Donald Trump’s solo press conference and the media ‘opposition party’

trump_press_conferenceIt is easy to mock Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as president of the United States; I’ve even tried to do so myself. There were some undeniably cringeworthy moments (above all, his attitude towards the Jewish reporter who asked about anti-Semitism, and his response to the question on the Congressional Black Caucus); Trump offered his usual mix of exaggerations and evasions (and one outright falsehood in the forms of his claims about the size of his electoral college victory); and the president’s relentlessly belligerent attitude towards the press, with his repeated claims about their ‘dishonesty’ and ‘fake news’, was petulant and largely detached from reality. Unsurprisingly, most commentary, whether from journalists or satirists, has concluded that it was an ‘unhinged’ and embarrassing shambles. And yet—and I ask this question as someone who unequivocally regards Trump as an appalling individual who will almost certainly be a terrible president—are the commentators right? The more I reflect on the conference (and I have watched all of its 77 minutes), the more I think they are not. Indeed, in several respects it was a carefully constructed event that will probably prove to be hugely successful for Trump.

Early on in the conference the president explained that he was ‘here again, to take my message straight to the people’. This was Trump back in campaign mode, bypassing the media and presenting himself unfiltered to the public. As he noted, he had won the election despite the hostility of most of the press; his success could be attributed, at least in part, to his direct communication with the public. That he felt the need to return to this form of communication is likely to have been his recognition that the first four weeks of his administration have been widely perceived as chaotic (and not the ‘fine-tuned machine’ that had made ‘incredible progress’) and that it was time to short-circuit the media coverage with an alternative narrative. If so, then he surely fulfilled his aims with both the tone and content of the conference.

Apart from a few tetchy moments towards the end of the conference, Trump looked relaxed and in control throughout. He generally managed to soften his attacks on the media by making them look like good-natured banter; he even shared a few jokes with the assembled journalists. Above all, he achieved the perfect balance of looking like an underdog under attack by a room full of opponents, while also conveying toughness and strength in the face of the attack. That he was not being especially attacked is beside the point: Trump made it look as if he was being attacked. As he himself commented, he could not be said to have been ‘ranting and raving’; and he really did appear to be ‘having a good time doing it’.

When it comes to content, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has a genius for being rambling and barely coherent while simultaneously telling his intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. Consider what he covered in the first half hour of the conference (before he took reporters’ questions): he briefly announced some new appointments; he summarized how successful his first four weeks had been; he mentioned a high approval rating, a surging stock market and increased optimism in the business world; he gave an extensive list of jobs that were returning to America; he announced a huge increase in military spending, and his desire to achieve peace through strength; he reminded his audience that Isis is ‘a cancer’ that he would deal with, in addition to sorting out North Korea and Iran; he mentioned the many foreign leaders he had had ‘productive’ talks with; he emphasized his policy of strengthened borders and enhanced law enforcement; he referred to his orders to cut regulation, to repeal and replace the ‘disaster’ of Obamacare, to introduce tax reform, to pursue fair trade deals, to encourage investment in jobs and American industry (for example, his initiative to use American steel for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines); and he scattered numerous other references to policies and initiatives thoughout the speech (for example, his intention to tackle the drugs problem and his development of a council with Canada to promote women’s business leaders) as well as praise for the people he had appointed. Running through this part-meandering, part-scattergun account of his administration’s policies and achievements were his attacks on Democrats, the courts and the media for attempting to obstruct him, and his view that he had ‘inherited a mess’ from the previous administration.

What would the audience Trump intended to reach—the American public to whom he was speaking directly—take away from this rambling speech? It is likely many of them would have heard the following: the President is a dynamic man who is honouring his campaign promises (unlike many conventional politicians, but like the Donald Trump who presented himself in The Art of the Deal as the dynamic, energetic businessman who successfully achieves his goals); that he is focused on jobs, security and the defence of the American people; and that he is battling the attempts of traditional politicians and the media to frustrate him in these purposes. While it is possible to laugh at many of his claims and statements (‘drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars’; parts of Chicago are ‘worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East’ that are talked about; nuclear war is bad), his intended audience hears only confirmation of their concerns (drugs are a serious problem; crime in inner cities has got out of control; dealing with Russia reduces the risk of nuclear war).

