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With the end of each presidency in the 21st century, historian Julian Zelizer has assembled a cast of colleagues to evaluate the outgoing administration. The first two installments in this series focused on George W. Bush (2010) and Barack Obama (2018) and featured essays by Nelson Lichtenstein, Mary Dudziak, Kevin Kruse, and other major names in the historical profession.
In the new volume The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment, Zelizer and more than a dozen other historians offer their insights on the Trump administration. The project captured the former president’s attention last year, after he had begrudgingly left office. Trump requested—and secured—a Zoom meeting with Zelizer and the other authors attached to the project, during which he hoped to “tighten up some of the research” they were conducting. Fortunately, Trump’s attempt at meddling failed. Although the essays included here are fair and thoughtful, they also don’t pull any punches.
They do, however, reveal some of the challenges inherent in the project of what historians call “recent history”—the study of events and processes that have unfolded over the past several years or decades. “Recent history” differs from journalism in its emphasis on historical analysis and context. Because its practitioners want to determine how and why contemporary phenomena came to be, they home in on the linkages, and discontinuities, between the distant past, the more recent past, and the present. And, as historians Claire Potter and Renee Romano explain in a book on the topic, recent history “talks back,” as circumstances change and living subjects, like Trump, vie to control the dominant narrative. Since these scholars are analyzing ongoing developments—and doing it in the rigid format of a published book, no less—some of their assessments are already outdated or, at the very least, incomplete.
This particular “recent history” is even more difficult, given historians’ visceral (yet varied) responses to Trump’s candidacy and presidency. His emergence in 2015 and 2016 raised major philosophical, definitional, and strategic questions within the historical profession. How, and to what extent, many historians wondered, should we “resist” Trumpism? Some historians—including several featured in Zelizer’s new volume—wrote, circulated, and signed online petitions highlighting the existential threat that Trump ostensibly posed to U.S. democracy. Now-familiar names like Heather Cox Richardson, Joanne Freeman, and Kruse became influential public intellectuals during Trump’s term, sharing their historical wisdom with hundreds of thousands of online #Resisters, many of whom believed that Trump and the contemporary GOP were subverting otherwise noble American institutions and traditions. Other academics, coming from the left, criticized historians like Timothy Snyder for their attempts to characterize Trump as a fascist and to frame his popularity as an exceptional phenomenon, rather than a logical outgrowth of racism, capitalism, xenophobia, sexism, and other malign forces that have long defined the American experience.
If this crisis in the historical profession sounds familiar, it’s because it paralleled the reckoning faced by news media organizations struggling to define their role during the Trump years. And because Zelizer’s study extends the analysis provided in contemporaneous journalistic accounts, it occasionally reproduces the reductive partisan framing seen in so much American political reporting. Writing about the state of U.S. political history amid the Tea Party insurgency in 2011, historian Matt Lassiter—who, by the way, contributed a sharp critique of Obama’s drug policies to Zelizer’s 2018 volume—lamented the ways some of his fellow political historians seemed to reinforce the crude “red–blue binaries reflected in the national maps of presidential election returns.” While several of the essays in The Presidency of Donald J. Trump locate the 45th president firmly within the American conservative tradition, few consider in any serious depth the continuities between Trump, his predecessors (from both political parties), and his Democratic successor.
Indeed, despite the rancor and fear it provoked outside of MAGA Nation (and within the historical profession), Trump’s presidency and its immediate aftermath didn’t solely illuminate continuities between the past and present, the historian’s stock in trade; it also revealed tremendous overlap between American liberalism and conservatism. After all, relatively few Democrats objected when Trump called for historically large defense budgets, and in 2020, the party ultimately rallied behind a “safe” candidate—one with a deeply troubling record on foreign policy, race, the criminal legal system, and immigration. With early hopes for a “new FDR” now thoroughly dashed, President Joe Biden’s proposed 2023 budget would further increase military, immigration enforcement, and police spending. He has also fared just as poorly as Trump on COVID-19, while simultaneously perpetuating unspeakably cruel immigration, asylum, and counterterrorism policies. And yet Biden has received a much warmer reception among professional historians. This paradox suggests that scholars of the recent past should pay closer attention to the structural processes and forces—capitalism, carceralism, white supremacy, militarism—that cut across presidential administrations and blur the lines between the nation’s political parties.
