Historians Are Not Equipped to Bring the Trump Administration to Justice

Jill Lepore’s faith in her discipline is misplaced. I should know—I’m a historian, too.

A photograph of Donald Trump meeting with Vladimir Putin on top of a pile of black-and-white photographs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images and Natalia Shabasheva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On Friday, historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore published an immediately controversial Washington Post op-ed, headlined “Let History, Not Partisans, Prosecute Trump.” Her main point is that, while “in some instances” the Trump administration’s actions ought to be tried in regular courts, it is imperative that the people undertaking the task of bringing the administration to account make this job seem “ordinary.” Fearful that an exceptional process—like a truth and reconciliation commission, or a prominent investigation specially tasked with revealing the extent of the damage Trump has done to the government and the people of the United States—will inevitably seem partisan and vindictive, Lepore puts her faith in “the ordinary working of justice, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the writing of history, over time, through the study of carefully preserved records.”

One might quickly object that nothing about the present is “ordinary,” and that a desire for an “ordinary” resolution is at best quaint, and more likely a dangerous illusion. But Lepore’s preference for historiography over histrionics is far more fraught with dangers than that. I say this as a fellow historian: Lepore is too confident in history as an arbiter capable of independently obtaining assent from a bitterly divided populace. Even worse, she disastrously misinterprets actual lessons we may draw from our own history about the consequences of privileging the appearance of normalcy over justice.

Lepore feels that by allowing historians and journalists to create “a full and accurate historical record,” we can bring an end to what she sees as a four-decades-old tit for tat between Republicans and Democrats—a fight that started with Democrats pursuing “investigations and indictments” in the wake of Watergate, rather than simply making their case to the electorate. Lepore sees post-Watergate national politics as a bipartisan cycle of partisan vengeance that has come “at the price of faith in democratic institutions, including elections.”

Even if this picture of the origins of our current crisis were correct (and many would protest that the blame for political dysfunction should not be so evenly apportioned), it is unclear why a historian’s skill set is the best for the job of banishing partisan rancor and restoring civic spirit. In her recent books These Truths and This America, Lepore has made the case that Americans are hungry for a straightforward national story. Americans, she asserts, need “to make sense of themselves [as a nation], need some kind of agreed-upon past.” Her diagnosis is that the suspicion that feeds partisanship arises when historians abandon the production of grand narratives to popularizers and demagogues. But in our public discourse, virulent denialism is rife, even on subjects that are mostly uncontroversial. Climatologists would be the first to tell us that a broad consensus is shallow security against highly motivated opposition.

Nor is the problem a matter of lack of documentation, although Lepore does rightly call out the Trump administration’s naked attempts to eradicate evidence of its illegal procedures—efforts that are genuinely disturbing and not just for historians. But Lepore goes too far in prioritizing the preservation of documents above anything else. “Stopping the destruction of records is where the real fight lies,” she writes. “The rest is noise.” Lepore is implying, I believe, that clemency or immunity might be on offer in exchange for Trump officials’ cooperation in forming a full record of the administration’s misdeeds. This trade-off might entice some historians, but it is not clear why this would be satisfactory justice for victims of the administration’s active violence at the border and its malicious neglect in our hospitals.

It is dangerous to permit criminal political elites to retain their social and financial capital undisturbed. We can see this by looking at past examples. Lepore wistfully alludes to the rhetorical magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln, who emphasized the common sorrows of North and South, in service of future healing and reconciliation. But surely the lesson we must take from the Civil War and its aftermath is that such generosity of spirit didn’t keep night riders, eager to regain their former dominance and pride, from terrorizing freedpeople and doing so with the tacit approval of state and local officials. Revanchism—the failures of Reconstruction tell us—is something that must be actively guarded against, not appeased.

Lepore’s confused use of Watergate is another lesson unlearned. Others have made this point well, but as Adam McKay’s film Vice makes clear, if Nixon cronies like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had been excluded by a GOP truly committed to cleaning house of that band of political dark artists, the history of the past 20 years would be totally different. (Just imagine: Roger Stone plying his trade in obscurity, as a maker of deceptive infomercials, rather than liaising with Russians.)

There is a cost in not smashing up the political power of people who have seriously abused that power. I am not recommending any particular course of action—I have grave qualms about carceral solutions, for one thing—but Lepore’s willingness to let crimes slide in favor of a more perfect collection of government documents is not a noble devotion to objectivity, so much as it is an advancement of the long-term professional prerogatives and agendas of historians ahead of the more exigent necessities of reconstruction and justice.

Lepore’s own earnest faith that history will have the proper final word on the “mendacity and cruelty” of the Trump administration may, in a peculiarly ironic twist, actually be a product of the post-Watergate polarization that she decries. The belief that history is capable of delivering a “verdict” is of recent vintage. Searching through the history of presidential rhetoric (collected by the wonderful American Presidency Project at the University of California–Santa Barbara), I have been unable to find a president who has invoked the notion of being on the “right” (or, for that matter, the “wrong”) “side of history” before Ronald Reagan. This phrase was a particular favorite of Bill Clinton, who placed himself on the “right side of history” so much during his 1992 campaign that his opponent George H.W. Bush made fun of him for doing so, insisting that the resolution of the Cold War had instead validated Republican principles. Bush and Clinton struggled over this imaginary ground even as others declared the “end of history”—the phrase made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay of that title.

And that is what is ultimately wrong with Lepore’s faith in history and historians to do the hard work of national reckoning. There is no “end” to history, no point at which the accounts may be drawn up with an indisputable finality. History is, for better and worse, an argument, a controversy, a noisy and even noisome wrangle over meanings and values. It is not, and never has been, capable of delivering that kind of ultimate judgment.