Have We Been Here Before?

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In the second part of their conversation about the United States in the age of Trump, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Morton Keller wonder if our current challenges are novel.

Here is a taste:

Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:

The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.

In short, for almost two centuries modern history was chiefly determined by social and economic forces, which now are long in the tooth, and are ever more subordinated to new forces, new ideas, new social realities.

But is this indeed the case? Or are we experiencing today what can best be described as new consequences of old facts of life? Is the computer-internet revolution just another turn of the technological wheel, which began to spin with the steam engine and picked up speed with electricity, germ theory, and the idea of evolution? Is Islamic terrorism essentially fascist and communist totalitarianism in a more explicitly religious form? And is the new stress on the evils of inequality, and the growing gulf between the educated urban privileged and their minority allies, primarily a replay of the old capitalist/bourgeois-worker class struggle?

On the whole, I think not. The computer and the internet bid fair to be as innovative and consequential in their effects as was the Gutenberg movable type revolution of the 15th century. Islamic militancy is very much a modern phenomenon, on a scale not seen since the 16th century. The current surge of nationalist, anti-party, anti-immigrant populism, evident in the British Brexit referendum, the 2016 American election, and the first round of the 2017 French election, is a dramatic turn away from the mainstream politics of the past three quarters of a century. And the growing separation between better educated, more affluent, big city or college town-based people and their less-educated, more economically and socially fragile, small town or stagnant city-based fellow-citizens, is evident not only in the United States but in England and France as well.

The consequences of these developments are still far from clear, and far from over. There have been discomforting signs of a taste for authoritarianism in both the Trump administration and the college campuses: two ideologically opposite but behaviorally similar responses to the new realities of life in the West. But there have also been signs of a turn to a more moderate and familiar style of governance in the administration, and an uptick in support for free speech among faculty and First Amendment advocates such as the ACLU (though not yet among students or administrators). How long-lasting this will be is anyone’s guess.

Read the entire conversation here.