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History Won’t Save You

For most of Trump's cabinet there will be book deals, not prosecutions

In these heady middle days of the Trump imperium, it’s tempting to reach for succor wherever one can. A little indulgence—call it self-care if you must—is allowed past the ideological censors, provided you’ve fulfilled your quota of rage-tweeting about the day’s events. But some crutches are less defensible than others. High among the list of the objectionable has to be one of the more enduring refrains of the anti-Trump commentariat. It comes, like so many liberal shibboleths, from a place of earnest principle, but it’s also deeply naive and just as annoying. It’s the consoling notion that “history will judge harshly,” well, whoever’s turn it is to be hauled in for scolding, from Trump loyalists to ICE agents to Republicans in Congress. It’s a line that’s become endemic to Twitter discourse, but it’s also found a home in the more pious remarks of Democratic politicians, like Rep. Adam Schiff, who recently said in a speech that history would judge his colleagues harshly for forsaking their oversight responsibilities.

“History will judge harshly,” asks nothing of us but to wait out the clock until justice, somehow, wins.

Having long since passed into cliché, the promise of historical infamy has become a widely used line of solace. It also bears all the rhetorical force of Jeff Flake muttering, “This is not who we are.” It’s not that some people aren’t worthy of contempt or criticism. But in appealing to a vaguely defined angel of history, anti-Trump liberals seek a savior where there’s likely to be none. All they can muster is a small scrim to hide the true horror we face, which is that no one currently in power is likely to face any reckoning for what they do. There will be no Nuremberg trials for Trumpism; ICE Director Thomas Homan will not end up in the dock in the Hague. 

For most Trumpist veterans, there will be book deals, not prosecutions. If history doesn’t redeem them, they will write their own. It’s been this way from Henry Kissinger to George W. Bush to Oliver North. (Kissinger, who’s written a shelf of books, recently appeared in The Atlantic warning of artificial intelligence catastrophe.) No one pays any appreciable price, not even in the theater of reputation. Dick Cheney will die of old age, no doubt in some well-appointed bunker, having exhausted more than his natural allotment of hearts. Paul Bremer, like his former boss, will while away his golden years painting landscapes as Iraq still burns. With time, each might be rehabilitated entirely or made to seem respectable in retrospect.

Looking toward some idealized future history—which presumes there’ll be someone around to write that history (no small concession in the current moment)—is functionally useless. It reflects the same complacent idealism that could be found in one of President Barack Obama’s most over-used lines: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” (Often attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted it in his writings, the aphorism originated with Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century Unitarian minister and abolitionist.) Sunnily optimistic this sentiment may be, it has, in Obama’s formulation, come to be associated more with rudderless left-of-center politics—think of the reluctant drone warrior “evolving” on gay marriage—than a courageous moral vision. It asks nothing of us but to wait out the clock until justice, somehow, wins. In the meantime, the oceans rise, prison camps are being built for migrant children, and sitting congressmen like Steve King promote neo-Nazis on Twitter.

The open resurgence of far-right and white supremacist groups is one of the more terrifying, if predictable, features of the Trump era. The inability to stymie these forces—themselves seemingly consigned to history, having been banished, in the popular narrative, by heroic Americans during World War II—is an indictment of the centrist incrementalism pushed by Democrats in recent decades. Having thrown their lot in with the neoliberal consensus, Democrats offered no comprehensive alternatives to policies of Wall Street de-regulation, mass incarceration and deportation, and constant warfare. Rather than dismantling systems of oppression, they promised a more inclusive version of the disastrous status quo—more women prison guards, as the joke goes on Twitter. (Along these lines, consider then-presidential candidate John Kerry’s promise to continue the war in Iraq, which he voted for, while somehow opposing it as well. Dim-witted fence-straddling is a signal component of contemporary Democratic politics.)

Having failed to learn from history, we now hope that it will one day look back harshly on our enemies—and by implication, fondly on those of us who stand here angrily tweeting our protests. That is cold comfort to a family being split up at the border or to Puerto Ricans facing privatization of broken infrastructure. Just as the specter of Vladimir Putin pulling his puppet strings has become a reason to not take a hard look at our own failings, so too do appeals to history tend to occlude the depths of our problem. We may find comforting narratives of triumph over evil in our shared history, but unless we take a hard look at our own complicity in arriving at this dangerous point, we will not find answers.