History Won’t Save Us – By William Hogeland (The New Republic) / March 25 2020
Why the battle for history must be won in the here and now
History will judge Donald Trump harshly. That, at any rate, is what many of his critics predict. No less harsh, in this prediction, will be history’s judgment of those who abetted Trump’s evils, who failed to stand up to him, who didn’t support impeachment and removal, even citizens who didn’t sufficiently resist. According to some believers, if House Democrats hadn’t chosen to impeach, they, too, would have been tossed into the outer darkness by the mighty power known as history.
The faith in history is everywhere. Before the House voted to impeach Trump in December, the New York Times editorial board urged Democrats and Republicans alike to heed “the call of history.” “Trump: The Judgment of History” was the title of a New Yorker Festival panel of eminent historians and journalists. Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ lead impeachment manager, addressing the Senate during the trial in February, employed both the stick (“If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history”) and a carrot, plucked not from history, exactly, but from a patch nearby (“If you find the courage to stand up to him … your place will be among the Davids who took on Goliath”).
I feel the pull. Maybe you do, too. The present isn’t going well, so it’s nice to imagine a future in which people look back at these times and say, “At least we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.” The verdict we imagine history rendering is always that we were right, so it’s not only embattled liberals who subscribe to the faith. “History is often an unforgiving critic,” warned Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Daily Signal, on what he saw as Democrats’ abuse of the impeachment process. Kenneth Starr, speaking on behalf of Trump in the Senate trial, trolled liberals about as hard and as unctuously as he could by invoking the famous phrase associated with Martin Luther King Jr., regarding history’s moral arc bending toward justice.
It’s by no means impossible—though creepy as hell—to imagine a future historical judgment in which Trump is deemed the greatest leader of all time.
There is something comforting in the idea that history casts an objective, permanent judgment on the past, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. One reason for skepticism is the contingency precept, important to the modern study of history, which tells us that while it may be hard for us to imagine what the present would be like if great historical events and trends hadn’t occurred, nothing in the past happened inevitably. A great variety of contingencies are always in play. What did happen is only a hair’s breadth away from a dizzying multitude of things that might have happened and didn’t.
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