While watching this I thought of the notorious remarks made by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in the first week of Trump’s presidency:

The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Trump’s press conference helps illuminate what Bannon was driving at. The president was speaking about jobs, security and defence; he was appealing to popular fears and concerns, and promising to fix them in ways that traditional politicians had consistently failed to do. In one telling moment he said: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician, but I guess that’s what I am now.’ In other words: the America the media do not understand is the America whose primary concerns are jobs and security; and the media do not understand that Trump was elected because he is not a traditional politician. Trump’s slightly folksy and simple manner, his blunt and plain speaking, even his mistakes and exaggerations: all of this makes him look like the sort of non-politician that millions of Americans consciously wanted to occupy the White House.

After Trump’s speech the media had an extended opportunity to ask questions—and they would likely have confirmed to the president’s intended audience Bannon’s claim that the media are ‘the opposition party’. More than half the questions were about the continuing suspicions of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, and the related resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. These are vital questions because this is an issue of immense political, constitutional and security importance; if some of the links to Russia are proved, it is likely to prove a bigger scandal than Watergate (and will almost certainly lead to Trump’s downfall). But Trump’s calculation—and I suspect he is correct—is that, just as Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t bothered by Watergate in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, most of the American public do not care much the Russian rumours. Rather, his intended audience are far more bothered about employment, illegal immigration, crime and threats to America than they are about an issue that does not resonate beyond the political, intelligence and media circles of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

So the spectacle that unfolded from the conference—just as Trump probably hoped it would, and which was probably why he was enjoying it so much—was of a president focused on issues that matter to most of the public, and a media ignoring those issues to fixate on things that matter little to the wider public. This was the media doing its job properly—and yet also confirming Bannon’s ‘opposition party’ label. This was why the president repeatedly insisted that the Russia stories were ‘fake news’, by which he meant not so much that they were untrue but that they were a deliberate attempt by the media to distract from the real story of his administration’s achievements with non-stories about things that may have been said in a phone conversation between Flynn and a Russian ambassador. And many Trump supporters will concur with their president that the media are dishonest, by reasoning that the media prefer to print rumours about Russian influence on the election than to write about job creation, drug problems and inner city crime. Whether they are right to reason in this way is not the point; the point is that millions of people (and not just in America) are more concerned about the immediate issues that appear to threaten them than they are about the comparatively remote issues of concern to political and media circles.

Most of the media, as well as those of us who are anti-Trump, will regard the press conference as confirmation of Trump’s unsuitability to be president and the shambolic nature of his administration. It is unlikely he won any converts among the media or his opponents. But Trump was not speaking to the media or to those who did not vote for him. He was speaking to those who had voted for him, and he was doing something that he has focused on for the first few weeks of his presidency: firming up his base. The press conference was almost certainly highly successful to that end: his supporters will have regarded his conference as vindication of their support, because Trump told them everything they wanted to hear. It’s a smart strategy, because for now Trump has time on his side to win converts; what he can’t afford to do is lose his base. Given that there is no realistic prospect of Trump winning over the mainstream media, sceptics and opponents any time soon, it would not be a surprise if these solo press conferences become a regular event.

Whether this strategy will work in the long run is open to question; Trump will need his policies to work, and there is surely only so much controversy and scandal any administration can withstand. But Trump has succeeded for nearly two years now with his unconventional approach of bypassing the mainstream media and communicating directly with the public, so he and Bannon probably reason that there is no need to change a winning formula. There is clearly a deliberate policy of dividing the media and political establishment from the public, and it’s a policy that poses more challenges to the media than it does to Trump: it is not obvious in the current climate how the mainstream media and political class can reach out to Trump’s support base.

In one of his final answers, Trump said:

Hey, just so you understand, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided—I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here… This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation. We went eight years with President Obama and we went many years before President Obama. We lived in a divided nation. And I am going to try—I will do everything within my power to fix that.

It’s a powerful point—which is why he keeps reiterating it—and goes to the heart of Trump’s narrative. The United States is clearly deeply divided, but it would be absurd to think that these divisions have opened up only in the past few months. As Trump says, the divisions are deep and long standing; they are a reality that has nothing to do with his being elected president. Of course, he claims to represent that side of the divide which has hitherto been unrepresented by politicians and the media. It matters little whether Trump’s analysis is right, nor whether he really does represent those people who elected him. What matters is that his press conference, like almost everything he has been doing since his inauguration, played perfectly to his supporters.

