Ever since Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians came to light, everyone on cable news is talking about context. Pundits and commentators believe that Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer must be understood in the context of:
Donald Trump’s connection to the people who set up the meeting.
General Michael Flynn’s meetings with Russians.
Donald Trump’s Putin-love.
Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russians.
Donald Trump’s decision to remove an anti-Russia stance on the Ukraine from the GOP platform.
Trump adviser Roger Stone’s connections to Russia.
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s links to Russia.
Trump adviser Carter Page’s links to Russia.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s failure to disclose meetings he had with Russians.
Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey over his role in the Russian investigation.
Trump telling Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office that Comey was a “nutjob” and that his firing has taken the “pressure” off of him.
And we could go on…
Does all of this information mean that Donald Trump is guilty of colluding with the Russians? Not necessarily. But any investigation into this case must begin with this context. It cannot be ignored.
Historians talk about context all the time. Contextual thinking is historical thinking. Any investigator–whether it be the FBI, the CIA, or an insurance investigator–must take context into consideration when conducting an investigation.
“Context” is one of the five “Cs” of historical thinking that I write about at length in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Context does not always lead us to definitive answers about “what happened.” In this sense, history is a limited discipline. But it is an essential discipline in the sense that it can help us get close–sometimes very close–to the answers we seek.
Is Trump guilty of collusion with the Russians? We will only find out if investigators continue to apply other historical skills: research, investigation, and the dogged search for evidence. But context is a start.
Why study history? A better question might be “why not study history?”