How Novel Are America's Challenges?

Two historians debate whether recent shifts are different in kind or merely in magnitude.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:

The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.

In short, for almost two centuries modern history was chiefly determined by social and economic forces, which now are long in the tooth, and are ever more subordinated to new forces, new ideas, new social realities.

But is this indeed the case? Or are we experiencing today what can best be described as new consequences of old facts of life? Is the computer-internet revolution just another turn of the technological wheel, which began to spin with the steam engine and picked up speed with electricity, germ theory, and the idea of evolution? Is Islamic terrorism essentially fascist and communist totalitarianism in a more explicitly religious form? And is the new stress on the evils of inequality, and the growing gulf between the educated urban privileged and their minority allies, primarily a replay of the old capitalist/bourgeois-worker class struggle?

On the whole, I think not. The computer and the internet bid fair to be as innovative and consequential in their effects as was the Gutenberg movable type revolution of the 15th century. Islamic militancy is very much a modern phenomenon, on a scale not seen since the 16th century. The current surge of nationalist, anti-party, anti-immigrant populism, evident in the British Brexit referendum, the 2016 American election, and the first round of the 2017 French election, is a dramatic turn away from the mainstream politics of the past three quarters of a century. And the growing separation between better educated, more affluent, big city or college town-based people and their less-educated, more economically and socially fragile, small town or stagnant city-based fellow-citizens, is evident not only in the United States but in England and France as well.

The consequences of these developments are still far from clear, and far from over. There have been discomforting signs of a taste for authoritarianism in both the Trump administration and the college campuses: two ideologically opposite but behaviorally similar responses to the new realities of life in the West. But there have also been signs of a turn to a more moderate and familiar style of governance in the administration, and an uptick in support for free speech among faculty and First Amendment advocates such as the ACLU (though not yet among students or administrators). How long-lasting this will be is anyone’s guess.

In short, we live in interesting times—very much in the spirit of the cautionary Chinese proverb.

Julian Zelizer: These are interesting ruminations; it is important to step back sometimes from the media maelstrom and take a big picture look at what’s going on.

It is clear that the technological changes that have taken hold since the 1960s with computer and satellite technology as well as the rise of the high-tech, service centered economy set into motion new forms of communication, commerce, and social identity. The structural changes of the 1970s were incredibly consequential to the character of our politics and society. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of our historical understanding about how all these connections unfolded.

Sometimes, however, we exaggerate the newness of the situations that we face. President Trump’s success—if one wants to call it that—can be seen as the coming together of a conservative populist tradition in the U.S. that has been around in different versions since the 19th century (think of the white Democratic demagogues in the South who appealed to white voters by calling for liberal economic policies and playing on racial backlash) with the intensifying partisan structures that we have discussed in our conversations. The appeal of Trump has much more to do, in my mind, with a taste in parts of the electorate for anger, anti-establishment rhetoric, and multiple phobias than it does with a rising comfort with totalitarianism.

We’ve also seen these kinds of college campus battles for many decades, as I certainly learned in undergraduate at Brandeis there were debates like this over speakers like Rabbi Meir Kahane. Terrorist networks are more about that than any form of Islamic militancy given that the participation in any of this criminal activity is really limited to an incredibly small part of the population. The networks that exist have become more organized and well-funded. But these are just bad people with many resources, nothing more. Social media offers them a bigger platform at a lower cost, while the breakdown of the Cold War has created new opportunities for funding and support. I am not convinced that there is any serious sea change in the levels of Islamic militancy.

And let’s see how things play out with in the post-Trump, post-Brexit, and post-Le Pen era. With all the attention given to these anti-global “movements,” it is a mistake to discount the powerful hold that institutions depending on global finance and capitalism as well as an internationally-connected world still have throughout the globe. We have even seen President Trump for all his bluster back away from much of these campaign promises.

All of this is to say that in our current era, technological and economic changes are reshaping the nation, just as they did in the early 20th century, but let’s be careful to distinguish those from parts of our tumultuous politics that are always with us and changes from the earlier era you discussed that are not going away.

Keller: I agree with much of what you have to say, but not all of it. My areas  of disagreement are with your relative complacency regarding Islamic terrorism and the recent student riots that prevented speakers from being heard, and your inclination (rightly) to see a febrile anger as one of the fuels of the Trump phenomenon, but (I think wrongly) to ignore the at least comparable fury of the anti-Trumpians.

First, as to Islamic terrorism. Of course it involves only a minute fragment of the world's Muslims. But there is at least as much reason to think that it is growing as there is to airily regard it as a minor,  shrinking phenomenon. In my view, it bears some resemblance to the lynching of blacks as that approached its early 20th century heyday. Statistically, lynching affected only a small  percentage of African Americans. But it embodied, for blacks and sympathetic whites, the evil of racism.

