On the Danger of Historical Analogies

Trump and Hoover

Some are comparing Trump to Hoover

As I wrote this weekend, everyone is making them these days.  Historians (including myself on numerous occasions) are going public with analogies.  They usually go something like this: “This presidential election is exactly like the election of (insert year).” And then there is this one: “Donald Trump is the second coming of (insert name of historical figure–Jackson, Hitler, and Wallace seem to be the most popular).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ian Beacock, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Stanford, reminds us that such analogies will never be perfect.

Here is a taste:

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.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  (Of course everything that I post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is worth your time!).

As I read Beacock’s piece, I thought about Jay Green’s excellent essay “Public Reasoning by Historical Analogy in our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (U of Notre Press, 2010).  Green writes:

It’s not surprising that historical analogies are attractive, because they provide us with tools to Confessingunderstanding, anticipate, and control the shape of the present and the course of the future.  As we have seen, they are natural, necessary, even inevitable elements in our personal and social lives.  But these same otherwise helpful tools regularly warp, obfuscate, and undermine honest examinations of history, doing severe damage to the integrity of the past.  Visions of the present and future that we desperately want to believe too often urge us to remember the past quite selectively, and to use it narrowly to the strategic advantage of our own party, cause, and a priori convictions.  When this happens, appeals to historical analogy ironically impoverish public discourse by creating conceptual barriers between genuine historical awareness and moral inquiry about present realities.  So we are left with the difficult challenge of handling the powerful instrument of historical analogy in ways that both promote a genuines understanding of the past and shed needed light on the present, while resisting the urge to turn them into dangerous forms of propaganda.