U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historicizing, Fast and Slow: Trump, Precedents, and Novelty

Corey Robin’s recent post, “Why Does It Matter that Donald Trump Is Not a Novelty?,” is one of the most stimulating and intelligent pieces of commentary on the general election so far, and I hope that you have read it or leave this post and go do so now.

Robin critiques the habit—most prevalent among journalists and talking heads but occurring frequently among the historians who have gone record as well—of labeling the actions of Donald Trump as “unprecedented” or “abnormal.” Robin counters instead both with specific precedents for many of these acts dubbed “firsts” or “firsts in modern history” as well as with a more general rebuttal. This hue and cry over Trump’s abnormality, he argues, is only a result of a longstanding and widespread willingness among liberals and centrists to overlook the appalling frequency of “abnormal” behavior occurring among self-identified conservatives dating back to… oh, Edmund Burke. Liberals and centrists, Robin contends, only think Trump’s comments have stepped over a line because they have gotten used to filtering out a certain amount of activity that has always gone on “out there.”[1]

I want to acknowledge that the following misses Robin’s point, and it does so in part because this blog and its writers are constrained by its tax exempt status from making statements which could be construed as endorsements or partisan activity, but also in part because I think there are underlying issues here which deserve sussing out, even in the worry, the fever, and the fret of this election. But I want to acknowledge, first of all, that I am not challenging Robin’s case for the existence of precedents for many of Trump’s actions or comments—and I’d equally like to point out that some of the precedents Robin points to actually occurred among politically centrist or even liberal figures, which I’m not sure validates the exclusively partisan narrative Robin tells—that it is only the GOP which has harbored Trumpism for many decades.[2]

At any rate, these are the questions I’d like to ask here: What is at stake—not politically but historiographically—in labeling something unprecedented when it is, strictly speaking, not? What does it tell us about the way people experience history that we conceptualize some events as ruptures when they are actually repetitions? And, finally, why does journalism—as the first draft of history—tend to magnify difference and transform it into novelty, and does this hurt our ability to think historically? But underneath all these questions is probably a single question: what really is a precedent, anyway?

I think about a passage in Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia, in which he quotes from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: “People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” This struck me as a very profound idea when I read it (and wrote about Moyn earlier here at the blog) in part because it cuts against the habitus of the historian: we are trained so consistently to accept nothing as “very sudden.” Our religion is derived solely from Ecclesiastes:

That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it is said: ‘See, this is new’?—it hath been already, in the ages which were before us. (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)

But Moyn also quotes elsewhere from Marc Bloch regarding the “idol of origins”—the historian’s desire to establish context even where our sources may call out to us declaring that, whatever it was they were experiencing, they saw as a rupture. It may be a species of the artificiality of the historian’s craft that we tend to override this declaration in our sources and insist, “no history isn’t sudden, no matter what you felt.”

Moyn, I think, recognizes the power of this tendency as one that can be overwhelming for historians: we want to enshroud our sources in a plenitude of context and precedents in order to demonstrate the superiority of our knowledge and the depth of our research. And, in fact, an enormous and essential part of history is about the artificial creation of a literally superior point of view from which to observe the past: we need to be able to know more than our sources if we are to add something to them. We need to be able to construct a higher vantage point than our sources could access, we need to be able to see further into the past than they could, to make connections that were obscure to them, to behold a more ample field of play. We can’t limit ourselves to the suddenness of history; we must, as historians, experience the longue durée as well.

Obviously, I’m going to say that we must do both: we must pay our respects to the abruptness of the ruptures our sources experienced as well as perform our due diligence by hunting down longer-term trends and widening the contextual basis from which to view our historical subjects’ experiences and actions. When confronted by a dilemma, historians always say we must do both.

But I think doing both is especially pertinent in this context. Why are people—especially why are journalists—experiencing Trump’s actions and words as unprecedented? Why are they historicizing him very fast, as a rupture, rather than slow, as a repetition?

One possibility is that these journalists are either incompetent/ignorant, or that their ideology is interfering with their analysis—essentially that they just can’t see Trump as anything other than unprecedented because they lack the knowledge base or analytical acuity or the objectivity to match Trump’s actions and words to prior instances of such behavior. That is, I think, Robin’s answer, and without getting into particular cases (is this journalist stupid? Is this one ideologically biased?) I don’t think it would be very productive for me to follow it up here.

