to rely on. This peace has been normal for so long that many, too, have forgotten its very implausibility in the face of nearly all world history. Have forgotten how highly we should value the humdrum tedium of an uneventful everyday.
Be sad sometimes and angry others, and show resolve. To stand, to speak, not shrink away. And most of all, to never sell away so much of your freedom in search of a safety that cannot be had and will choke the very society it supposedly protects that you lose both safety and freedom. For that is the natural end point of a scared world.
Be not afraid. On this night, and any night, be not afraid.
Playwright Tony Kushner wrote of “beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart” in the 1990s, referencing the changes palpable at the end of the decade or so of Reagan America. As the world power system of the Cold War gave way to what Francis Fukuyama – perhaps a bit too hastily – termed “the end of history,” many things were in flux.1 A generation later, we are again at such a point in time, especially regarding the recent election in the United States. It is an upset not merely of the American political landscape, but of the balances of alliance and trade that define the world in which all of us live. It is a troubled and troubling time. A time that looks for guidance.
The United States, more than most countries, perhaps more than any other country on earth, is based on an order that is itself based on the guidance of words. Its founding credo, ringing true to some and hollow to others throughout the ages, holds that “all men are created equal.” Every human being has the same rights. This is a North Star. Like the North Star, it sometimes shines brightly and is sometimes covered by dark, dreary clouds. But that it cannot always be seen does not mean that it is not always there.
Its message of equality, though trampled on by the very same people who wrote it, shone through nonetheless. It is what moved abolitionists to tackle slavery, despite the unlikeliness of success. Slavery was, after all, the very economic basis of half the nation. When women fought for the vote, they used the words of one of the nation’s founding documents to make their case for it. There was something potent in the Declaration of Independence’s repeated accusations against King George III: “He” had “refused,” “dissolved,” “forbidden,” “obstructed.” The Declaration of Sentiments which argued for female suffrage in 1848 took the words by their literal meaning. “He” now stood for men in general. The men who had “deprived her,” “taken from her,” “denied her,” stood accused of committing the gravest offense: to have been like a king. To have betrayed the spirit of America’s founding words. In the twentieth century, too, the Civil Rights Movement marched in Selma and marched on Washington and repeated these words, and held accountable those in power to hear these words and finally act accordingly.
The founding documents of the U.S. are positively what created the nation. Above mere geographical distance from England and above the creation of a culture of its own, the words contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, born out of a revolution, set America apart from Britain. Indeed in its creation of a wholly new system of government never before tried on such a large scale they set it apart from the world.2 It behooves anyone to know and read these documents, whether they are American or not. In important ways these texts are the beginning of a long winding road to the recognition of human rights as a universal good. In important ways these documents also, for the first time, gave central notions of Enlightenment philosophy the full force of law – albeit only for some.
Germany, in contrast, is a country defined by its past as a negative. No today peaceful and democratic nation got this way without condemnable acts committed on its territory, no country can claim to have always held the white banner of freedom and pretend the stains have never quite washed out. Germany outbid them all by descending into a cruelty so all-consuming that it has served as a byword for unspeakable terror ever since. Let’s not mince words: millions were killed as a result, in the Holocaust and in World War II. Religious and ethnic discrimination dropped swiftly onto a glide path into extermination. Here, too, words mattered. They were words of hatred that many too long denied were potent, words that many too long thought were just words and did not carry with them the power to become acts of evil. But that they did. Words have that power.
When Germany emerged from the rubble of a devastating war it had inflicted on the world and on itself, the framers of a consitution for one of the nations founded on its territory were influenced by the victorious Allied Forces, most of all the United States. They were influenced, too, by the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the new Western German Basic Law – a name that was supposed to express the transitional nature of the constitution drafted, which was hoped later to apply to Eastern Germany as well – had the lessons from Nazism well in mind.
With the will to create a democracy that would not again fail and fall prey to extremism as had the Weimar Republic a decade and a half earlier, they began the document with nineteen articles given special status. These cannot be changed. As long as the Basic Law is valid, they are valid, too. They include a robust bill of rights and guarantees, contained in nineteen articles of Basic Rights. Most prominently, in article 1, paragraph 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” From this, meant originally as a preamble to specific, guaranteed rights, and since widely interpreted as being the “right to have rights,” every other civil right flows.
As state authority in combination with an ethnic nationalism had become discredited, Germans turned to that constitution to rally around. If there was patriotism to be had in the Post-War Era, it needed to be an altogether different kind of patriotism than the destructive, ethnic kind of the past. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is most closely associated with the term for this kind of patriotism. “Verfassungspatriotismus,” or “constitutional patriotism”.
