Why (Some) Historians Should Be Pundits

The question isn’t whether they have anything of value to offer. It’s whether they can avoid partisan vituperation along the way.

Kevin Lamarque / 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

Julian Zelizer: Harvard University’s Moshik Temkin published a provocative piece in The New York Times titled “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” Temkin offers a stern warning to those in his profession who participate in the news cycle that they should avoid the “rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented” these days, “mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.”

Temkin is a terrific historian but I wasn’t persuaded by the piece. To begin with, the article is somewhat odd, given that Temkin is making an argument about avoiding punditry, in an op-ed piece in the Times written by a scholar at the Kennedy School of Government (which teaches policymakers) that ends with recommendations about what kinds of conversations historians should be having in the media about the presidency. I suspect that the title—aimed at generating eyeballs—didn’t come from Temkin. Regardless, it ends up distracting readers from the substance of the piece.

The substance, however, is also problematic. Temkin underestimates the value that many historians do bring to the punditry table by focusing on poor analogies that have allegedly been made by historians over the course of the past year—Donald Trump was like the populist Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long; the president is like Adolf Hitler; or the Russia investigation will inevitably have the same outcome as Watergate, with the president paying a price for wrongdoing, because our system works. I agree wholeheartedly that none of these are very good arguments, but are they really arguments that came from the mouths and computers of historians? Did many historians claim that Trump’s populism was just like Long’s populism? Did many of them not see the very clear difference between the genocidal totalitarianism of Hitler and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics? Are there many historians who have not pointed out that partisanship and the partisan media offer one obvious reason that the current investigation might not go the way of Watergate? Indeed, from what I have seen and read, I suspect that most of these claims emanated from persons who were not historians and who in fact could have benefited from having a little more academy in the conversations.

What contributions do historians make in our conversations about politics today? Echoing the argument put forth by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt many decades ago, Temkin rightly says that one role of the historian is to get out into the airwaves and online to punch holes in false analogies that mislead the public. This is certainly something that historians can do (I think we have tried to do that with this column) and often do very well.

Historians can do more than that, however. As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.

Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

At the same time, a majority of historians have done a good job outlining the differences within the common contexts. I recently watched NYU’s Tim Naftali, for instance, point out how despite the similarities between Nixon’s attempt to stymie Watergate and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation, the former president was far more sophisticated, cagey, and careful in how he used his power.

I would argue that we need good historians, like Temkin, to participate in our public conversations when we are living through such uncertain times. Doing this requires being on television, online, in print, and on social media—otherwise our voices will be eclipsed. To urge fellow historians to withdraw would be a massive mistake. That would in fact leave the entire conversation about the present and the past to persons who really aren’t as familiar with what’s come before. That would fulfill the very worst fears that Temkin outlines in his piece about how these discussions can quickly disintegrate into false myths and misleading analogies.

Morton Keller: As is so often the case, we agree on a lot, and disagree on much.

I have little trouble with your definition of what historians are (or should be) up to, or with much of your discussion of the present topic: i.e., the deficiencies of Donald Trump. But I do differ in your (and even more with Moshik Temkin's) general perspective on the topic. The issue isn't so much Trump's resemblances to Huey Long, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, or for that matter the Emperor Caligula. Analogy is a game without rules that any number can play—including those historians who have more taste for digging up equivalences than understanding complex historical processes.

This is not to say that analogism can't serve a historical purpose. It reminds us that current political “debate,” which consists almost entirely of two ships loaded with screaming partisans too loud to hear (or care) what the other side is saying, is as old as the Republic.

But it is the job of the historian to go beyond simple, and seductive, analogy, and focus on two questions: What is distinctive about the current variant of polarization? And what is the larger context—social, cultural, historical—out of which the current version has emerged?

Here I think that the perspective of those of us who don't think that this is the exclusive property of the Republicans may have something to offer. I could serve up some bromidic observations to the effect that in recent weeks the “fascistic” comments by talking heads, and, with the assault on the baseball-playing congressmen, action that might fit into the fascistic model, is hardly coming from the children of the Tea Party.

But I agree that this sort of observation doesn't get us very far. The gist of the matter is that the technology of the internet, the economics of the New Age, and today's mass popular culture have combined to foster a pervasive atmosphere of obscene, uncontrolled vituperation. Trump may be a particularly visible instance, but he is hardly the originator or the only example of this genre. Historians who talk solely about the Republican, or Trumpian, sources of the malaise are doing what, alas, has been hardly unknown in our profession: selectively selecting the other side's excesses, and ignoring their own side's transgressions. I recently read Yale historian Timothy Snyder's little book On Oppression. It collects some tells of authoritarianism in the 20th century, with wink-wink references to Trump falling within that tradition.

If we needed it, what better proof is there that historians are only human?