Another possibility is that Trump’s behavior is getting caught up in the larger soup of what has been a very difficult year for journalists (and for everyone else), a year with so much emotionally and physically taxing news that it might be understandable if they—especially younger journalists—are experiencing it as unprecedented. I’m not asking you to offer your sympathies to overworked writers at Vox or 538, but I am wondering aloud here what kind of effects the sheer density of “fast” news days might have on the perceptions of journalists (and others) who are used to a different pace, or who may feel constantly behind. What this might do is magnify something that seems unusual into something that feels unprecedented. While no single event from this year lacks a precedent, and there have certainly been years like this before, the sharpness of the day-to-day grind may nevertheless be taking its toll on not just journalists but those of us watching and reading the news as well. We feel accelerated, and it is difficult to get one’s bearings when we are constantly, it seems, adding speed.

But a third possibility is, I think, the most likely, and we can get a sense of it from reading this piece by Vox’s Ezra Klein, about the speech Trump gave introducing his running mate Mike Pence. “I do not know how to explain what I just watched,” Klein wrote. “It should be easy. Donald Trump introduced Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. There it is. One sentence. Eleven words. But that doesn’t explain what happened any better than ‘I spent a few hours letting lysergic acid diethylamide mimic serotonin in my brain’ explains an acid trip. What just happened was weird, and it was important.”

“Weird” can mean “unprecedented,” but it also an affect, not a statement of fact. Trump makes journalists feel “weird,” and they process this sensation intellectually as a historical novelty. So the question we should be asking is, why does Trump make journalists feel weird?

Part of it, I think, is that Trump and his campaign don’t seem to treat journalists as a special, sacrosanct class of people: they can be mocked, or banned, or shoved. Journalists are hyper-aware of how other journalists are treated by a candidate, by their campaign, and by their supporters: thus, the treatment of Julia Ioffe, Serge Kovaleski, Michelle Fields, and the Washington Post will be on any journalist’s mind as they attend a rally or a press conference for Trump.

This experience would chime with the tone and message of the larger passage in American Pastoral from which the above quotation about history’s suddenness was taken. Let me provide that now:

After all the effervescent strain of resuscitating our class’s mid-century innocence—together a hundred aging people recklessly turning back the clock to a time when time’s passing was a matter of indifference—with the afternoon’s exhilarations finally coming to an end, I began to contemplate the very thing that must have baffled the Swede till the moment he died: how had he become history’s plaything? History, American history, the stuff you read about in books and study in school, had made its way out to tranquil, untrafficked Old Rimrock, New Jersey, to countryside where it had not put in an appearance that was notable since Washington’s army twice wintered in the highlands adjacent to Morristown. History, which had made no drastic impingement on the daily life of the local populace since the Revolutionary War, wended its way back out to these cloistered hills and, improbably, with all its predictable unforeseenness, broke helter-skelter into the orderly household of the Seymour Levovs and left the place in a shambles. People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing. (American Pastoral, 87)

What makes something feel like a rupture is not some objective or impersonal suddenness, but rather its very intimate weirdness, the feeling, “is this really happening to me?” Sometimes, weirdness is the product of privilege—the well-insulated person, sheltered by wealth or education or skin color or gender, feels vulnerable or visible for the first time—and sometimes it is because of a collocation of historical factors which plop someone into the thick of things when they never expected to be there. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, I would imagine, are experiencing something very “weird” right now.

I think perhaps both factors are at work here for journalists. Journalists certainly feel insulated and are insulated in numerous ways, even if it is also certainly true that they receive frequent abuse. But they also—at least most also—are used to witnessing history within contexts that feel “historical” in relatively obvious, even orchestrated ways. Covering a major Supreme Court ruling or an inauguration or a press conference announcing a landmark piece of legislation or a new military initiative—one steps into them anticipating the presence of “history.” Trump is so volatile, his whole campaign so precarious, that each statement that comes from his mouth might feel “historical”—the step too far, the taboo broken, the line crossed. Covering Trump is not so much unprecedented as overdetermined—and therefore “weird,” as Klein bears witness to in his piece on the Pence announcement.