Habermas took the word and concept from its inventor, Dolf Sternberger, and elaborated on it, rooting it in his own idea of the public sphere.3 In essence, constitutional patriotism calls on people to identify not with the country they live in as a mass of land or the place in which a biologically identifiable “people” live. Instead, patriotism flows from the adherence to and identification with a constitution and, above all, its guiding democratic principles. It connects both to the past – to the writing of the constitutional documents – and to the future, in which their promises can be more completely fulfilled, or in which the principles and freedoms laid out in them will have to be defended.
To be clear, despite the lofty rhetoric that constitutions use and that satiates discourses of national pride and civil religion, I am not here advocating for an originalism of constitutional interpretation. Instead, I am arguing in favor of what Anna Stilz has called “not a constitution in the fixed sense, defined by appeals to Founding Fathers, a sacred document, or the ancestral heroes of the nation” but “an ongoing constitutional practice that is at the same time a collective practice of self-definition.”4
This brings me to the current day. You start with words, the words of a constitution. But it is not these words alone, the words of flawed people in flawed times, that will help you on your path. It is the practice of your constitution that will. Make this practice your shield, your bow and your arrows. It may not protect you in every moment, but it will let you fight.
When truth itself is under attack from the highest places, buried under a barrage of bullshit and hidden in the tall grass of fake news, as it is in so many places today, look again and again to your constitution. Look at the letter and sense the spirit of its laws. If ever you find anyone in power to infringe upon either, make yourself heard. Act, organize. Raise hell, over and over again. Do not stand down. Get loud and be uncomfortable. It’s what patriots do.
As many “big ideas,” this one, too, is often simplified too much. Fukuyama in fact allowed for a possible end to the end of history, when the capitalist consensus could break down. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man” (New York: Perennial, 2002). ↩
Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (New York: Knopf, 1992) is a go-to book here. This is not to say that Wood’s interpretation doesn’t at times suffer from the fact that it is somewhat too celebratory and “Whiggish”. It is, however, a good starting point. ↩
Forgive my oversimplification of a long, complicated discussion. Here is not the place for a full elaboration of the notion of constitutional patriotism, which has naturally seen its critics and varying interpretations. Perhaps the best English-language book for further reading is: Jan-Werner Müller, “Constitutional Patriotism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). ↩
Anna Stilz, “Liberal Loyalty. Freedom, Obligation, and the State” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 168. ↩
Donald Trump will put all his business dealings in a blind trust. Except it’s not a blind trust, because it will be run by his kids. Not to worry. It’s happened before and America was fine. Lyndon Johnson put his money and the management of his radio station in a blind trust that he controlled obsessively. It wasn’t blind. It was a clear conflict of interest. Donald Trump is also a pathological liar. And hey, so was Lyndon Johnson. America was fine. Well, minus Vietnam.
So there’s a huge potential for corruption in the coming administration, but that’s not out of bounds, is it? Think of Ulysses Grant! Think of Harding, Nixon, George W. Bush. Sure it’s infuriating if it comes to pass, but we’ve been there before. Nothing new.
Donald Trump has a temper and is railing against the establishment. Welcome back, Andrew Jackson!
Donald Trump is seeking Top Secret clearance for his son. Par for the course, it’s a family business. John F. Kennedy made his brother Attorney General. Never a problem.
Donald Trump will be chosen by the Electoral College despite not winning the popular vote. Don’t look back too much, that’s 2000 all over again!
Donald Trump is keeping a list of enemies and wants to sue journalists he doesn’t like. His Attorney General in waiting has said that there are laws that don’t apply to the president. Not a good look on a leader, I admit, but at worst that’s comparable to Nixon. Sure, Nixon had to step down, but that was just because the media overreacted.
The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Donald Trump and is planning to hold a victory rally for him. I know, this looks bad, but remember that Woodrow Wilson was a true progressive and he had “Birth of a Nation” screened at the White House and loved it.
And all those people protesting in the streets before Donald Trump even takes office? People protested against George W. Bush, and, well before that, against Lincoln. So we’ve seen this, too. (Don’t mention the wars.)
Donald Trump wants to decrease American involvement abroad. Sensible, I mean, George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and you surely can’t go wrong following George Washington.
And he wants to hold rallies after he’s sworn in, Donald Trump. Surely that can be accommodated. Obama held big rallies. Not really all that often after he was sworn in, but hey, there’s precedent for a popular speaker in the sitting president!
