Donald Trump Is Making the Great Man Theory of History Great Again

tags: election 2016, Trump

David A. Bell is a Professor of History at Princeton University. His essay collection Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present, which includes essays originally published in Foreign Policy, was published this year by Oxford University Press.

The imminent ascension to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, a man whose supporters and detractors both agree is exceptional in the context of American history, raises a question which historians and social scientists generally prefer to shy away from: To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals — history’s archetypal Great Men and Women — as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?

Professional academics — historians, political scientists, sociologists, among others — who have tried to offer perspective on Trump’s victory and upcoming presidency have generally emphasized the latter. They tend to identify the key phenomenon of the 2016 election as “populism” — an upsurge of hostility to elites, which they explain by reference to the changing social and cultural conditions that left a large group of white Americans economically vulnerable, fearful of outsiders, and bitterly resentful. They credit Trump with successfully mobilizing this group but devote more analysis to the social phenomenon than to Trump himself.

But the explanatory power of populism may be far stronger for explaining the election than in forecasting what is about to happen next. Though impersonal forces may have given rise to Trump, the president-elect himself resists analysis as a predictable, impersonal force. And so, even as Trump claims a mandate to remake the United States, he may force social scientists and historians to look beyond their usual analytical tools in order to explain his presidency.

The academic penchant for structural explanations is hardly surprising — and not just because most academics find it difficult to take Donald Trump seriously (unfortunately, history has suggested, time and again, that we have to distinguish between respecting people and taking them seriously). The modern social sciences have always found it difficult to deal with the sort of unpredictable, willful phenomenon that Trump represents. From the 18th century onward, these disciplines, including history, have taken seriously their status as sciences. That is, they have taken seriously the idea that scholars can discover regular, predictable patterns of change at work beneath the apparent flux and confusion of history. These regular, predictable patterns might not have the absolute, scientifically verifiable quality of natural laws, but they are nonetheless held to matter more than the character and actions of particular individuals, no matter how prominent.

Marxist historians and social scientists have put these claims forward most famously, but a belief in the power of large-scale impersonal forces has hardly been limited to the left. The great 19th-century French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote magnificent studies of American democracy and the origins of the French Revolution in which even the most prominent historical actors made virtually no appearance. The true protagonist of both books was equality itself, which Tocqueville saw as the defining feature of modern times: a great force that swept over kings and presidents as surely as it did other members of society. ...

Read entire article at Foreign Policy

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