And that feeling, of weirdness or overdetermination, may be how many people watching and reading the news experience this campaign as well. Even as we absolutely need to continue to come to terms with longer lines of development and continuity that have led to Trump’s emergence (as these political scientists do here), I think it is important that we also hang on to the sharpness and abruptness of our experiences of this election. We can, I think, do both.

[1] This argument is most extensively laid out in Corey’s book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. In large part because of the consistent excellence of Corey’s commentary on the election, I’ve been hoping throughout this past year that he will write a new chapter and re-issue the book with an updated subtitle: Conservatism from Burke to Trump.

[2] That is not quite what Robin is saying, deep down, although he does make this explicitly partisan argument at times. One thing I occasionally find somewhat inconsistent in Corey’s writing is the way he maps “conservatism” onto the party landscape of the U.S. Much of the time he demonstrates a great deal of nuance in finding “the reactionary mind” as a kind of political style which has cropped up in many institutions—in a variety of political parties or movements, among different kinds of interests or religious communities, etc. But at other times he funnels all this into the single entity of the GOP.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece Andy. I think Corey Robin is wrong about Trump (and about conservative thought, more generally, in The Reactionary Mind), and he’s wrong not because his approach is too historical, but not historical enough. That is, if you cherry pick your examples, you can always show that somebody said something similar earlier, that nothing is “unprecedented.” What Robin does is create a type of the conservative mind that is unchanging in its essentials over two hundred years, and he does this by choosing who counts as a conservative by the extent to which it fits his model, and then quotes selectively from the figures he chooses. His interest is not, for instance, in understanding the specificity and range of Burke’s thought in relationship to the world and circumstances Burke faced, but in showing that Burke’s thought has a core that is unchanging in its orientation and style and can be mapped onto the entire world of conservative thought. His contrarianism in relationship to Trump’s novelty is similar: yes, of course you can find Reagan, and Nixon, and Tom Delay and New Gingrich and GW Bush saying, at particular moments, things that sound similar to some of the things Trump says. But that doesn’t mean that the nomination of Trump by the Republican Party is somehow just a matter of continuity with the conservative tradition (nothing to see here, folks, move along!). Historians deal both with continuity and change. Our credo comes not only from Ecclesiastes but also from David Lowenthal: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” I think Trump is something new in Republic Party politics–the combination of his utter lack of coherency, his deep and undisguised authoritarian tendencies, his refusal to every apologize for anything, his incredibly thin skin, and his constant twitter insult style–they make, together, something entirely new. Trying to find precedents for him is akin to an ahistorical approach that assembles bits and pieces of the past to show that everything was always already Trump. It’s not convincing. But, of course, as historians we generally believe that we’ll have to wait for some future historian to understand the extent to which Trump represents rupture and the extent to which he represents continuity.

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks so much for this push back on the question of continuity and precedents.

      I’m very much of two minds on the Trump question: I think that historians and political scientists are going to be busy for a long time figuring out what this past 18 months or so *was*, much less what it meant or where it fits in to recent history and longer histories of party ideology, the history of ideas, political culture, and so forth. Which is a quite weak response to your comment, I recognize!

      But as for Corey’s work on conservatism, I don’t want to speak for him, but perhaps I can say a little bit about how I understand his argument. I don’t read Corey’s work as establishing an unchanging core at the heart of conservatism. What I do see is that he makes an attack on the characterization–by self-professed conservatives–of conservatism as about balance, caution, and, at worst, stubborn adherence to habit and tradition. It is this characterization–which I think you can find in some of conservatism’s most articulate proponents like Kirk or Oakeshott, and also in some of its lesser lights, like, say, Sam Tanenhaus–which is transhistorical, and so in attacking it, Robin ends up looking like he is trying to establish a counter-essence. But I don’t think that’s his goal: I read him as saying that this idea of conservatism as characteristically balanced and cautious has been manufactured by a very deliberate act of obfuscation–the removal or papering over of conservative figures’ more violent and excessive moments. I don’t think that he’s trying to say that Burke was essentially a demagogic firebreather, but that he had his moments of raw emotion and that those moments are as foundational to understanding his thought as those moments of cool caution with which we are more familiar. What has changed, then, is that some of the people who now claim the mantle of conservatism simply don’t have many moments of cool caution, but that this development doesn’t mark the introduction of something exogenous to conservatism but of an overdevelopment of one tendency which you can trace back for a couple of centuries at least.