Donald Trump uses Twitter for hot takes and opinions. Why, certainly other presidents had a knack for the media of their age! Need I say more than “fireside chats”? Franklin Roosevelt knew how to make radio work for him!
Donald Trump is unprepared for the office because he has never been elected to a government office before. But neither had Dwight D. Eisenhower, and let me tell you, he was pretty great.
Donald Trump has said racist things. Meh. Presidents said racist things quite often until the 1960s, if not in public. This should not trouble you now.
And that Donald Trump isn’t interested all that much in governing, come on! Neither was George W. Bush! Reagan had to be shown little movies or he would lose interest.
So there really is nothing special about this unremarkable President-elect.
Except all of the above.
It’s not the same because we have never seen this combined in one man before. Because Donald Trump’s business interests are more extensive than those of any other president before him. Because questioning American support abroad is not the same in the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the republic. Because his popular vote loss is larger than the margins some presidents won while actually winning the presidency. Because his unpreparedness is not just the result of him never having been elected for anything before, but also because he was never appointed to any political office or held a military command. Because not distancing yourself from the KKK is not the same in 2016 as it was a hundred years ago.
Because if you put things together that all have been done before, you have something that has never been done before. You have uncharted waters when the stakes could not be higher.
There’s no sugarcoating it. This is it. This is the end of a noble dream of progress, dreamt happily and fully still a week ago by those who thought the meaning of America was unity and equality. That this dream’s fulfilment was distant yet, but visible just over the horizon. A dream it was, to be sure, but it could have been dreamt longer. The rude awakening was unexpected and in cold sweat at 3 a.m., and it shocked starkly into consciousness the division of America. Unity and equality would have been a sham no matter which candidate had been elected. But an establishment operator like Hillary Clinton would not have prompted the worst fringe opinions to emerge in force just a day after her election. An outsider with no debt to parties and no pretension to the normal restraints of civility like Trump could and did enable them.
While many white Americans are holding their breaths and are eager to see whether President-elect Donald Trump will live up to the promises he made on the campaign trail; some with hope, others with trepidation, many of those belonging to minority groups are reeling already. Their grievances are real, and their fears justified. Yet even if further violence and denigration does not come their way – and to some, it already has – what will be lost for a generation at least is any semblance of trust in the political elites to protect their rights. This is true even if there is, against all odds, no change in civil rights legislation or enforcement in the Trump administration. It is true simply because Trump’s coarse discourse of othering made it thinkable to be racist and admit it, to be sexist and embrace it. To allow this may not have been the intention of many Trump supporters. It is, however, a direct effect of their votes.
The unity of America, evoked in Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric of “no red states and no blue states, only the United States of America” less than a decade ago, is no more. Not because it was lost since, but because it has not been believed by most since decades before then. What is also true is that, while nearly half of those who voted chose Trump, and a slightly larger contingent chose Clinton, the largest portion of the electorate chose no one. They did not not vote. The plurality is silent. The country, then, is divided about equally between those who supported either one of the two candidates, or no one at all. It is divided by an electoral system that makes third parties essentially irrelevant, forcing those who do not agree with any of the few serious choices in any one contest to sit out yet another election, yet another chance to make their voice heard. Or perhaps, these voices are heard very clearly. They are just not listened to. They are a pool of buyers to whom can be sold every election cycle a bill of goods they do not want but have no choice but to accept if they want to participate.
History doesn't repeat but it TEACHES. It enables you to envision the future–for better or worse–by revealing how present echoes past.
As the shocking normalization of actions that are not and ought never to be normal continues, exemplified by the installation of Breitbart News agitator, self-proclaimed “Leninist”, and avowed white supremacist Steve Bannon just down the corridor from the Oval Office, it is still unclear what this election means. It is certainly unclear what it will mean in the long run. Gathering from the behavior of both those elected and the fact that those who did not want them elected are already protesting in the streets, nothing good can come of this for the United States as a whole.
Autocracy may be in the offing, yes, and this is terrifying to contemplate. Sure, America in 2016 is not Weimar Germany, Trump is not Hitler, and Steve Bannon is not Goebbels. History, as Joanne Freeman pithily tweeted, does not repeat, but it teaches. America does not have to become a dictatorship, however, in order to betray its core promise of liberty and justice for all. It needs only reach back into this history.
Newt Gingrich, who is poised for a role in the new administration, suggested just this past summer that he was for creating a new House Un-American Activities Committee. History appears to have taught Gingrich the lesson that the first time around, this blight on liberal democracy was ineffective because it wasn’t done right. He has no compunction about its abuses and its basic premise, which flew then and flies now in the face of what the United States has told itself it stands for. This callous attitude towards what should be rights enshrined and revered is what we must beware of.
