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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 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.