 

Are we really living in a post-truth world?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at the launch of the Vote Leave bus campaign, in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, in Truro
The Vote Leave campaign bus: evidence of a ‘post-truth’ world?

There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.

Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.

The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.

I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.

Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)

Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.

Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.

Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.

Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.

The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).

Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.

What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.

For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.

Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

tony-blair
Enemy? Or useful ally?

Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.

Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.

There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.

My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.

In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.

I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?

The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.

I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.

But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.

[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel (and Trump): Part 2—‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’

donaldtrump
The times they are a-changin’

More than four months have passed since I promised this post—which is now written in the light of the election of Donald Trump as US president (something that I superstitiously predicted in the frustrated hope that I would, for once, be wrong about election outcomes). Like Brexit and the presidential election, my writing has been a drawn-out, chaotic process. This post as good as represents a new article rather than an obvious sequel to the first post. Above all, it responds far more to Trump’s election than it does to Brexit—it would, after all, be the height of parochialism to consider the latter anywhere near as significant as the former.

* * * * *

Right now, in the midst of Brexit and so soon after the election of Donald Trump as US president, historical perspective is not likely to yield much that is useful for helping to understand events that have only just begun to unfold. Clearly Trump and Brexit, as well as Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Assad, Isis and much else besides across the world, point to the emergence of a global crisis and a treacherous future. But history will help us little to comprehend any of this in detail, how it may unfold and what may be the route out of the dark and grim cave we find ourselves in. On the other hand, history can provide an important broader perspective—and one that may even provide grounds for optimism.

Like anyone else, historians like to feel useful, so there are inevitably attempts to analyze recent events in light of the wisdom they have acquired from their expertise. One such attempt that garnered some attention (it was originally blogged at medium.com and was republished by The Huffington Post) is an article by Tobias Stone entitled (with somewhat hubristic confidence) ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’.

Stone makes two broad points, which turn out to be disconnected, and arguably incompatible. The first is that comparatively small events, such as Brexit, can lead to larger events in a globally connected world. To illustrate the point, he sketches out a scenario in which Brexit is the triggering event in a chain that leads to global nuclear war. This is, of course, speculation rather than a serious claim that this ‘will happen’, and Stone himself concedes that one cannot know for sure what the outcome of Brexit will be, either for Britain or internationally. However, the general claim is sound to the point of being historical commonsense: events lead to other events, invariably in ways that are unforeseen at the time. No historian would dispute this.

Stone’s second main point is that history operates in a cyclical way. The cycle he presents is one in which a period of stability is inevitably followed by a period of destruction, from which society emerges in better shape and achieves stability again, only to descend once more into destruction; and so on. He suggests that most people are unaware of this because their understanding of the past is limited to about 50-100 years; but historians, who have a longer perspective on the past, will soon detect this cyclical pattern. Unfortunately, the only real example of this cycle he presents is one that is itself limited to the previous 100 years, encompassing the two world wars and various other events over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that culminate in the emergence of Putin, Trump and Brexit. Stone does present a disparate list of other historical events—‘the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses, English Civil War’—but without explaining how these wildly different events (including one—the Black Death—that has nothing to do with human agency, and another—the Spanish Inquisition—that was not so much an event as an institution that spanned centuries) illustrate a recurring cycle to the past.

The idea that the past reveals historical cycles is a popular one. It was a common topos among classical writers, and the notion of a wheel of fortune revolving and dictating human affairs has a long pedigree. Nineteenth-century social theorists and historians, fond of understanding society in biological terms, likened human affairs to the life cycle, with inevitable stages of youth, maturity, decline, death, and new life.

