early and often

How Do You Write a History of the Trump Era While We’re Still in It?

Historians have an unusual dilemma.

Photo: Manit Sriwanichpoom/Agence VU/REDUX
Photo: Manit Sriwanichpoom/Agence VU/REDUX

In 2010, historian Julian E. Zelizer edited an anthology of essays evaluating the two terms of George W. Bush, who at that point had been out of office for a little more than a year. The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment was split into a dozen chapters, each written by a different historian and focused on a specific aspect of the Bush years: Iraq, the financial crisis, culture wars, and more. After Barack Obama left office, Zelizer edited another volume — again billing it as a first draft of history. For as long as the series has been around, Zelizer and his contributors have used the 21st-century presidency as a window into the social and political upheavals of the mid-to-late-20th century. The collapse of the New Deal coalition and the aftershocks of the Reagan Revolution are consistent themes.

This time, there’s an interesting wrinkle. Historians aren’t dealing with a discrete eight-year period with Donald Trump (as they were with Bush and Obama) but with an as yet unsettled bubble. Are we still in the Trump era? Maybe. No one knows what’ll happen in 2024 — whether we’re living through the intermission of a presidency that could stretch until 2029. The main concern underpinning the Trump edition, then, is the utility of writing such a contemporary history. Far from being a straitjacket, contemporary historians argue, an understanding of the passions of a time can endow a writer with a set of questions inaccessible to posterity. Besides, any history of Trump will reflect and sublimate the anxieties of the time in which it’s written.

The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment includes 19 essays ranging from Trump’s China policy to white supremacy, impeachment, and the pandemic. Among the standouts are Michael Kazin’s essay on the Democratic Party, Nicole Hemmer on the Trumpification of conservative media, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on Black Lives Matter and movement politics.

To justify the mission of his series, Zelizer cites a famous essay by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. “The increase in the velocity of history means, among other things, that the ‘present’ becomes the ‘past’ more swiftly than ever before,” Schlesinger wrote in 1967 for The Atlantic, reflecting on the proliferation of books on the Kennedy years. Unlike with retrospectives on Bush and Obama, Zelizer argues that it’s urgent for historians to fight Trump’s duplicity with their research. It’s hard to disagree — even if their work might not reach a Trumpian readership. The alternative is to write nothing, to kick back and watch as Trump starts campaigning next year. If he runs again, the periodization might change, but for now, it makes sense to view his 2016 presidential campaign and single term as a unit. In keeping with Zelizer’s previous editions, this installment extends Trump’s story, tracing antecedents such as Bush-era anti-American sentiment, 1990s nativism, Nixon’s détente with China, and the social movements of the 1960s. The endgame isn’t to arrive at anything so facile as Trump’s legacy but to figure out how best to tell the story, to talk it over with each other, to start doing the never-ending work of historiography.

Trump, ready to burnish his achievements and potentially position himself for another run, met with the book’s contributors on Zoom last summer. Calling in from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, he ticked off a list of hobby horses: NATO, NAFTA, “the plague — or whatever you want to call it,” the USS Gerald R. Ford. Then he took questions about his ideology, his relationship with the FBI, and on and on. After the meeting, Trump sent a thank-you note, but the predictable kicker came at a press conference days later, when he said people writing books about him “are often bad people who write whatever comes to their mind or fits their agenda. It has nothing to do with facts or reality.”

“Most historians in this collection simultaneously understand Trump to be a product of the era, not the cause but someone who had the capacity to break with our politics in fundamental ways,” Zelizer writes. In this book, Trump is neither a gilded autocrat nor an inept clown, but he still emerges as a transformational politician. As Nicole Hemmer persuasively notes in her essay, “Remade in His Image: How Trump Transformed Right-Wing Media,” the schism between the MAGA and Never Trump camps was both an affective mutation and a culmination. Hemmer cites Fox anchor Laura Ingraham’s book Billionaires at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump, in which Trump’s win is portrayed as “the fulfillment of the Reagan Revolution.” Shared iconography and showmanship represented a callback to a Republican tradition and a break from the past.

Elsewhere, Zelizer thoughtfully interrogates the assumption that such a thing as a Trumpian GOP even exists. He takes a more complicated tack in suggesting that Trump departed from norms while pursuing many of the party’s long-term political objectives: the disassembly of the welfare state, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich. Which is why it should come as no surprise that operatives like Mitch McConnell have never really abandoned Trump and will fill in the bubble beside his name should he win the nomination again.

Michael Kazin’s essay about the Democratic Party and the rise of its progressive flank is another welcome addition. He argues that the party apparatus’s “resistance” was ineffectual and that Democrats were most competitive when they “articulated a broadly egalitarian economic vision” in the 20th century before Bill Clinton’s Third Way pivot. While Kazin nods to the reformist corners of the post-2016 party, I wish contributors would have lingered more on the extra-partisan elements of the Trump years — that is, activists’ oppositional posture toward both major political parties. United in their hatred of a system personified by a figure with a once-in-a-lifetime ick factor, many feminist, Black, anti-finance, climate, and other activists became socialists en masse. Of course, they largely remained locked out of power. Though lots of workers embedded themselves in the institutional Democratic Party, their influence is more far-reaching than electoral politics. The mainstreaming of mutual aid during the pandemic is one example. For young people, socialism made legible an ethos of care — something like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “network of mutuality,” within which “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These Trump-era political awakenings have spurred unionization drives everywhere from tony Manhattan media companies to Amazon warehouses and Starbucks franchises. The word socialism doesn’t appear in the book very often (except to modify Bernie Sanders). Recounting the Democratic Party’s post-2016 conflicts, Kazin writes that the party faced an identity crisis: “If left unresolved, the argument made it more difficult to express in vivid terms what Democrats actually stood for and how they planned to implement that vision.” For socialists in the Trump years, this was exactly the snag: the moderate old guard was visionless and stood for nothing in particular.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor contributes the most useful essay about social movements, linking the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 to the political and business elite’s abuse of workers — especially since the collapse of the New Deal coalition. “These were new protests largely rising out of the catastrophic consequences of nearly five decades of denying the materiality of racial discrimination through the steady erosion of the infrastructure to oversee the implementation of civil rights legislation and the undoing of the social welfare state,” she writes. It’s a necessary corrective to the corporate co-optation of anti-racist language, which obscures the fact that fights against racial inequality are fights against social inequality. With American billionaires profiting $2 trillion since the start of the pandemic, it could be said that one of Trump’s final acts in office was an unconscionable wealth transfer that, regardless of whether he’s elected again, we’ll have to work aggressively to solve.

If there’s a through-line in Zelizer’s series, it’s that the past is always in flux and will look different depending on what a writer chooses to foreground. “Trump, with potential ambitions for seeking a second term, seemed eager to influence how historians saw the past,” Zelizer writes. Even if Trump doesn’t run for president in 2024, he and others will keep trying to confect their little mythologies, and someone will need to counter them with evidence. And even if this feels like fruitless work, easily discarded by propagandists or quickly rendered quaint by “the increase in the velocity of history,” as Schlesinger wrote, it’s the least we can do to talk things through, to help each other understand.

How Do You Write a History of the Trump Era Before It Ends?