The Trump Presidency Is History. They’re Writing the First DraftHistorians in the News
tags: political history, Donald Trump, recent history
From the day he took office, Donald J. Trump had America’s historians on high alert, as they took to news programs, Op-Ed pages and social media to help contextualize every norm-busting twist and turn (and tweet).
But last Friday, a group of 17 historians sat down for a calmer, more deliberate project: taking a first cut at writing a scholarly history of the administration.
Before convening via Zoom for two days of discussion, the members had submitted chapters on topics including immigration, foreign policy, race, party politics, media, disinformation and impeachment. After revisions and editing, the work will be published next year by Princeton University Press in a volume called “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.”
That might seem like an incongruously dry title for a summation of four years that ended with a violent assault on the United States Capitol. And before the discussion began, Julian E. Zelizer, a professor at Princeton and the project’s organizer, laid out a basic difficulty.
“The challenge with President Trump is understanding the foundational elements of his presidency as deeply rooted in basic features of American history,” he said, while also noting the places “where the presidency jumped the shark.”
The discussion included plenty of debate on big-picture questions. Was Trump’s victory (then loss) part of a political realignment, or an aberration? What was the role of bottom-up social movements versus top-down leadership in driving change? And how much did Trump’s personality matter?
More than one person suggested that among the norms upended (or at least seriously shaken up) was dispassionate scholarly objectivity itself.
One thread running through the discussion was how to find the main narrative lines amid four years of near-constant chaos — including two impeachments — and parse out actual policies and on-the-ground impacts from the blizzard of President Trump’s words.
And those words, some of the scholars argued, were often as much the point as deeds. In a paper on infrastructure, Jason Scott Smith, a professor at the University of New Mexico, argued that seeing the president’s record only through the punchline of his infamous “Infrastructure Week” missed perhaps his most politically important piece of infrastructure — the border wall.
And with the border wall, he argued, what matters isn’t just what was built (452 miles of wall, he said, only 80 of which was new). “Trump’s rhetorical commitments to infrastructure, while unfulfilled in terms of physical construction,” Smith wrote in his paper, “in fact underwrote a sea change in the legal mechanisms and policing capacities of the federal government.”
That included harsh deportation and detainment policies for undocumented immigrants. And then there was the larger psychological and symbolic impact of the wall itself. “Maybe in terms of mileage it’s not a lot,” he said during the discussion. “But the visual cruelty of the wall is really striking.”
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