      Again, that’s how *I* read The Reactionary Mind and some of Corey’s writing since, but my reading may be idiosyncratic!

      • Andy–
        I think your reading of Robin is generous, that he is “merely” reactive to, and seeking to balance, a vision of habitual, gradualist conservatism. But I read Robin not as aiming at a balance, or a commitment to showing the range of conservative thinking (“see, not all conservatives are traditionalists and gradualists–here are some that are “Burn it down!” restorationists. Previous visions of conservative thought have been too simplistic and one-dimensional, so I’m going to expand our understanding of the range of conservative thought.”). He’s not really interested in that range–he’s interested in what he regards as the essence of conservative thought that can be found underneath its many permutations. For him, I think, the vision of gradualist, habitual, traditional conservatism is a kind of smokescreen to disguise what conservatives everywhere and always are all about. He refuses to take it seriously as anything but a kind of ideological gesture intended to disguise the true nature of the reactionary mind. The logic of his account is a logic of demystification–stripping off the false veneer of polite civility to reveal the raging reaction hiding just under the surface. There’s all kinds of good stuff in Robin’s account–he does successfully point us to aspects of conservative thinking that are sometimes downplayed–, but his dogmatic insistence on the ideological core of conservative thought really is unhistorical. At least in *my* reading, which also may be idiosyncratic. That’s why his book is really a set of case studies and independent essays, rather than a comprehensive history of conservative thought that is inclusive of its range.

        But sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack the thread and turn it into a discussion of Robin’s arguments. I just meant to say that the historical perspective does give us a good sense of both what is new and what is borrowed in the nomination of Trump. Robin wants to say it’s nothing new, and anybody who thinks so hasn’t looked at history. I obviously disagree.

        Finally, I note that in my comment I referred to “the Republic Party.” Not intentional! I must have listened to Republicans talks about the “Democrat Party” too much!

    • This is quite an illuminating deconstruction of Corey Robin’s notes on Trump’s alleged singularity. One could go further and think the Trump phonemenon in broader terms: what is described here as what is “new in Republic Party politics” are all elements pertaining to the realm of form, rhetoric, and affect, as Andy astutely points out. One could find such elements–“the combination of his utter lack of coherency, his deep and undisguised authoritarian tendencies, his refusal to every apologize for anything, his incredibly thin skin, and his constant twitter insult style”–already embodied at the margins of the US social imaginary years ago, including peripheral examples in the Republican Party as well as certain cases of not to so recent mainstream Republic leadership politics–as Corey Robin has noted. What I see is in Trumpism is not so much continuity or change, but a spectacular exacerbation of these elements; a hypervisibility that owes much to the form and affects of social media.

    • I want to thank you Mr. Wickberg for writing what I believe to be the first accurate account of the Trump event, specifically on forums like this. I have felt frankly frustrated with the apparent consensus among some of the historians I have read – like Robin – that Trump is an inevitable outcome or basically a newer form of some very old traditions. While I understand that he may spout this or that assertion that is ideologically similar to conservatives of yore, his style and sensibility are in fact radically different, and this is not a mere matter of feeling or imagination by a few journalists. Apparently president Obama agrees since for Obama it is a question of his very character and competence rather than what side of the aisle his politics reflect. I also agree that to not notice the new is as ahistorical as to not recognize a return of the old. I suspect your sensitivity to questions of sensibility more generally make you committed to the position you have taken. In any event it seems right to me.

  2. Thanks for this Andy. It was really wonderful and thoughtful. I was thinking about how that quote from American Pastoral comes in because the mundane oblivion of the Swede’s life had been torn open by a pretty significant event. It feels sudden because there is a significant event that precipitates it. His daughter Merry was the “Rimrock bomber,” a radical who blows up the local post office. The setting is incredible too: a sleepy Yankee, WASP town to underscore the rupture.

    The other rupture is that of a metaphorical Jewishness/radicalism that Roth plays with, and it refuses the Swede’s vain efforts at assimilation. The Rita Cohen character who appears later in the novel is critical in that regard because she recapitulates in horrible extremes, the moment where the Swede’s idyll went wrong, a truly weird, nearly incestuous moment that the Swede has with his eleven year old daughter, after which she (Merry) changed. The symbol of the Swede’s assimilationist, Edenic American imaginary–his daughter–turns on him when his paternal love for that daughter and that imaginary threatens to become erotic. He loves it too much. He wants to devour his life (like the lover who desires the other) and so it in turn devours him. That Fall happens before history takes notice. It seems inevitable after that.

    Journalists, and thus “history” “take notice” in this case because violence happens in Rimrock and thus the narrative of violent late 60s radicalism interrupts the postwar story of conformity and assimilationist dreams. It also suggests that the Edenic world of anonymity amidst larger historical trajectories becomes “weird” as you say, when our names are recorded for all of the wrong reasons, when we become notorious. For the Swede anyway, it would have been better to have been long forgotten.

    As for whether Trump is unprecedented and why journalists “feel” that way, I think you’re right, the joke is on them. The thing that they loved too much is now turning on them to devour them. They’re now part of the story.

    • Golly, you sure know a lot about that book, mister. You should use it to teach an American History course or something…

  3. Andy, what an awesome post, wow. So much to munch on. I’ll hazard one thought on your post and one on the discussion of Corey Robin’s argument.

    First, the experience of journalists of Trump as crazy new is not surprising to me. As Kahlil points out, much of what is “new” about Trump – or, as Kahlil says and I agree, is not so much new as ratcheted up several notches (he’s taken it to 11!) – are issues of affect. Watching some of the cable news coverage of the conventions, it struck me how terrifyingly consistent the journalists themselves are in the rules and decorum of political coverage and conduct, as if Adolf himself showed up they would report, “Now, Mr. Hitler has argued that Jews are a parasite on society, and this has caused a lot of controversy, some claiming it is very offensive – John, what can you tell us about how the delegates are responding to this new talking point?” (Of course, that affect is a reflection of an ideological framework even bigger than conservatism or liberalism as narrowly defined but, that is for another time.) In refusing to play this game, I think Trump frightens the punditry class like nothing else; this is a conservative who doesn’t just politely or with slight subtlety engage in white supremacist nationalist politics, but does it in a way that is just so out of line. This is someone who threatens their own rules and the basis for their prestige and power (not just poor and non-white people); which, actually, is more or less what you pointed out, so we’ve come around here to the same place. But I guess to be more direct, there is a very real threat to the interests of journalists that Trump poses, and it’s a threat that cuts across party lines, as we could see with the attempt of the National Review to contain him. That, I think, cuts to a deeper investment in neoliberalism that also cuts across party lines but, again, I get past myself with all that.

    As for Robin’s argument, I agree that he aims to correct for the impression of conservatives as tradition-bound and loyal, etc. But the other aspect – which Dan both highlights and categorically rejects, because, I guess, he thinks such continuity is impossible, or something – is indeed an articulation of what conservatives across time and space share in common, a fundamental, if flexible and infinitely variable in detail, dynamic: and that is simply anti-egalitarianism. Conservatives believe some should rule, and others should follow. This hardly relies on cherry picking; I suppose there has been some reactionary egalitarians at various moments (people who want to become peasants again without the lords, etc), but since the modern era, can you really make a list longer than a few eccentrics that we would really describe as conservatives who were also truly egalitarian?

    What is funny about this is that it seems so obvious. I often have this thought about my own work; who knew it would be so hard to convince so many people that liberals are liberals!, and in many ways, Robin is simply arguing that conservatives are conservatives, meaning not egalitarians, meaning always adjusting to the norm if it overwhelms (like, liberal democracy) but ever pushing back against the next big advance for democracy (like civil rights, feminism, gay rights, etc…). So depending on the time and place, there is historical context, and difference. And sometimes they imagine new hierarchies to replace ones they realize are decaying. But some imagined hierarchy is always there. Otherwise um, they would be something else, right? And if someone says, “no, there is a substantial history of egalitarian conservatives” then, well, they should really stop using the word “conservative” altogether, since it would have absolutely no significant meaning at all.
    (This does leave the problem of where liberals fit in which, I agree is the thing that Robin’s argument does not necessarily help us deal with; but you know, I’m on it, so to speak ;p).

    • To clarify, when I say “egalitarian conservative” above, I mean egalitarian in not just a class sense, but a status sense as well (race/gender/religion…). Obviously, one can be “progressive” along lines of class and conservative along lines of gender/race, as a healthy argument I just had with Eran reminded me of the importance of emphasizing :). I just still think that Robin;s definition is, here as well then, very useful in parsing where people stand in relation to these different hierarchies and why.

  4. I apologize if this comment veers away from the subject of the post, as I haven’t read the larger literature on conservatism being directly engaged here.

    However, as for Trump, my view is that it is now beyond debate that he represents something new in the annals of US presidential politics, along a number of axes. Perhaps the novelty question was more debatable earlier in his campaign.

    But this raises for me an interesting larger question. More generally, I have noticed in the past few years a tendency (perhaps this is just my impression based on imperfect sampling) among historians & historically minded journalists writing in online & public facing media to make pretty strong “continuity” arguments (eg: this proposed immigration restriction reflects 18th century views, this present day racial violence derives from antebellum slavery, etc). Now maybe these are good arguments for continuity in any particular instance and maybe not, but just as a descriptive matter, if my vague impression is right, then the overall trend seems to me to represent (dare I say) a change from at least how I was introduced to history as an undergrad ca 10 years ago, which was all about emphasizing change & difference over time. I have some theories about why the emphasis might be shifting (political pessimism about change, at least within current institutions? pointing out past antecedents as a seemingly more viable way to assert the authority of historians to intervene in public conversations?) but I think it’s something that would perhaps merit some study/discussion- ie at a meta level, are there factors that encourage change vs continuity as an emphasis both within history writing & in terms of what history writing finds a large public audience?

    • Edited to quickly add- basically what I meant to suggest was just that, insofar as there is a tendency to call Trump a novelty (whether or not one agrees with that characterization), I think that tendency departs from the larger overall trend in historically informed journalism, in which I mostly see continuity arguments. But again, I may be reading an odd sample.

  5. Trump doesn’t seem that weird to me. Now Goldwater, the John Birch Society, the White Citizen’s Councils, Nixon and Reagan? They were weird.

    Some of it has to do with my age (born in 1953) and my country of origin (Canada).

    But the “tradition” of sober, careful conservatism is of recent origin (Buckley?) and the result of masterful PR. If you’re young, the return of the repressed will be new and scary. If you’re my age, it’s possible to remember the times when conservative movement dialed back their discourse so they had could appeal to the US racist id while denying what they were doing so.

    This moment was inherently unstable of course. And Trump embodies that instability.

  6. Nice read, Andy.

    This has been lightly touched on so far in the post and discussion, but I want to formally throw it out there…

    Perhaps the novelty of Trump (if one exists) can also be understood through the implementation of the Internet. Be it his tweets on Twitter, his seemingly indefatigable and ubiquitous presence on most social media or news websites showcasing a clip of his latest gem (I know I can’t escape him on my Facebook feed, or CNN, Jiminy Cricket! he’s even on the ESPN home page), or the very fact that he behaves much like an Internet troll in the flesh (according to his dissenters—“PC iconoclast” to his supporters), Trump’s “weirdness” seems in part manufactured with the aid of the Internet (and Internet culture), now woven into the American mind. I don’t think its involvment can be discounted in this discussion.

    Then again, in a Robinesque fashion, one can point out that utilizing the Internet during a presidential campaign is nothing new under the sun. One could credit Obama for “revolutionizing” that process back in 2008 in an effort to mobilize the youth vote. (Thanks, Obama!)

    Anyway, well done. Now, more importantly, when in the hell are you going to post Part 3 of your ‘Stoner’ book club? I’m dying over here!

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