From nineteenth-century nativism (“no Irish need apply”) to anti-German feeling during World War I, to the anticommunist Red Scare of the 1920s and the McCarthyist crusades of the 1950s, there are many long, dire moments in which the supposed promise of America failed its citizens. Most glaringly, of course, in terms of its original sin of slavery, and the resultant segregation, and discrimination. Division runs riverine through American history. Yet, among the many unforgiveable reasons why the anti-Trumpers lost (both during the Republican primaries and during the general election) was a heartening one. They thought better of their fellow citizens than that enough voters would condone, stomach, or tolerate such behavior.
The power structures of the new administration have yet to fall into place, but it is already becoming clear that some of the loudest voices in the camp of those who vowed never to support Trump have made their peace with him and are ready to play the game of politics. They are ready to do this in order to come out on top as the next election cycles roll around. To become profiteers of a wave of hatred ignited by Donald Trump, sustained by a willing cadre of hatemongers, and abetted by those for whom economic, class, or security issues were front and center, but who were ready to forgive the racism, sexism, and general xenophobia. While not nearly on the same level, it also did not help that Hillary Clinton infamously called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” Division reigned during this election season.
This, above all, is already the most insidious legacy and most pertinent lesson of an election not even a week old: that divisiveness pays dividends, that haters with appeal will find support.
You’ve already heard and read much about what the stunning result of Tuesday’s U.S. election means. Opinions are about a-plenty, so I won’t make this complicated.
I’ll ask instead for one thing.
The one thing I would like you to ask through the upcoming years of a Donald Trump presidency is this: do not normalize it.
Do not pretend, as much of the media and most Republicans in Congress are doing, that there will be a return to the normal business of politics after January 20. That after a vitriolic and erratic campaign the only person ever to win the presidency who has not had any experience in either government or the military will be a normal president just because the weight of the office forces this on him.
It’s already begun. Truth be told, it’s been going on in the media for a good long while. In a way, the whole election campaign was just a lead-up to this: the normalization of Donald Trump. There’s a cover story in People Magazine. The Huffington Post, bastion of the progressive internet bubble, decided to remove its reminder that Trump was a racist, misogynist liar. There’s been a rush to paint the transition to the Trump administration as a typical part of the script.
I caught myself thinking along the same lines. I thought about cabinet positions, the ramifications of Congresspeople and Senators agreeing or disagreeing on points of foreign policy, all of it. But neither was this campaign politics as usual, nor will the upcoming presidency of the most – literally, not hyperbolically – unqualified person ever to hold the office be in any way normal. The simple truth, beyond delusions by his supporters that he will immediately fix all their problems and “Trump-is-Hitler” rhetoric from detractors is that Trump is an unknown quantity. The alarmists may be on to something, or Trump supporters may be, or both because depending on your perspective, these two things could well be the same.
The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is.
Very likely, no living president voted for the man who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from January on. This should give us pause. Not one person still alive who once held the job found Trump fit to hold it. A record number of officials from Trump’s own party called on him to drop out, refused to endorse him or withdrew their endorsement. Or did whatever the devil it is that Paul Ryan did or did not do. This is new in modern American politics. Whatever it might come to mean, it contributes to uncertainty.
As humans, we are wonderfully adaptable. We can respond to changing situations and make them the status quo. It’s a survival instinct. It will not serve us well here. There is a high likelihood that President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress will pass at least some legislation that candidate Trump put up on his campaign website. Aside from that, there is simply no way to know what else he will attempt to do beyond what’s written down, perhaps cut to size somewhat to make it digestible by Congress.
The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is. It has protected some, however imperfect, version of democracy for over two centuries. Yet it, too, is fragile, susceptible to just the right kind of perfect storm. To assume otherwise invites hubris. Nothing made by actual humans can lay claim to perfection or eternity in any part of it.
I have studied the culture, politics, and history of the United States for a decade and a half now. In addition, I have spent the last three years on a research project about books diagnosing society, many of which fall into the realm of futurology. Writings by people trying to predict the future. If you do this as a historian, you are in for a few good laughs along the way, and you shake your head because of apparently obvious signs that people missed much more often.
The most important takeaway I have from all this is as stunningly, annoyingly simple as it is constantly ignored: the future cannot be known. Stop yourself from thinking you can predict the future. No one can. Yes, there are ways of divining probabilities and reducing risk, and they’re useful and necessary. But the people who apply them to future problems have no iron-clad knowledge of what is going to happen. Ever. Call the worriers paranoid, but don’t for a second believe that you know something about what will actually happen that they don’t. You may have more information about what might happen, but it will always be based in past and present experience.
