The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have made my day-to-day work as a historian feel pretty inconsequential. Diving back into the past can feel a lot like sticking your head in the sand while the world around you goes up in flames. There is, of course, an urgent place for history and historians under this particular administration, in part to meet a wider hunger to understand just what the hell is going on in our country. A lot of historians have stepped up and offered their perspective and expertise (just glance through this list). This is useful and necessary work. At the same time, there are limits to how history can and should be used.
I’m not going to venture into the dark, twisted swamp of how Donald Trump and his supporters abuse history. I doubt any of them will read this and I doubt even more that anything I write would change their minds. Instead, I’m writing this for those on the left who are marshaling “history” as a tool of resistance. Two core ideas have been articulated again and again in the last two weeks: “we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past” and “history will judge you.” Broadly speaking, I share these sentiments. And to the degree that they help spur action, let’s continue to use them. But we also need to understand their limitations and the ways in which they can actually be counter-productive.