From the moment of Trump’s election four years ago, we have talked relentlessly about how long it will last. Fear of Tumpism is, at root, the fear of being trapped in a madhouse without an exit. As I said four years ago, as Canadians we never voted for or against Trump, but we all will have to face the consequences. One of the cruelties of the past four years is that, regardless of what happened, in a way, Trump always won. Wherever one sat on the political spectrum – no matter how much one hated Trump – most of us were talking about him. For four years, he has dominated not so much the headlines of today but the horizons for tomorrow. For one to write an accurate history of the past four years, therefore, one would have to focus an awful lot on how much Trump’s presidency shaped our idea of the future. For historians, this should prompt us to consider how people in previous eras dealt with crises like the ones we’re facing. Did they escape into a nostalgic past, confront the challenges of the present, or focus more on when it would end?
While it’s fashionable these days to quote Orwell’s dictum that who controls the past controls the future, I wonder whether we might have it backwards. Despite all the right-wing rhetoric about history (in both the U.S. and other countries facing authoritarianism), Trumpism has remarkably little to say about the past. What it’s really about, in my view, is not so much turning back the clock as stopping it. What drives people to attend MAGA rallies is the same thing that drives those who want to suppress the vote: fear of the future. I don’t think they want to return to 1955 so much as they simply oppose the changes unfolding around them. For historians, this has important implications: it suggests that we should perhaps pay less attention to right-wing rhetoric about the past, despite all the ink spilled on conservative views of monuments. I am not denying that history is important to right-wing populism but I think that it serves a secondary, largely symbolic role. What matters most, in a figurative sense, is the battle over opening or closing the possibilities of the future. Like the literal struggle today to ensure that every vote gets counted, the struggle over our ideas of the future will affect us all for years to come. The outcome of that struggle will, in the end, determine how we look at the past.
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