Donald Trump and the end of history — as we knew it
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that with the end of the Cold War came the end of history as we know it. In the battle between totalitarianism and democracy, the weapon of choice had been history, and now that the battle was won, it was time to put that weapon down.
In the 27 years since its publication, Fukuyama’s treatise has been put through the wringer by critics from both sides of the political aisle. Some time later, Fukuyama himself even disavowed his thesis.
However, while the article may be dead and buried as far as academic circles are concerned, the idea of history has largely followed Fukuyama’s path; its heyday as a weapon in the fight for reason and democracy came to an end years ago. Historians have largely retreated from the public sphere, preferring a mythical objectivity toward and separation from contemporary affairs.
Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, the Republican nominee exemplifies the “end of history” more than any modern politician. While some politicians will ignore or obscure historical facts when they are inconvenient, Trump creates new “facts” when they are convenient and outright denies them when they are not.
For example, as the New York Times reported, when Trump renovated his newly acquired golf club, he added a monument overlooking the Potomac, claiming that a battle had been fought there during the Civil War, in which so many died that it was dubbed the “River of Blood.”
When confronted by historians that this was not only an exaggeration but, in fact, a fabrication, Trump doubled down. His retort was “How would they know that? … Were they there?”
For Trump, the very foundation of History has no real meaning. If someone wasn’t personally there, then they cannot know what happened. If they were there and they disagree with him, then they’re lying. If he wants to say something that cannot be supported by fact, he just makes it up.
No one can contest it. It doesn’t matter that there is no historical record of something, or that the records that do exist point toward it never happening; you don’t have to prove anything, you just have to say something that can’t be easily disproven.
From an historian’s perspective, Trump presents an interesting case study in the viability of post-modernist theory. In some ways, Trump is the very embodiment of post-modernism. For Trump and post-modernists alike, history is a narrative created by those who have the power to create it. For post-modernists (and to a greater extent, post-structuralists), this means that all historical narratives are constructed and, thus, contested.
For Trump, this means that it doesn’t matter what others say, his narrative is just as (or more) valid. For some of the more extreme post-modernists, facts themselves have little meaning, since they are also constructed based on the point of view of the person recording them.
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Trump’s tirades against the media and his persistent denial and reinvention of facts in the face of being proven wrong – such as his denial of direct quotes during the debates – are consistent with this worldview.
Yet Trump as a case-study against post-modernism also provides several interesting points. On the one hand, his supporters seemingly believe that the post-modernists were right: It doesn’t matter what actually happened, it’s the interpretation of events by the (corrupt) people in power that defines History.
On the other hand, his critics have time and again shown how factually incorrect and morally repugnant his interpretations are. In this way, it disproves at least the most extreme post-structuralism, since there remains a reliance on provable facts that are fairly impossible to dispute.
Despite the intriguing debate about the nature of History, however, Trump signals an existential threat to the Historical profession and, by extension, the entire political system of the United States.
If we are to live in a world where facts matter, narratives are not just created by politicians, and we can rely on historical precedent (i.e., the basis of law) rather than merely promises that “It’s gonna be great!” then historians need to return to the political sphere, wield the sword of reason, and start calling Trump out for what he is: The (Potential) End of History.
Thomas Messersmith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently pursuing a PhD in Modern European History at the University of Maryland, College Park focusing on the relation between religion and politics in the 19th Century Habsburg Monarchy.
The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill