History Will Judge Trump but We’ve Got to Do It FirstRoundup
tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump, presidential misconduct, elite impunity
Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech. He’s the author of An Empire of Memory.
David Perry is a journalist and historian. He's the senior academic advisor in the history department at the University of Minnesota. His website is http://davidmperry.com/ and his twitter is @lollardfish. He and Matthew Gabriele are writing The Bright Ages, a new history of the Middle Ages (Harper Collins, fall 2021).
With Republicans slowly starting to come to terms with President Trump’s defeat this year, there’s been talk about how “history will judge” his administration.
Sometimes that refrain is used to reassure that there will be an accounting for the awful things that have happened on his watch, while others are using it to argue that we should just let the past be the past and move forward; let’s forget about investigations, truth commissions, or prosecutions and leave the judgements to subsequent generations of historians. All of those invocations of history are implicitly celebrating a return to “normalcy” under a President Biden.
But historians know better. We know that history is not some abstract collection of truths, but is subject to the deliberate manipulations of people aided by the vagaries of time. If history is going to judge Donald Trump, we’re going to have to do a lot of work in the present, despite some recent claims to the contrary. History itself isn’t an actor; people determine how things are remembered, and historians can only render a reliable judgement if we judge him and his administration now.
There’s a lesson for the present in the year 750 A.D., another moment in which a transfer of power was contested, in this case when the Frankish noble Pepin the Short deposed the then-King of the Franks—ruling over much of what is now France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—and took the throne for himself. The story that has come down to us in our sources is one about a peaceful transition between one dynasty and the next. But that’s not what actually happened and historians were bamboozled for generations. Left alone, the judgment of history is notoriously fickle.
The sources for Pepin’s coup, of which there aren’t many, say that the transfer of power was entirely peaceful. The previous king, Childeric III, was feckless and ruining the country. Pepin wanted to set things right and so went to the pope in Rome to act as an external arbiter. The pope agreed with Pepin’s claims and so he returned to Francia where he was supposedly “acclaimed” as king by all the Frankish people. This last part shouldn’t surprise us, as medieval people voted all the time and there were lots of electoral systems across the medieval world to determine rulership (though Pepin commanding an army at the time precludes this from being remembered as a “free and fair” election). In addition, because kings functioned as both religious and political leaders since antiquity, the pope’s assent seemed to legitimize Pepin’s rise, placing him in the tradition of Christian Roman emperors such as Constantine, while a bishop (and later the pope) anointing Pepin with oil placed his rule in the spiritual tradition of the kings of Israel. It all seemed “legal” and aboveboard. The former king, Childeric III, seemed to accept his fate and was sent to a monastery to live out his days.
We don’t know what happened to Childeric after that. It’s possible Childeric died of old age in that monastery, but it’s perhaps more likely he was murdered in the succeeding years, or that he died in battle trying to retake his throne. Regardless, we’ll likely never know what actually happened because the Royal Frankish Annals, our major historical source, falls mysteriously silent for the years 751 and 752. The entry for 750 talks about the selection of Pepin. Then, in 753, when the source calmly resumes, Pepin is the undisputed king and all potential rivals have simply vanished from the story.
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