As a historian, I am happy that one of the few voices who saw this election result coming was also a historian, American University’s Allan Lichtman. Now Lichtman is suggesting that Trump will be impeached before too long because establishment Republicans – and it’s them who hold seats in Congress despite the success of Trump’s outsider upset – prefer a president Mike Pence. Let me just say that stating this is the definition of “no-sh*t-Sherlocking.” Of course they would prefer a career politician, someone who knows how government works, and who has not just ridden in on a wave of grassroots support.
Establishment Republicans would prefer a more “normal,” more controllable president. While I hope that Lichtman is correct (and yes, that means I am coming out saying that Pence would be a better choice for president despite, among other things, his record of statements and actions against civil rights for gay people), neither Lichtman nor anyone has much to go by when making this prediction. Lichtman himself ran in the Democratic primary for one of Maryland’s two U.S. Senate seats in 2006 and lost. If he had extra special mojo when it comes to all politics, we have to ask why he would have run in the first place.
There was never an aberration in the political system quite like the Trump presidential run before. You therefore cannot have past experience about this kind of situation, anecdotal, numerical, or otherwise. Yes, I’ve pulled out the Andrew Jackson comparison, and Ronald Reagan surely comes to mind, especially since the Trump campaign recycled one of his slogans to great effect. There are parallels. Context is everything in order to understand history, though. Context changes from one day to the next, from minute to minute, and surely, very surely from two centuries ago to now. There are no equivalencies to be had here. Jackson was president at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a weak, newly founded nation. Reagan was a Cold Warrior in the Cold War. Neither of them lived in the age of Twitter. Context has changed.
It also has changed in terms of this election’s result of an Electoral College that will elect Trump while more people voted for Clinton by a margin that is actually higher than the winning margins of two candidates who became presidents. Protests, in such a climate, are not futile shows of unhappiness. They send signals. They need to be addressed in some way and therefore can change outcomes. Public discourse is a funny thing, it changes when enough people make this possible. Far from being only empty rhetoric, words of protest matter. They mattered when Trump enabled people to swing discourse away from political correctness to open race-baiting. This is something he did that no other major party presidential candidate has done or even attempted. Words matter from the other side as well. They can surely send the message that the man who will end up in the White House was not in fact supported by a majority, or even a plurality of voters, and that those who do not agree with him will fight back.
There are unknowns going forward. (Another Donald’s accidentally comical but spot-on take on unknowns comes to mind here.) In the face of the unknown, we have to make assumptions and we will often be wrong. I’m okay with being wrong when erring on the side of worry. Don’t just hope for the best, also warn of the worst. That is how you defend democracy, even on good days. Worry now because if you worry too late it won’t do any good. This is one lesson past experience through the ages truly suggests with force and might.
So I am putting this here as a reminder to myself and to others who may come across it: do not normalize the Trump presidency.
True stories save lives and change the world. Historians, cultural anthropologists and other students of the culture, ideas and inner workings of societies past and present are unique among academics in that their primary concern is telling true stories.
That is not to say that other disciplines’ stories are not true. What is different about history? History, and I’ll use this as a shorthand for everyone who is going to the past to look for evidence to explain something and then tries to understand it for its own sake, is inseparable from narrative. History is never just what was, but always also how this is told.
One he called “nomothetic.” The word translates from Greek into “that which creates laws”. The natural sciences are nomothetic. They observe things, they test hypotheses experimentally, and then they set down laws that will always be true under identical conditions. If chinks appear in the armor of such a law, scientists keep hitting at it until a new law emerges that can better explain the phenomenon. Think of Newtonian physics being replaced by Einstein’s. That, or watch Mythbusters.
The second camp Windelband called “idiographic,” meaning “describing the particular.” This is the camp historians are in. For the most part, anyway. There is no hard and fast separation of the two ways of searching for knowledge, and many of the best scholars in either camp thrive on pulling both approaches together. The idiographic approach relies heavily on narrative. The idiographic approach tells true stories. As a discipline, history has, at least in theory, moved past pretending there is one objective truth to be found, one gold standard to be adhered to. We should all be aware of our own situatedness, of our being born in a certain place and time, with certain cultural preconceptions and friends and family and knowledge.
At the same time, we must apply source criticism when we rely on facts and hold to a voraciusly-stoked fire the feet of those who tell their stories knowing that the facts will not support them. In history as a discipline, the need to do this has given rise to the footnote. Footnotes have in the past been much abused, and they are not always well-liked today. They are, however, a great way of putting things in context. Footnotes point to what the basis of a claim made is. They can and want to be checked for accuracy. They do all this while staying out of the way of the story being told. They are hyperlinks in print. Use both, and where you cannot, still try to point people to where they can find reliable sources.
True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can. If you know how to tell compelling true stories without being ashamed of evoking emotions, you can get people to also feel instead of only understand. And that may make all the difference.
True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can.
Stories are in large part what makes us human. Appeal to humanity. Now, more than ever, tell true stories well.
Mark Twain is credited with all sorts of things he never said or wrote. He did not say “history never repeats itself but it rhymes.” That exact line, as best can be established, stems from a 1970 poem by Robert Colombo, though the sentiment dates back at least to the nineteenth century.
To the nineteenth century is also where we need to look in order to make sense of the populist moment that by 2016 has erected a threatening proscenium in the political theater. The background of this play has been decided upon, the players cast, the lighting rigged. What is unclear is how many acts it will have, and which trajectory it will follow, though Donald Trump’s many not-likeable qualities surely combine into a hamartia worthy of any Greek protagonist.
History is not an exact science. It is a narrative view of the world, and as such can attempt to explain things that otherwise defy explanation. It does this by referencing itself, but also by turning to ever new methods of discovery and to ever new frames of analysis. The frames of analysis drilled into me as a student of American history were those of race, class, and gender. Along with economic concerns, this trifecta is one of the most useful ways of understanding changes in the United States. Look at one of them, or at several of them in combination, and you can see how the pieces move across the chess board. Knowingly or unknowingly, these four categories define every American voter. It is their intersection that is always hard to assess, and impossible to quantify.
Bill Clinton in 1992 made “It’s the economy, stupid” one of the catchphrases of his run. Hillary Clinton in 2016 did no such thing. She appealed to gender, and to racial minorities, but neglected the racial majority, and class. Lower-income whites, in a country with a changing demographic, are feeling threatened. The depth of this feeling was constantly underestimated. Part of the problem is the conversation in progressive circles that points to real economic benefits to some, but more seldom to real and also imagined, but just as important, feelings among the “basket of deplorables.” Deplorable they may be, but they vote. The Trump victory, as Van Jones rightly pointed out on CNN, is a “whitelash.” It is a screaming “We’re here, too and we don’t like what’s happening!” from working-class whites who may not think of themselves as racist, but clearly are. And of those who have no shame in calling themselves racist.
This, however, is not enough to explain Trump’s appeal. Racism has been rampant throughout American history. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court is part of this story, as is everyday racism and sexism. Would the election have turned out differently if a male candidate had run against Trump instead of a woman, even if everything else had been the same? To expect that women will automatically vote for a candidate because she is a woman is just as patronizing as to expect that men will not. It is impossible to ignore that a large number of Americans appear to be casually fine with Trump’s sexism, but it is uncertain in how far sexist backlash motivates voters.
Which narrative, then, are we to pick to explain the Trumpian moment? It is a narrative that encompasses all four aspects; race, class, gender, and the economy. It’s a story that goes back further than the many comparisons to Weimar Germany, Agrarian populism, and the early and mid-twentieth century in general that are sure to emerge as frames to measure the 2016 election.
Our story connects to the contentious election of 1800, to the vitriol a partisan media slung and the media space in which this occurred: one of partisan newspapers. Democracy, in order to function, needs, as the ultimately successful contender in that election, Thomas Jefferson, pointed out, a “well informed” electorate. How well informed the electorate was at the beginning of the nineteenth century is certainly debatable. But today, in a media sphere in which facts have become optional and in which bubbles have led to people assuming most others think like them, it is even more so.
The movement that helps explain Trump’s success is the movement behind Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and 1830s. Jackson was a “self-made man”, a political outsider, a populist, an irrascible figure and a shrewd operator in the arena of politics. He demonized the Alexander Hamilton-created banking system (as close as the Early Republic got to a “Washington Consensus”), he appealed to hatred of the other (the Trail of Tears reverberates in its inhumanity through the centuries, and the rhetoric directed against Indians as enemies of the republic has an eerily familiar tone to it as well), and he lashed out against personal enemies.
What I have earlier called reparticularization – the dissolution of a generally trusted mainstream journalism into a fractured mass of many small media outlets not bound to any ethical standards – has provided fertile ground for similar grassroots movements in the past decades. Trump, with his masterful use of new media, especially Twitter, has capitalized on this new media landscape. He is not the twenty-first century’s Andrew Jackson. But he sure as hell rhymes with him.
Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Rich Fleischman for Kris Drake Photography.
Chuck Klosterman’s new book But What If We’re Wrong? sets out to look at the present as if it were the past. It’s a premise that’s bound to fascinate those interested in history.
But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman is sober-covered in white. Its title and author name are sprawled thickly across the front of the book in bold black Helvetica. The words stand on their heads. Points for style.
It’s a popular book, not an academic one, but it touches on a wealth of academic discourses, issues, and disciplines. It is on numbers 1 to 3 of the Amazon.com bestseller list for essays as I write (hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook edition respectively). People are interested in this. Historians especially should pay attention to it. Klosterman engages in historical thinking on a fundamental level. This is a good thing. Reflected historical thinking should spread far and wide. It should not be something that people only vaguely apply to problems out of habit. It should not be limited to a professional class of scholars.
Klosterman’s 272-pager asks questions about the present from the standpoint of an imagined future entity looking back. Or rather, from that of a present person attempting to think like someone in the future who is looking back at our age. In the book, he poses a question that historians should be intimately familiar with: How do conceptions of the world around us change over the course of centuries? That raises another question: how are decisions made about who and what to remember as great or not-so-great?
These could give rise to many more interesting and relevant questions. Throughout the book, Klosterman asks some of them, but not others, and then moves on to the next, not entirely related-seeming thing. Music, sports, science (represented mostly by astrophysics and cosmology), politics, whathaveyou. All these fields get name-checked, and Klosterman hops from one to the next like a bumblebee that has drunk up the nectar from one flower and then lost all motivation to stick around.
In the end, though, this isn’t all that bad. There’s much to like in Klosterman’s meanderings. His sentences carry you forward, and all the fields he looks at are interesting in their own right. You may disagree with his assertion, that classical music is appreciated differently and more intellectually than pop or rock (as I do), but Klosterman knows his stuff. He is not boring. He is insightful. Also, there are many facets of “wrong” to explore. If you only have that much space to explore them in, a bit of disjointedness is not all that unexpected, or even all that detrimental.
What is detrimental to the book, however, is that Klosterman bases his whole idea of wrongness on the pretense that there will invariably be a future unitary mainstream that decides what is right or wrong. And in that, Chuck Klosterman is wrong about what it means to be wrong.
He gamingly accepts that his predictions will turn out to be wrong. He gives the problem of predictability his own spin by inventing a caveat he calls “Klosterman’s Razor,” which, in analogy to Occam’s theoretical cutting device, posits “that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.”
But Klosterman does not follow through. His very assumptions concerning the levels on which wrongness can happen are limited. They all assume that there is a clear, discernible reality out there on which some theoretical observer can safely stand and make objective judgments about what is right and what is wrong. For anything where “wrong” is a cultural judgment by a group of people in a specific moment, this is an untenable position.
The funny thing is, Klosterman seems to know this on some level, but that knowledge goes into hiding whenever he actually goes ahead with one of his thought experiments. Using Melville’s Moby Dick as an example, Klosterman gives the story, familiar to English majors and those who had to listen to them at boozed college parties, that Melville’s magnum opus was panned by the critics when it came out. It was only rediscovered right around World War I.
The nineteenth century, Klosterman basically says, was a bad judge of what we would appreciate out of it, and so the present will be a bad judge about what the future will like out of our treasure trove of culture. Fair enough. But Klosterman then marches decisively into the weeds by assuming that a wobbly vision of a mainstream canon in “the future” will be codifying, once and for all, what gets remembered from our time.
What’s beneath all this is a simple truth looking for a way out: every age thinks about things from another age in its own way. It chooses to highlight the ones that somehow strike a nerve. Klosterman understands that there is nothing inevitable about this. But he appears to not see that there is also nothing inherently irreversible about it. It is after all conceivable, though not likely, that in five hundred years’ time, no one will care anymore about Moby Dick, but everyone (in the elusive mainstream) will celebrate Melville’s earlier Typee, despite the latter’s much lesser status today. And if that is conceivable about Moby Dick, why should it be inconceivable when it comes to rock music?
The idea that there will be one mainstream voice guarding over right and wrong should work well for the natural sciences. Here, Klosterman pits Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson against each other as supposedly on different ends of a spectrum. Greene is accepting of a notion that science could be based on entirely different premises in the future, Tyson not. This is presented as a true division between the two well-known scholars.
Tyson, we learn is quite positivist and doesn’t much like Thomas Kuhn‘s immensely influential and wildly misunderstood The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for its relativist implications. This in itself is a morsel of information that might make a book worth reading for some. Here it’s taken as further evidence that Tyson’s position is on the extreme end.
