Historians (and assorted others) on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle


Is Donald Trump the next Andrew Jackson

Andrew Ferguson, Richard Brookhiser, Allen Guelzo, David Reynolds, Jill Lepore, Robert Merry, George Nash, Eric Foner, Amity Shales, George Will, and Jon Meacham have contributed to a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “History Repeats as Farce.”

Here is a taste:

“Ransack history how you will looking for antecedents, there aren’t any,” says George F. Will, the dean of conservative columnists. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, dismisses the journalistic temptation to ask: “ ‘What is this like? What are the parallels?’ I tend not to think that way.” She believes 2016 is “uncharted territory, really. It’s not like any other election, in a deep, structural way, because there are too many variables and no constants.” These include the potential for “gross abuses of power” by a President Trump, new modes of mass communication like social media and what may be an epochal political realignment.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James Polk, thinks such a shift is under way. The status quo is never permanent, and the post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cold War consensus about globalization and internationalism, he says, “has been killed by Donald Trump, for all his flaws and limitations. What we know from history is that when the identity and definition of the nation is at stake, the politics gets very intense.”

In such periods of upheaval there is often “a recrudescence of populism, a revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites,” says George Nash, who studies the postwar conservative intellectual movement. He distinguishes between “anti-capitalist” left-wing versions that oppose wealth and corporate power, like the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the last century, and more recent “anti-statist” right-wing populism that opposes big government, like the tea party (circa 2009, not 1773). Mr. Trump’s ideology confounds, he says, because it is “a hybrid of both manifestations.”

Eric Foner, of Columbia University, also sees Mr. Trump as “reflecting things that have been around in our politics in one form or another and now somehow joined together in one campaign.” The businessman is a merger of Ross Perot in 1992, who “raised the question of the loss of jobs through trade agreements,” and George Wallace in 1968, “appealing to white people’s sense that they’re losing out in some way.”

Read the entire piece here.