What Do I Mean When I Use the #AgeofTrump Hashtag?


John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture, has some serious issues with my use of the hashtag #AgeofTrump and he let me know about it in no uncertain terms during a few twitter conversations this week.  You can read the entire exchange at my Storify site. It also includes tweets from some other very smart tweeters.

I should note that when I use the #AgeofTrump hashtag I am not suggesting that we are living in a new historical era–like the “Middle Ages” or the “Age of Jackson.”  That would be irresponsible for a historian.  Although future historians, with the benefit of distance, may just conclude that this is a unique era of some type.  I will leave that to them.

I am also not suggesting that the things we are seeing in the United States since the emergence of Trump–disunity, fear, racism, lack of evidence-based arguments, the lack of concern with character, and especially fake news–do not have precedents in American history.

But I do think that Trump is unique in a lot of ways and I will continue to point those out using the hashtag #AgeofTrump.  (If you can think of a better hashtag to describe the Trump phenomenon/campaign/presidency let me know).  There ARE some things happening right now that are unique.  And the last time I checked historians are in the business of chronicling both continuity with the past and change over time.

On one level, Wilson is correct.  Not every stupid or offensive thing that someone does is connected to Trump.  Neither is Trump to blame for every piece of fake news. Sometimes we have a smoking gun that directly connects the stupidity to  Trump Tower or a Trump surrogate and sometimes we do not.  But Trump’s campaign has sent a clear message to the American people that facts, evidence, and character, among other things, do not seem to matter to him.

Historians are in the business of chronicling the past.  I have done that in at least three of my five books and multiple published articles and book chapters and I will continue to do it.  (Stay tuned).  But, as I have said multiple times on this blog, historians also offer a way of thinking about the world that has always been useful and is especially useful in times likes these.

Read the tweets and let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “What Do I Mean When I Use the #AgeofTrump Hashtag?

  1. Interesting. I have mixed feelings about the tag, but mostly concur with Wilson. You say you don’t intend to declare a new “era” or anything like that. But, intended or not, “Age of ____” surely communicates that idea. I say that as someone who teaches high school history and thus spends more time in history textbooks than he’d like.

    And like many such ages and eras, at a broad sweep the designation may make sense, but the closer you examine any one piece of evidence as a result of the #AgeofTrump, the more the story falls apart. There are at least two related reasons. (1) It creates a false illusion of continuity between really different phenomena and (2) most of the things tagged #AgeofTrump seem, like much of the post-election diagnoses, to confuse symptoms with underlying problems.

    Of the latter, the most important example is racism versus nationalism: Trump’s inconsistent racism is a symptom of his quite consistent populist nationalism, but everyone’s obsessed with the former and many ignore the latter.

    Another one is the ridiculous “post fact” appelation (which I haven’t seen you use). It’s inane along the lines of the always-self-flattering “facts have a liberal bias” thing. It’s far too flattering to Trump’s forebears, as though Trump has inaugurated deceit in politics. And it seems to think the cure for Trump is factual accuracy, which is ridiculous. Fact-checking rabid nationalists doesn’t do squat. The problem runs deeper.

    And the emergence of fact-checking websites in the past ten years seems somewhat ironically to prove the point: the conceit is that they deal in clear issues of factual accuracy, but the various sliding scales of truthfulness employed give away the lie. A lot of what they do is relatively straightforward, but practically all of it requires a great deal of interpretation, and a significant proportion of the “fact checks” involve competing interpretations or organizations of data rather than some kind of hard factual truth.

    I do think Trump is unique in some ways. As I wrote to a Trump-voting friend before the election, “he so completely lacks any relationship to truth that dishonesty seems like an inaccurate term. ‘A-truth’ should be a term: he doesn’t violate standards of truth so much as seem totally unaware of any standard of truth at all.”

    But the use of the #AgeofTrump thing often serves as an organizing principle to connect things that have no fundamental connection to each other and only a loose, probably-non-causal relationship to Trump. In other words, it seems to clarify but it actually confuses.

    (Sorry that turned into an essay.)


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