Writing business

How do you write a Trump-era story before it ends?

Photo: Manit Sriwanichpoom/Agence VU/REDUX

In 2010, historian Julian E. Zelizer edited an anthology of historical essays assessing the two terms of George W. Bush, then absent for just over a year. The presidency of George W. Bush: a first historical assessment was divided into a dozen chapters, each written by a different historian and focused on a specific aspect of the Bush years: Iraq, the financial crisis, the culture wars, etc. After Barack Obama left office, Zelizer edited another volume – again billing it as a first draft of the story. Since the series has existed, 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 aftermath of the Reagan Revolution are recurring themes.

This time there is an interesting wrinkle. Historians are not dealing with a quiet eight-year period with Donald Trump (as they were with Bush and Obama) but with a still unstable bubble. Are we still in the Trump era? Maybe. Nobody knows what will happen in 2024 – if we live in the intermission of a presidency that could stretch into 2029. The main concern underlying the Trump edition, therefore, is the utility of writing a contemporary history. Far from being a handicap, argue contemporary historians, understanding the passions of an era can equip a writer with a set of questions inaccessible to posterity. Furthermore, any Trump story will reflect and sublimate the anxieties of the time in which it is 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. Highlights include 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 the politics of the movement.

To justify his series’ mission, Zelizer quotes a famous essay by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. “Increasing the speed of history means, among other things, that the ‘present’ becomes the ‘past’ faster than never before,” Schlesinger wrote in a 1967 article for Atlantic, reflecting on the proliferation of books about the Kennedy years. Unlike the Bush and Obama retrospectives, Zelizer argues that there is an urgent need for historians to combat 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, relax, and watch Trump begin his campaign next year. If he runs again, the periodization could change, but for now, it makes sense to consider his 2016 presidential campaign and single term as a unit. Consistent with previous editions of Zelizer, this collection extends the Trump story, tracing backgrounds such as Bush-era anti-American sentiment, 1990s nativism, Nixon’s détente with China, and social movements in the 1960s. The end game isn’t getting to something as easy as Trump’s legacy, Zelizer says, but finding the best way to tell the story, to talk about it with each other. the others, to begin to do the endless work of historiography.

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

“Most of the historians in this collection simultaneously understand that Trump is a product of the times, not the cause, but someone who had the ability to break with our politics in fundamental ways,” Zelizer writes. In this book, Trump is neither a golden autocrat nor an incompetent clown, but he still comes across 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 emotional shift and a culmination. Hemmer quotes Fox presenter Laura Ingraham’s book Billionaires at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump, in which Trump’s victory is described as “the fulfillment of the Reagan revolution”. The shared iconography and showmanship represented both a call to a republican tradition and a break with the past.

Elsewhere, Zelizer questions the assumption that such a thing as a Trumpian GOP even exists. He takes a more complicated approach by suggesting that Trump has deviated from the norm while pursuing many of the party’s long-term political goals: the dismantling of the welfare state, deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s why it’s no surprise that agents like Mitch McConnell have never really given up on Trump and will fill the bubble next to his name if he wins the nomination again.

Michael Kazin’s essay on the Democratic Party and the rise of its progressive faction is a welcome addition. He argues that the “resistance” of the party apparatus was ineffective and that Democrats were more competitive when they “articulated a broadly egalitarian economic vision” in the 20th century before Bill Clinton’s Third Way pivot. As Kazin nods to the reformist corners of the post-2016 party, I wish contributors had dwelt more on the extra-partisan elements of the Trump years, i.e. opposition posture activists towards the two main 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 have turned socialist en masse. Of course, they remained largely excluded from power. Although many workers have integrated into the institutional Democratic Party, their influence goes beyond electoral politics. The generalization of mutual aid during the pandemic is an example. For young people, socialism has made legible an ethic of care — something like that of Martin Luther King Jr.health insurance networkin which “whatever affects someone directly, affects all indirectly”. These Trump-era political revivals have spurred organizing drives everywhere, from Tony Manhattan’s media companies to Amazon warehouses and Starbucks franchises. Word socialism doesn’t appear very often in the book (except to edit Bernie Sanders). Recounting the Democratic Party’s conflicts after 2016, Kazin writes that the party faced an identity crisis: “If left unresolved, the argument made it harder to articulate in plain terms what the Democrats stood for. really and how they planned to implement this vision. For the socialists of the Trump years, that was exactly the rub: the moderate old guard was visionless and stood for nothing in particular.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor contributes the most useful essay on social movements, linking the uprisings that followed the 2020 killing of George Floyd to the abuse of workers by the political and business elite – especially since the collapse of the New Deal coalition. “These were new protests born in large part from the catastrophic consequences of nearly five decades of denial of the materiality of racial discrimination through the steady erosion of the infrastructure to oversee the implementation of legislation on racial discrimination. civil rights and the collapse of the welfare state,” she wrote. . It is a necessary corrective to the corporate co-option of anti-racist language, which obscures the fact that struggles against racial inequality are struggles against social inequality. With American billionaires profiting from 2 trillion dollars since the start of the pandemic, one could say that one of Trump’s last acts in office has been an impermissible wealth transfer that whether he wins reelection or not, we will have to work aggressively to resolve it.

If there’s a guiding 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 bring to the fore. “Trump, with potential ambitions to run for a second term, seemed eager to influence the way historians viewed the past,” Zelizer writes. Even if Trump doesn’t run for president in 2024, he and others will still try to fabricate their little mythologies, and someone will have to counter them with evidence. And even if it looks like fruitless work, easily dismissed by propagandists or quickly rendered obsolete by “the increasing speed of history,” as Schlesinger wrote, it still remains essential.