That said, The Presidency of Donald J. Trump is an ambitious and compelling book, one that covers a great deal of territory. The contributors grapple with Trump’s record on climate change (Bathsheba Demuth), his posture toward Big Tech (Margaret O’Mara), his foreign policy and attempts at diplomacy (Jeffrey Engel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, James Mann), his mishandling of the pandemic (Merlin Chowkwanyun), his relationship with right-wing media outlets and with conservatism itself (Nicole Hemmer, Zelizer), his investment in white supremacy and exclusionary nationalism (Kathleen Belew, Mae Ngai, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor), his penchant for lying (Angus Burgin), his sexism and its effect on feminist activism (Leandra Zarnow), his support among Latinx voters (Geraldo Cadava), his (surprisingly successful) use of the language of “infrastructure” (Jason Scott Smith), his impeachments (Gregory P. Downs), his hostility toward the FBI and the administrative state (Beverly Gage), and his galvanizing effect on Democrats and the left (Michael Kazin). Several major themes run through many of these chapters: the role of racism and xenophobia in Trump’s rise and (later) his policymaking, the tension between “disruption” and stability in Trump’s rhetoric and approach to governing (or not governing), and the polarization caused or exacerbated by Trump and Trumpism. There’s a lot to chew on here, and the book can sometimes feel like a bit of a grab bag as a result. But that’s to be expected with edited anthologies as expansive and impressive as this one.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 looms over the book, just as it continues to loom over all of our lives. However, since most of the anthology was probably finalized last fall—as the delta wave ravaged the country and before omicron unleashed its wrath—the book too often betrays the very 2021 notion that the worst is behind us. At times, the authors subtly relegate to the past the mass death and misery wrought by the pandemic. The book is dedicated, for example, to “all the people whose lives were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic,” even though hundreds of people continue to die from the illness in the U.S. daily. Zelizer and contributors Chowkwanyun and Hemmer, among others, rightly condemn former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other Republicans for praising Trump “[d]espite a devastating pandemic that left more than a half million people dead.” But now that COVID-19 has claimed more than 1 million lives in the U.S. alone, the narrow focus on Trump and his disciples feels inadequate. More people have died of COVID under Biden than under Trump.
The volume’s treatment of COVID, which was not even “recent history” at the time of the book’s writing, shows how an analytical approach that stresses partisan and ideological cleavages can obscure continuities between the nation’s major political parties. Most of the authors featured here consider Trump to be a product of the modern Republican Party and conservative movement. Zelizer, for one, calls Trump “the culmination of more than three decades in the GOP’s evolution.” In his view—which reflects the historical profession’s dominant interpretation of the trajectory of U.S. conservatism, at least until recently—the midcentury Republican Party beat back the far-right challenges posed by Barry Goldwater and “veer[ed] toward the middle,” where the votes supposedly were. Only with Reagan’s capture of the party in the 1980s, the story goes, did the shift rightward (in both political parties) begin in earnest. “Powerful Democrats facilitated this rightward drift” in American politics “by redefining their agenda within the parameters Reagan had set,” Zelizer contends. “Reagan’s political success provoked imitation,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her chapter. “Casting about as their electoral fortunes continued to diminish, the leadership of the Democratic Party began adapting to the prevailing antiwelfare and pro-criminal justice system and policing logics.” Michael Kazin strikes similar notes, pinning the Democrats’ move rightward on the electoral successes of Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
These characterizations miss critical transformations and tensions within liberalism before Reagan’s presidency and the supposed fall of the New Deal order. Historians such as Lily Geismer and Brent Cebul have traced the liberal and Democratic embrace of the so-called new economy (driven by the real estate, financial, and tech sectors), “market-based” solutions to social problems, and professional-class voters back to at least the 1960s and 1970s. After all, Jimmy Carter, despite his latter-day iconic status on the left (solar panels on the White House!), helped usher in the neoliberal age through deregulation and supply-side economics, and the military-industrial complex was very much a New Deal liberal project. Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, and Heather Schoenfeld have also shown that liberal reform efforts in the mid-20th century laid the physical and intellectual groundwork for racialized mass incarceration. Rather than being just a response to the so-called Reagan Revolution, Democrats’ and liberals’ rightward lurch in the late 20th century resulted from contradictions within liberalism itself and from broad structural processes in the national and global economies.
This interpretive disagreement notwithstanding, The Presidency of Donald J. Trump is essential reading for historians of the United States and anyone who hopes to understand, on a more fundamental level, the antecedents to and potential consequences of the Trump years. All of the essays here are sharp and incisive, although standouts include Angus Burgin’s chapter on the “ongoing epistemological crisis” triggered by Trump, Nicole Hemmer’s exploration of the right-wing media ecosystem in the Trump era, Kathleen Belew’s examination of white power rhetoric and organizing during the Age of Trump, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s meditation on the fall of racial “colorblindness” and the reemergence of a viable left wing in American politics. As challenging as the study of the recent past can be, these four essays—and, indeed, this entire volume—demonstrate that it is a vital project, especially in this moment of national and global uncertainty. Scholars and other commentators must continue to undertake this kind of work—hopefully concentrating more on state power, political culture, and political economy and less on the reductive red–blue, conservative–liberal paradigms that inform (and inhibit) far too much political analysis.
Edited by Julian Zelizer. Princeton University Press.