Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

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At The New Republic, Graham Vyse asks this question to several historians and gets several different answers.  This, of course, should be expected.  Historical analogies are always problematic.

Rick Perlstein, for example, describes “the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.”

Kevin Mattson says “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”  He says “quite honestly, I don’t understand where [Perlstein’s] coming from.  I’m kind of at a loss.”

Luke Nichter says: “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press…At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”

And here’s CNN’s own Tim Naftali: “Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” but he does add “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Read the entire piece here.  It is a great conversation about the role of the historian in public life and the relationship between the past and the present.  Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle, but I resonate the most with Perlstein. Go read Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  🙂

One thought on “Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

  1. When I was studying history in undergrad, I found that the argument against the use of historical analogies somewhat compelling. I mean, when you get down in the weeds, a lot of historical events that are compared to each other were significantly different. Any event has so many unique variables that it’s impossible to replicate it at any other time. However, to fully reject the ideas (1) that we can learn from the past by (2) drawing legitimate comparisons between the past and present is to reject the idea that we can learn by experience. I still sympathize with the mindset of suspicion of historical analogies (especially when drawn by partisans), but the facts of life suggest that parts of the past are the same as the present in all or at least most important regards. Using what you’ve learned from experience is drawing analogies between situations one has encountered in the past and the situation one is encountering in the present. Who would deny that we can learn from experience, for instance, not to touch hot stoves or that tripping off to the beach without sun tan lotion is a bad idea?

    An analogy, by definition, is drawing attention to the similarities between dissimilar things; the important question is: are the compared things alike in all important respects? So when someone uses a historical analogy, we shouldn’t have a gut reaction against it. Instead, we should examine the two things being compared (people, events, etc.) and see if they really do bear a resemblance.

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