Historians seem to have a problem with Trump. I do not mean by this the dominance of partisan hostility to Trump in the ranks of the historical profession, or even the way in which many historians have been offended by the way in which the president has treated history as a resource to be exploited, rather than a reality to be respected or understood. The more substantial problem posed by Trump is that for many historians he simply should not exist. The possibility that the conclusion of the evolution of the United States across the half-century since the 1960s could be the election – albeit against the weight of individual votes – of a man who boasts of his distaste for the goals of racial equality, wider health-care provision, and a narrowing of income differentials, seems to many historians to be somewhere between an institutional outrage and an absurd accident of history. But the political is supplemented by the personal. Trump’s swagger, and his disregard for bureaucratic procedure and legal constraints, stands as a refutation of deeply-held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work. The complexity of institutional procedures, the careful reconciliation of competing interests, and above all the prestige of the presidency as the symbol of democratic legitimacy, have all been bulldozed by a man whose personal qualities – or lack of them – seem like an insult to the historical narrative.
We should be wary when we look back at our own lives and try to discern a pattern. Historians know that one of the common fallacies in looking at the past is to assume that things were bound to turn out as they did, to see a chain of causality in what may be random events or simple coincidences. And we should also remind ourselves that success or failure is not due to the individual alone but to circumstances, timing and luck.
Unlike, perhaps, any previous occupant of the Oval Office, the election of the 45th president of the United States in 2016 triggered intense soul-searching in America, and this introspective exercise is likely to continue for some time yet. Unfit for office in the first place, far from being tamed by the weight of his responsibilities, President Trump became more disruptive and dangerous with time. But whatever the economic costs or the social, racial, and cultural divisiveness of his brand of politics or the strain he has placed, by design, ignorance, or recklessness, on America’s constitutional arrangements, his turbulent presidency also left an imprint on international affairs, and historians will find in that period much on which to reflect and debate.
I was born on February 9, 1946, the same day that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech which U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously called a “declaration of World War III.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, but the Stalin speech was certainly one of the opening shots in the Cold War. And the great conflict that was about to begin would have a profound effect on my life, in more ways than one.
Four years ago, I wrote that the Trump presidency would provide a test for many IR theories. It was clear from Trump’s campaign and his personal style that both his policy preferences and his methods of operation were outside of the political mainstream, and indeed this was a major part of his appeal to voters, even if they did not necessarily approve or even know of the specific policies he was advocating. What made this period so valuable to IR scholars, even if they disapproved of Trump, was that it would provide insight into the classic arguments about how much freedom of action an American president has and how much he was constrained by domestic interests, politics, and the international system. On this topic I found Kenneth Waltz’s well known levels of analysis framework particularly useful. The classic statement of the president’s power in the realm of foreign affairs is Aaron Wildavsky’s “The Two Presidencies.”
I never imagined I’d become a political scientist. As a child, my passion was for paleontology, and I pored over my books on fossils and dinosaurs until the pages were tattered all along the edges. Today, while I do have an impressive rock and mineral collection and I know where my loupe and rock pick are, I never became a paleontologist. As an undergraduate major in geology in the late 1970s, I discovered that jobs in that field were created with men and men’s lives in mind. I refused to accept either/or choices when my male peers would have only both/and choices. At the same time, General Education requirements forced me to take classes in anthropology and international relations, and I discovered that people and the societies they build were much more interesting than rocks, which were typically only dynamic if one lived far longer than the average human being. With nations and peoples, on the other hand, a lively soap opera of change fixed the gaze. It was almost impossible to look away once one understood the players, their interests, and their histories. From that detour when I was a young college student came an unexpected journey as a social science researcher.
Philip Nord’s After the Deportation is a compelling and ambitious account of ‘deportation memory’ in France. It revises the dominant silence-to-voice story that historians have nuanced and contested, but never fully dislodged. As the story goes, the French imagined deportees as anti-fascist, patriotic victims of the Nazi regime until the 1960s and 70s, when a younger generation questioned French complicity in the Holocaust along with French racism and colonialism. The student rebels of 1968 unearthed long-repressed memories about Jewish persecution and the Vichy regime that had been buried by both Gaullist and Communist accounts of French heroic martyrdom, and the earlier celebration of Resistance gave way to an emphasis on Jewish suffering. Although he does not question the turning points of this narrative, including the Gaullist myth of the Resistance, the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he treats them as important but insufficient explanations for the ‘repression’ or emergence of Holocaust memory in France.
Researching covert action is not easy. States pursue such operations to influence events without revealing their handiwork. Doing this successfully requires limiting the number of officials in the know, and enforcing secrecy measures to avoid leaving an incriminating paper trail. The documentary record is deliberately porous as a result, which complicates any effort to test theories about the logic of covert action. Nonetheless, creative and enterprising scholars have produced a number of excellent studies in the last few years, proposing new arguments about the causes of covert intervention, and the effects on international politics.
Culture shock. I have long encouraged students to take a semester abroad not just to learn about another country but to experience culture shock. The shock, I explain, is useful. It forces us to realize that some assumptions that are so ingrained that we consider them facts of human existence are, in reality, culturally contingent and learned. Living abroad helps Americans understand what it means to be an American.
Much has happened since July 2017 when my previous contribution to this H-Diplo project appeared. The central purpose of that essay was to push back against those who were then castigating President Donald Trump for tearing down a norms-based liberal international order that successive U.S. administrations had ostensibly erected since World War II. I strenuously questioned the existence of any such order. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the Trump wrecking-ball may yet yield something useful.