But there is a conceptual difference undergirding the two scientists’ positions that Klosterman does not pick up on. While Greene’s point of view combines scientific discovery with its cultural embeddedness, Tyson’s separates them and concentrates on the scientific method. For Tyson, every discovery that followed after the establishment of the scientific method in the 1600s is on the continuum of one, essentially unitary and constantly improving science. For Greene, the question is more one of the idea of big concepts in science. That their answers might reply to entirely different interpretations of Klosterman’s questions is not a possibility Klosterman explores in the book.
Brian Greene. Here Seen Explaining String Theory. As You Do.
Even if we accept Klosterman’s conceit that there will be one future mainstream opinion of who best personifies rock’n’roll or who will be the author best remembered from the early twenty-first century, his concept of the future is another problem.
It is variously dated throughout the book as perhaps 200, 500 or 1000 years on. The numbers are just numbers. They don’t actually stand for different social worlds in which different priorities might be set. Klosterman, for the sake of his argument, pretends there is a world which invariably will continue to function in essentially the way in which he thinks the world functions today.
Here, But What If We’re Wrong? is an exercise in naïve forecasting in the technical sense that a current state is simply assumed to continue into the future. Considering the impossibility of accurately predicting any future, it is just as well to assume that this future will continue to do things the way we do things currently. But that should be a stated premise, not a hidden one.
Overall, despite its focus on the future, there is a dearth of reflection on work involving problems of prediction in the book, just as there is a dearth of reflection on the philosophy or historiography of history. That is, Klosterman does not read much futurology (in the widest sense), and not much actual history or theory. Despite some references to historians, his only in-depth conversation for the book concerning the meaning and construction of history is with Dan Carlin. In general, Klosterman’s choice of experts is somewhat eclectic, and as NPR’s Kelly McEvers points out, they are “[m]any of them dudes.”
As for Carlin, who is a brilliant broadcaster and the creator of Hardcore History, he specifically does not call himself a historian. Klosterman cites Carlin as making that exact statement. Klosterman nonetheless takes at face value Carlin’s opinion that academic history used to be more interpretive, more like the humanities, but then transitioned to become more social-sciency, more quantified and empirical. Klosterman extrapolates this to mean that this is how history will continue to be written:
It’s lucky he has invented “Klosterman’s Razor” so we can forgive him in this prediction for missing the point that this was a development during a specific historical moment, and may well be reversed. Again, Klosterman engages in naïve forecasting. He presents a continued status quo as common sense by framing another outcome as only possible because of “an unforeseeable academic reversal.”
In a book about how the future may look at our age that uses analogies of how this has happened in the past, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that a reversal is possible by applying the same logic. During the course of history as an academic enterprise, the pendulum has swung back and forth between these poles several times, and never was there a complete and accepted dominance of one view over the other, even if it seemed that way. History is not a natural science. Its methods are fungible, not fixed.
As the above quote shows, Klosterman moreover fundamentally misunderstands how historians work. More facts, more quantified data, more pieces of information, and more statistical methods do not automatically mean less interpretation. It requires just as much judgment to decide which facts can be adduced to tell a specific story and which methods from the social sciences may yield helpful results as it does to construct a coherent narrative out of very few sources.
Chuck Klosterman Talking About His Book.
Klosterman, in an odd combination, is carelessly circumspect throughout the book, displaying at times the same “casual certitude” he deplores for having taken over our culture. He always seems to understand that it is more complicated, applying “Klosterman’s razor” and concluding that his conclusions might be wrong, but he never quite makes the leap to conclude that his premise might be faulty as well. Klosterman never assumes his concept of wrongness to be possibly wrong. But it is.
“Right” and “wrong” are often not a simple binary hanging from the fixed heavens. They are deeply and necessarily fraught concepts. To assume that there will be future thinkers who can dismiss ideas as wrong from the vantage point of a more complete, better knowledge assumes a philosophy of history that culminates in the never-achievable but always hoped for millennial bliss of complete knowledge. To my thinking, this is not to be had. To Klosterman’s, it seems fundamental. Yet, it remains unstated.
But What If We’re Wrong? is sometimes fun and thought-provoking. But overall, it’s a taxing read. Klosterman is right in thinking about the things he is thinking about. There is value to his approach as well. But he should have jumped up one meta level and realized that ultimately, we can’t even know what “wrong” will constitute in the future. He did not. Therefore, on the underlying concept of what it means to be wrong, he is wrong.