Something about this political season has encouraged a string of blockbuster new hits at the Bad Historical Analogy Theater. All political seasons introduce a handful of entertaining new acts, but something about the unpredictability of national political life in the Age of Trump has really lit up the marquees on the Great White Way of Facile Comparisons. The presence of multiple political dynasties, the institutional and ideological implosion of the Republican party, the campaign finance Wild West of Citizens United, and the rise of nontraditional candidates have all stumped pundits and political writers of all stripes (and abilities), and in the face of such novelty and uncertainty many of them have an unerring instinct to grasp at historical analogies to explain what we’re living through. Most of those analogies are terrible, in that they rely on superficial similarities for their explanatory power, while papering over vast historical differences that undermine any explanation they purport to make. And if there’s one thing this blog is against, it’s Bad Historical Analogies.
Given the stink we’re swimming in on this internet of ours, I wanted to take a moment and give a shout out to a piece that I think powerfully uses history as an explanation. Back at the end of September, Rick Perlstein published a piece in the Washington Spectator entitled “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’.” It’s really smart and worth reading in its entirety, but the part that I especially appreciated is that Perlstein specifically denies the utility of facile comparisons between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini. As he points out, a vote for Trump doesn’t automatically mean kristallnacht or March on Rome because early 20th century fascisms were products of “the peculiar moments when their strong men arose, [when nations] suffered weaknesses in their institutions that are just about unimaginable in the United States. For instance, it is hard to imagine a President Trump turning America into a one-party state. (Isn’t it?)”
But Perlstein does make a subtler, and more powerful historical point: our contemporary historical distance from WWII and the politics that produced it means that “fascism” has fallen out of our political vocabulary, which makes it more difficult for us to understand political phenomena like Trump. Earlier generations, with a more urgent and immediate understanding of fascism and its inner workings, would not have been so stumped. As Perlstein so beautifully puts it:
Our mid-century American kin would never bother asking the question [i.e. what makes Trump so popular?]: it was too obvious. All that was required was a charismatic figure willing to say anything to animate the masses’ darkest prejudices, promising easy answers to intractable problems, offering frenetic action where conventionally constrained politics, sclerotic bureaucracies, and the messiness of democratic proceduralism promised only gridlock.
This is Beautiful Historical Analogy for a couple of reasons. First, it focuses on the period in which “fascism” as a term had the most explanatory power in American politics, which was not the 1930s and 1940s, but the 1950s and 1960s. Second, it doesn’t confuse “a historically specific description with a usefully predictive model.” And we learn something as a result. Trump isn’t likely to take us back to 1930s Western Europe, but he is already reanimating some deeply entrenched American political fault-lines that date to prosperity and the paranoia of the postwar era. That’s a good use of history for political explanation.