Memory  /  Media Criticism

Trump is the New _______

Nixon? Reagan? Jackson? Historical analogies are simplistic, misleading—and absolutely essential.

Every historian worries over presentism — the tendency for contemporary sentiment to distort the study of the past. Some call it projection. In graduate school, it’s teleology, or what the French historian Marc Bloch dubbed "the most unpardonable of sins: anachronism." And so, lightly we tread, tippy-toed, when formulating a historical analogy: the likening of something then to something now.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. censured such allusive fare. Analogy rips historical example free of root, context, idiosyncrasy, and counterexample. Such evidence plucked from the past suffers from "confirmation bias," speciously corroborating contemporary-minded hypotheses for the already predisposed. "History by rationalization," Schlesinger damned.

Nonetheless, the historical analogy persists. And for it, Moshik Temkin, an associate professor of history and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, took a great many of his fellow historians to the woodshed. "Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits," Temkin proclaimed in an op-ed in The New York Times. The peddling of historical analogy to understand current events might earn TV spots, but such spotty practice belied the historian’s process. It was "useless," even falsely "reassur[ing]," not just bad scholarship but possibly "dangerous."

As the kind of historian criticized by Temkin and the anti-allusionists, I was taken aback by his harsh column. So charged were Temkin’s charges that mere hours later, in The Atlantic, Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller, historians at Princeton and Brandeis respectively, hit back with "Why (Some) Historians Should Be Pundits," coyly puzzling over the contradiction of Temkin’s "argument about avoiding punditry" appearing on the Timesop-ed page.

By some historical coincidence, that same day, The Washington Post unveiled a new section, Made by History. The Post editors promised, “in an era seemingly defined by the word unprecedented,” to deliver a steady diet of exactly the kind of historical analysis — “grappling with parallels between the past and present” — that Temkin had just rejected so vociferously. The game, it seemed, was afoot.