Power  /  Argument

Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits

Comparing Donald Trump to Nixon and Hitler might be good for TV, but bad for history.
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Donald Trump might be disastrous for most Americans and a danger to the world, but he has been a boon to historians. The more grotesque his presidency appears, the more historians are called on to make sense of it, often in 30-second blasts on cable news or in quick-take quotes in a news article.

As a historian, I’m glad to see my profession getting some much deserved publicity. But I also worry about the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies. The result is that readers and viewers get history lessons that are often misleading when it comes to Mr. Trump, and shed little light on our current travails.

This is partly because this is not what historians should be doing. We teach our students to be wary of analogies, which are popular with politicians and policy makers (who choose them to serve their agendas) but often distort both the past and the present.

To take just one example, during his campaign, Mr. Trump was frequently compared to Huey Long, the Depression-era governor of Louisiana. Sure, there are similarities: Like Mr. Trump, Long ran in the name of the “people,” attacked the establishment and was labeled a demagogue and fascist by his critics. But the differences are even more important: Long was self-made, a genuine populist who took on powerful interests, and as governor was responsible for building roads, bridges and hospitals and helping the poor. He never engaged in race baiting — astonishing for a populist Southern politician in that era. The point isn’t that Mr. Trump is or is not like Long (and he’s not); it’s that the analogy is meaningless.

In fact, such analogies are more than useless; they can be dangerous. Yes, history has much to teach us. But one of its lessons is its own limits: Things rarely repeat themselves. Just because Mr. Trump’s lies and evasions bear some similarity to those of Richard Nixon, that doesn’t mean that we’re watching a repeat of Watergate.

In fact, such analogies are more than useless; they can be dangerous. Yes, history has much to teach us. But one of its lessons is its own limits: Things rarely repeat themselves. Just because Mr. Trump’s lies and evasions bear some similarity to those of Richard Nixon, that doesn’t mean that we’re watching a repeat of Watergate.
 

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