But, to put it bluntly, cyclical theory is utter rubbish, based on a groundless, quasi-mystical notion that some kind of metaphysical (or, alternatively, biological) law applies to history. There is no evidence that history works in cycles and that we can use the past and a ‘cyclical model’ to predict what will happen next. Of course, if one tries hard enough (and many historians have) it is possible to impose all sorts of patterns on the past—most notoriously by those historians influenced by Marxist theories on historical development. We have a tendency (and this is arguably a psychological truth) to impose or detect patterns because we prefer seeing comprehensible order rather than incomprehensible chaos. However, these patterns, whether they are Christian providentialist history or Marxist determinism or cyclical history, almost never stand up to real scrutiny. They are fictions, telling us far more about ourselves than they do about the past. The Christian providentialist history, for example, reveals more about the mentality of its author than it does about the past; cyclical theory tells us a lot about the human predisposition to view time and the universe in an anthropocentric way, and about the desire to render history as a science operating according to identifiable laws. There is no requirement to be a postmodernist to cast scepticism upon such grand, and undeniably imaginative, historicizing theories.

One thing that history does teach us is that it is unwise to draw direct comparisons between two historical periods, particularly when they are at significant temporal remove. Any suggestion that our own time might be compared with earlier historical periods is fraught with problems. In almost every area there are fundamental, incomparable differences between our age and any previous age, whether those differences be demographic, cultural, technological, scientific, intellectual, or social. For all that there are things which approximate to constants (or at least admit only tiny change over history)—geography, the environment, biology—difference rather than similarity characterizes the overwhelming part of human life and society when viewed across historical periods. The urban, post-industrial society that we live in today, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize—none of that can be compared with any previous period except in ways that are highly general or superficial. It is, for example, undoubtedly interesting and valuable to consider the modern digital revolution in media and communications with the print revolution of the early modern period, but to approach them from a cyclical perspective—as examples, perhaps, of cycles of technological change—ends up in a ridiculous and misconceived effort to incorporate the vast differences between the two ‘revolutions’ under a single explanatory ‘law’.

The capacity for folly would seem to qualify as a human constant transcending time. However, this folly invariably manifests itself in different ways depending on the historical context. Just because in both 1618 and 1939 Europe descended into profoundly destructive warfare emanating from Germany does not mean the two events are comparable instances of a deeper cyclical law. The Thirty Years’ War and World War II were vastly different conflicts, stemming from vastly different causes, and occurring in vastly different social, political, cultural and intellectual worlds. Similarly, just because the crisis of democracy and liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to totalitarianism, war, genocide and devastation does not mean the same will happen again in the present crisis. The economy, society and culture of interwar Europe resembles our own in few respects. Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may well be ‘fascistic’, and it may be interesting to compare them with Hitler and Mussolini, just as it may be interesting to compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin, but there are significant limits to how far one can take such comparisons. There are far more ways in which Trump differs from Hitler than there are ways in which he resembles him. Likewise, one does not have to be fond of the Republican Party to point out that they are not remotely like the German Nazi Party. To suppose that Hitler and the Nazis, and Trump and the Republicans are fulfilling the same destined cyclical role is a nonsense. In short, cyclical theories of history are junk—entertaining junk perhaps, and revealing of the mental world from which they originate, but junk all the same.

* * * * *

braudel_mediterraneanHistory can nevertheless shed light on contemporary events. A more fertile approach to understanding the past was that of the French historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85). One of the central figures in what has come to be known as the Annales school of historiography—the influence of which on historical research cannot be overstated—Braudel was arguably the greatest historian, and his book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), arguably the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. The importance of The Mediterranean stems in part from its brilliant exposition of sixteenth-century Mediterranean society, economy, culture and politics, but above all from its broader structure. Braudel consciously rejected the traditional approach to history which focused on politics and events. Instead, he understood the past in terms of three different levels of historical time: geographical time, social time, and individual time. The first deals with the extremely slow, almost imperceptible, changes in geography, the environment and climate that shape human history; the second concerns demographic, social, economic and cultural structures and their gradual changes; and the third, individual time, is the domain of ‘events’, those

surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief,  rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions… Resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of these larger movements [of geographical and social time] and explicable only in terms of them. (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. by Siân Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; first published in French, 1949; second revised edn, 1966), p. 21.)

Traditional history fixated on events and individuals: kings and queens, statesmen, diplomats and generals, high politics, wars and revolutions. It is interesting, exciting and entertaining history, but on its own provides little understanding of the past. To understand the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as Braudel endeavoured to do, required attention to the longue durée, the long-term, the arena of geographical and social time. It necessitated understanding the Mediterranean as a sea with its islands and coastline, and the surrounding lands as varying regions of hills, mountains, plains and deserts. For it is this geography and climate which has shaped the social and economic culture of the Mediterranean peoples, fashioning the agriculture, the local and wider economies, the trade routes and financial systems. Only by grasping these features of the Mediterranean world—its geography, its climate, its economy, its society—is it possible to understand the individuals, politics and events that emerge from them.

