What Should Historians Be Doing in the “Age of Trump?”


Moshik Temkin, a historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is not a big fan of historical analogies.  These analogies are never perfect and they often say more about the politics of the historian making them than they do about his or her expertise in historical thinking.

So what should historians be doing in the so-called age of Trump?  Temkin attempts an answer to this question in yesterday’s New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Ultimately, the most important thing historians can do is to leave the analogies to the pundits, and instead provide a critical, uncomfortable account of how we arrived at our seemingly incomprehensible current moment (many do just that, though not in the media spotlight).

This isn’t a radical idea; in fact, it’s something that the best politically engaged historians have always done.

In 1955, the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward published “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” a masterfully concise history of the origins of post-Civil War segregation. He did not seek analogies from the past, but instead demonstrated that, contrary to the perception of many Southerners, Jim Crow laws were not a tradition from time immemorial but a more recent product of the heightened racism of the late 19th century.

By showing social and political change over time — really the meat and potatoes of the historian’s craft — the book made clear that progress was possible. Woodward did not speak in sound bites or pundit-friendly analogies. And yet his work had an enormous impact on postwar racial politics: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “Strange Career” as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.”

Read the entire piece here.