There was a reason why for decades the NAACP made an anti-lynching law its major legislative goal. The larger system of Jim Crow was far more damaging to blacks. But lynching had massive symbolic as well as tragically real consequences. So it is with terrorism. The more widespread and determined the opposition to it, the less likely it is to flourish and the more likely it is to decline.

Much the same can be said of the current student assault on free speech. Like McCarthyism in the 1950s, it is an insidious threat to the core values of a college or university. Far from being “debates,” as you term them, they are the antithesis of the confrontation of ideas. They are no more attempts at full and free discussion than the “sit-ins” of the 1960s. Those of us who think that open argument over the spectrum of ideas is central to higher education should be as indignantly and adamantly opposed to this attempt at suppression as many of us were to McCarthyism.

Finally, I think that as of now the (dis)honors of over-the-top political paranoia hardly belong to the Trumpians alone. The anti-Trump chattering masses in the mainstream media, entertainment, and the social networks are as unrestrained as their counterparts on the other side of the political fence. To deny that palpable fact is to let partisanship overrule a reasonably dispassionate view of the way things are.

Zelizer: Those are interesting points Mickey, though I think we don’t move any closer together in this particular debate.

First of all, I don’t feel “complacent” at all about the threat of terrorism. But the attacks that we have seen since the 1990s remain, in my mind, violence committed by networks of militants who use the religion of Islam as a way to build public support and to legitimize their activities. Criminal organizations and military groups have historically found arguments to support what they do, but their use of the argument does not prove that they are grounded in anything bigger than themselves. The terrorists are killers and they are criminals who seek power, money, and land for their own aggrandizement and sense of worth. The terrorists pervert rather than reflect Islam. It is also important to remember that the U.S. and our allies have done a pretty good job containing and combatting this through counterterrorism programs, drone warfare, and economic measures.

I don’t see how lynching in the U.S. really is a useful comparison. Yes, lynching only impacted a small percentage of African Americans, but it was grounded in the entire political and economic structure of southern society—as well as the U.S. Congress—before the 1960s. The entire economic and political structure of the region supported racial inequality and racial violence. This is why lynching was much more than a symbolic problem.

For me, I often come back to the historic speech that former President George W. Bush made shortly after 9/11 at the Islamic Center of Washington on September 17, 2001. “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenants of the Islamic faith,” he said. “And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” In my mind, those words remain as true today as they did in 2001.

As to the politics of the campuses, where you and I spend most of our time (and I would say that these two issues should really be in very separate categories), shutting down speech has certainly been wrong. The beauty of the university is that students should be exposed to all sorts of ideas, including ideas that they fundamentally disagree with.

But by and large the efforts to shut down speech remain isolated, though high profile, incidents. Students all over the country are engaged in all sorts of protests and activism—from fighting for policies providing for racial inclusion, to holding vigorous debates over foreign policy and climate change and what a university should or should not support with their resources as they relate to these issues, to ongoing debates about political ideas. Sure, the protests sometimes move in a destructive direction but this is nothing new, as we can remember from the 1960s. In most colleges, the reality is that a quick look at university websites shows that a multiplicity of speakers are still talking about different issues from different perspectives all the time. Indeed, shortly after the Middlebury incident Charles Murray spoke at Columbia University, a hotbed of liberal activism, without incident. I have not seen any solid evidence showing that students have somehow shut down debate in a systematic fashion. The danger in my mind is to take incidents like what occurred with Murray and make them seem like the norm.

And finally, as we have discussed, I do believe that there is a false equivalency problem when analyzing party politics since the 1990s. While it is true that there is passion on both sides of the aisle and there are also overblown fears, differences do exist between the parties. I am convinced by the extensive political science research that shows Republicans as a whole have moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. I also believe many Republicans have been more willing than Democrats to engage in a ruthless style of political warfare than shunts aside the need for governance on a regular basis. There is no comparison between the organizational strength and popularity of the conservative media, which often traffics in conspiracy theory and false information, with the rather flimsy media that exists.

When it comes to Trump, there are many ways in which he is fundamentally different than anything we have seen and there are legitimate reasons for concern. The criticism about Trump is more than “over-the-top political paranoia.” His willingness to constantly lie, his appeals to nativism, xenophobia, sexism and anti-Semitism, the connection between key members of his campaign and a Russian government that intervened in the election, his willingness to slander former President Barack Obama and other leaders without evidence to substantiate his claims, and the radical nature of many of his proposals are all very serious stuff. The conflict-of-interest problem that exists for this administration is extremely problematic. There is good reason for his opponents to call him out and to be worried about the future. There are also more than enough reasons for journalists to investigate. This is much more than standard partisanship. To have a “reasonably dispassionate view” is not the same as normalizing unprecedented actions or ignoring fundamental differences between the parties.

If there is any major sea change driving politics in the last few decades, it has been the deep changes in the character of the economy. The growing insecurity and fragility of the middle class and the deepening divide between rich and poor have been forces underlying many of the changes that we have seen from elections to popular opinion. If we want to find big points of disjuncture, this is the one I would point to.