No, There Is No Precedent for Donald Trump

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Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton. 

The best historical analogies illuminate the past for the present, but the worst analogies domesticate the present to the past. And I cannot balk from stating, with great respect to my colleagues and friends in this symposium and to the editors of Democracy who thought it up, that historical analogies to the ascension of Donald J. Trump are among the very worst.

Understanding our current situation begins with the recognition that Trump and his incipient regime are utterly abnormal. Trump represents a sharp break in our national political history—something unlike anything America, in all of its turbulence, has seen before, his election the result of a fundamental collapse in our politics. Coming to terms with this requires, in part, finally admitting to ourselves that, although the constitutional trappings were respected, the events of 2016 resembled a foreign-abetted coup d’état more than they did an American presidential election. Coming to terms also requires paying close attention to the fact that Trump, by his own admission, learned his approach to leadership not in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, nor even in the wheeling-and-dealing of high-stakes New York real estate, but in the Roy Cohn school of political racketeering, including its links to organized crime—training that, apparently, has made Trump feel perfectly at home working with the syndicates of the post-Soviet Russian oligarchy.

Of course, it is easy enough for bright and serious historians to look at all of this and still find homologies between our times and the past. Many historians, myself included, spend a good deal of our day negotiating between our sense of the present and our sense of the past, so we are always on the alert for equivalences. As the public seems to expect from us this kind of analogizing, we happily oblige, flattered to be asked and pleased to display our expertise. More to the point, as most professional American historians stand politically to the left of center, looking back for even faint resemblances is one way of dealing with trauma. But to link Trump to any past President or Administration—even if that linking is meant to diminish—instantly normalizes and thereby ennobles him....

Never before has American democracy been so debased that roughly one-third of the nation can dictate its politics. (Even the slave power oligarchy of the 1850s managed to mobilize electoral pluralities and majorities.) Never before has an American Administration lied as continuously and as brazenly as Trump and his minions have, not simply as self-protection but as calculated insults to reason, gaslighting not just the nation but the entire world. Never before has an Administration’s supporters—today, the ruling one-third of the country—shown such an ardent willingness not merely to accept its mendacity but to get off on it, to the point of thrilling to possible criminal interference in our national elections by a hostile nation, so long as it gives the finger to the other side. Finding similarities in our past to this state of affairs brings to mind the French proverb, that to understand everything is to pardon everything—only, in this case, to analogize too much is to understand too little.




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