Writing History in the Age of Trump

There are a lot of new realities and circumstances that Americans will have to address over the next four years. Far from the most important, yet still something that folks will eventually have to grapple with, is how historians’ work will reflect this new environment. By this, I’m not referring to historians of contemporary America who will have to reconsider trajectories of the past few decades in order to account for Trump’s election. (Historians of Modern American politics, race, and gender, not to mention those who study the Religious Right, have their work cut out for them.) Nor am I specifically thinking about work that will immediate context for Trump’s tenure, like the fantastic compilation of the Trump syllabus (which everyone should bookmark), less formal ruminations like Kevin Kruse’s important twitter reflections on the power and limits of the presidency, imminent issues like the excellent work coming out on foreign policy, or even the much-needed background for things like the electoral college (the slave power strikes again!). Rather, what I am talking about is how historians will choose particular topics and frame their studies in ways to give long-form meaning to the anxieties and tensions we face today.

It is a common adage that history isn’t written in a vacuum. Not only do scholars wish to prove their relevance to modern readers, but our culture shapes the type of questions we ask and answers we provide. There are a number of themes that we can point to as hallmarks of scholarship in the Age of Obama. Earlier this year at The Junto I wrote about how Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s excellent Citizen Sailors: Becoming America in an Age of Revolutions embodies our contemporary assumption of the federal body’s positive role. Steven Pincus’s recent and provocative book on how the idea of an “activist government” in the American Revolution, which I reviewed here, also fits into this trajectory. I’ve been meaning to discuss James Kloppenberg’s new (and wide-sweeping) history of democracy in America and Europe and how it is framed around the longue durée tradition of deliberate democracy—the very pragmatism that shapes Obama’s political philosophy. And of course, the mere presence of a black man in the White House provokes questions concerning multiculturalism and interracial allegiances. Indeed, there are a number of other works and themes that we could identify as representative of this particular historiographical moment.

So what will history look like in an Age of Trump? Well, I think there are current trends already en vogue that are well-equipped for the moment. Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, which posits the nation’s founding as a period of elite triumph over those marginalized and disenfranchised, is a founding story both relevant and appropriate for our time. The same narrative holds for Michael Klarman’s new synthetic Framer’s Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, which summarizes a generation’s scholarship on how political elites drew on fears of societal unrest in order to curtail the extent of democracy’s power. Historians already have many of the tools and stories with which to construct a message for our era.

I also expect to see more work on the intersections—and often clashes—between race, ethnicity, and class. Nancy Isenberg’s book on White Trash (reviewed here) points the way to explaining how those from the lower rungs of society can at times be mobilized, manipulated, and moved to action at important moments in our political tradition. If 2016 is indeed a manifestation resurgent global nativism, as the connection between Trump and Brexit imply, then we need more scholarship that explains the lasting significance and power of this ever-present anxiety. This will likely lead to more interest in the nature and trajectory of nationalism, though rather than positing it as a political ideal it is instead seen as an ethnic assurance. New works of nationalist imaginations will have to account for its nativist tendencies.

As a historian of democracy, I’ll be looking for works on the tragic limits of democratic governance, especially as it relates to race. Two books have remained on my mind over the last few days: first, David Chappell’s history of prophetic religion and the limits of liberal philosophy during the Civil Rights movement; and second, Sylvester Johnson’s overview of African American religions since 1500. Both focus on the paradoxes of democratic participation and exclusion. I assigned both books in my grad seminar this semester, and highlighted them here and here on the blog. Simple, complacent, and overly optimistic trajectories of democratic governance and the determined march toward modernity do not square with the persistent reality of the racist expusion of black bodies from the political community. Historians would do well to return to questions raised by W. E. B Du Bois in finding meaning in today’s world. (Relatedly: if you are not already daily checking the African American Intellectual History blog then you should rectify that now. They might be the most crucial scholarly online community in coming years.)

Further, we might see more analysis demonstrates how the democratic penchant for societal oppression has always been a feature, not a bug, in our political history. Moving beyond the simplistic models of political competition between the “good” democracy and the “evil” non-democratic institutions, we must grapple with the foundational pitfalls of democratic theories in their own right. More works that incorporate sophisticated theories of democratic limitations, like recent books by Caleb McDaniel and John Burt, should cut into our rosy picture of political modernity. I could see a much more bleak interpretation of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the threats of a tyrannical majority, for instance. My current project, on the Mormon city of Nauvoo as a clash of democratic priorities, seems to adopt a new hue in Trump’s America.

These next four years will be unpredictable and disruptive, not to mention scary for large segments of the nation as new policies are enacted and other initiatives curtailed. Historians will have significant civic and educative responsibilities beyond their traditional pedagogical roles. And the resulting body of scholarship will be its own manifestation of the age.

[The image comes from BBC.]

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