Braudel’s metaphor of ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’ suggests that most events are little more than froth. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is to offer a Braudelian adaptation of Shakespeare: events, whether wars, revolutions, political upheavals, are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing other than the larger movements of geographical and social time.

A Braudelian perspective, therefore, might regard the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit as surface manifestations of larger movements. An analysis of Trump and Brexit more plausible than the attempt to discern in them the recurrence of a cyclical stage is to consider them as reactions to rapid change (some of which might be described as progress). It is possible, for example, that they are the final, dying twitches of misogyny, white supremacy and blinkered nationalism in a world that increasingly has little place for such things; certainly, demographic, social, cultural and economic evidence suggests that possibility is more likely than that Trump and Brexit are ushering an enduring change in human history. There is a chance that these dying twitches will lead to global devastation and environmental catastrophe. But this is not inevitable, and assuming we manage to avoid such disasters, we may well find an era will follow—in five years or fifty years, who knows?—that once again embraces progressive, liberal and enlightened values suited to the demographically and culturally diverse world we live in.

The point is, to adopt this Braudelian view, that there is a flowing ocean of broad social, cultural and intellectual shifts on which Trump and Brexit are transitory crests of foam. One might consider gender history as an example. The election of Trump is undoubtedly a setback in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But the long history of this struggle shows nothing cyclical about it; rather, it resembles a long and painfully slow story of progress against a background of gradual social, economic and cultural change. Trump is probably no more than a temporary setback, a desperate misogynist backlash, a brief and fleeting political manifestation of the rage and frustrations of men who are dimly aware they are almost certainly on the losing side of history. Even the misogyny of Trump and his supporters is not going to reverse female suffrage, say, or access to higher education. Despite Trump, all the historical signs are that one day in the future women will achieve equality. As Braudel put it, in ‘historical analysis… the long run always wins in the end’ (The Mediterranean, p. 1244). Individual historical actors, such as Trump, and events, such as the 2016 presidential election, are, for all their immediate and foreseeable pain, insignificant in the context of the broader tides of social and cultural change.

Despite the hopes of non-specialists that history may contain the secrets of what will happen in the future, historians have never been good at predicting the future with any precision. Any attempt to read from recent events a future sequence of events and their outcome is no more than speculative guesswork requiring no knowledge of history. Anyone could imagine, say, a scenario in which a terrorist incident on US soil in the name of Islamic fundamentalism early in the Trump presidency leads to virulent Islamophobia; or a win for Marine Le Pen that results in Frexit and further international instability. Equally, however, there may be neither a terrorist attack nor a victory for Le Pen. Whether there are or not, and what possible outcomes may arise, cannot be gleaned by looking at past historical events; they can only be based on an astute and informed assessment of current possibilities and probabilities.

But what history can illuminate are the broader and longer changes that generate events. Climate change, demographic change, social and cultural change, technological change: the long histories of these provide a better context for understanding recent events than a narrow analysis of personalities, political calculations and strategies. A recognition of this may help us avoid the despair of supposing recent events map out a road that ends only in catastrophe. And it certainly makes more sense than to view these events as manifestations of a mysterious historical law according to which humans will periodically enter into phases of self destruction. Not only is such a cyclical view nonsensical fiction, it is also likely to foster an attitude of resigned quietism.

Finally, it is worth stating that the present concerns are fourfold: to understand recent events; to avoid potential global disaster; to keep alive progressive values; and to work towards the acceptance and success of those values. History can help in these tasks, particularly those of understanding events and preserving values. This is because the past does not present a metaphysical law of inevitable cyclical return, but is rather a shared body of experience, knowledge and analysis from which to draw inspiration and understanding. It is for this reason that history, as the discipline concerned with the past, is invaluable in the present.

And since I began my first post with reference to the now deservedly Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, I’ll end this one with a couple of lines worth keeping in mind: ‘For the loser now will be later to win, / For the times they are a-changin’.’