Is Anything “Unprecedented” About Donald Trump?

Trump Jackson Tomb

Trump places a wreath at site of Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Nashville

I teach my students that historians often think in terms of change and continuity.  In the age of Trump I have been hammering this lesson home more than usual.  Is Trump just another manifestation of nativism, populism, xenophobia, narcissism, etc.?  Or is Trump something completely new?

Historian and public intellectual Julian Zelizer reflects on this issue in a piece at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Read the entire piece here.

From the 1850s to the 1950s in 10 Minutes

Taylor_Branch_credit_J._Brough_Schamp_1_2

Taylor Branch

Tonight should be an interesting one for students in my Civil War America class.  We are currently studying the 1850s and the political, social, cultural, economic, and racial lead-up to the Civil War.  The class usually runs from 6:15-9:15pm, but tonight we are stopping at 7:15pm so we can walk over a lecture hall on campus to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch deliver the 2017 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture: “King’s Dream for Justice: Then and Now.”  It takes about ten minutes to walk from our classroom to the lecture hall.  In class we will be discussing race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  The Branch’s lecture will ask students to think about race in America 100 years later.

Next week we should have a good discussion about “change over time” and “continuity.”  It’s going to be fun!

The Mark of a Narcissist

This tweet is one of the many signs that Donald Trump is a narcissist.  It shows he is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies, but many of them have been humbled in some way by the office.  Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.

Trump spits in the face of such historical continuity.  This is progressive thinking at its worst.  It makes me think of Tocqueville in Democracy of America

Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Michael Gerson put it his way: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

And let’s not forget Sam Wineburg in the context of historical thinking:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

If Wineburg is correct, the antidote to narcissism is “mature historical understanding.” Let’s keep working.

Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.