“I was very good in history.” Thus declared Candidate Trump a few hours before his epochal US presidential election victory. In the wider scheme of things, it was one of Mr Trump’s less offensive claims. Historians will debate whether his campaign demonstrated that he did, in fact, have a good grasp of the history of the Republic (or indeed the world), but our concerns are trivial compared to those of many others whose rights, livelihoods and fundamental values are now under attack.
That said, if the fightback starts here and now, then the “here” for most historians is a space that stands in opposition to the very tenor of Trumpism: the humanities departments of universities. Here we must redouble our efforts to teach and demonstrate by example that the loudest voice is seldom the one with the best answers, that arguments can be fierce without us resorting to personal humiliation, that money and monetization are not—cannot be—the only ways to judge human worth.
In other words, this is a battle over basic societal values. By fostering debate and critical thought in the seminar room, and by discussing with our students issues such as historical rights, identities, conflicts and oppression, historians position themselves on the battle’s frontline. We should welcome and acknowledge that responsibility more explicitly; and we should argue more energetically that the value of humanities departments lies not in their research income but rather in their basic existence as spaces where ideas—including especially our own—will be challenged, not echoed.
We already know the look of one form of challenge: in the wake of Mr Trump’s victory, flyers distributed at Texas State University announced that it was “time to organize tar & feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.” Doubtless, my own research and teaching would be considered “diversity garbage”: my field is global history with a particular focus on East Asia.
But there would be a more insidious attack that could be made on the work I do. In its worst excesses, global history stands for a celebration of globalization from the nineteenth century onwards, a teleological story of accelerating global integration and ipso facto prosperity. In its milder forms, global history still emphasizes connections—of people, commodities, ideas, germs and environmental transformations—that bind together the histories of often disparate communities, and that do so across the borders of the modern nation-state. We are all global historians now, according to some scholars—implying that the objects of our teaching are also all global.
Except that “we” do not necessarily perceive ourselves as all global now. If Trump’s victory and Brexit teach historians anything, it is that the nation-state as an imagined community is still alive and kicking. Many people do not necessarily feel connected to the outside world (whatever they mean by “outside”), or if they do, the connection is a negative one that takes the form of a lost job or an unfamiliar neighbour. “Connections” can be a useful term of analysis: it can alert historians to the fact that the story of the American Rust Belt is also that of northeast England or small town Japan, or that the fate of the Rust Belt is intimately connected to that of the Pearl River Delta. But it fails in helping us understand the emotional register of how people feel.
The challenges of global history
This gap—between the language of the analysts and of those being analysed—was the topic of “The Unconnected”, a long article that appeared in The New Yorker one week before the US Presidential Election. In it, George Packer describes the phenomenon by which Democratic Party policy-makers in the 1990s focused on poverty relief either in Africa and Latin America or in the American inner cities: “poverty was foreign or it was black”. The struggling communities of the Rust Belt were thereby overlooked: this was “flyover country” (a term that also captures the concentration of Democratic support on the East and West coasts).
It’s only a short distance from “flyover country” to “flyover history”: that is, the accusation that global history prefers to focus on metaphorical (and often literal) coasts at the expense of the metaphorical heartlands. According to this charge, global history interests itself with the stories of people who migrate, not those who stay behind. In this way, its intellectual interests inadvertently (or deliberately, so the attack would have it) follow patterns of outsourcing, in which the voices of the subaltern overseas are given greater expression than those of the subaltern at home.
I don’t buy this characterization of global history. But there is enough of a grain of truth in it that we need to be ready to counter it. In my own work, for example, I used to be interested in the Japanese equivalent of the Rust Belt. Now, after years of thinking about “global” and “transcultural” perspectives, I am more interested in the Japanese overseas diaspora. The first challenge, then, is to consider whether these two interests couldn’t be better combined, in order to make the point that the “Rust Belt” and “diversity” are not mutually exclusive.
But the second challenge is to develop a more robust public language to explain and defend why it is that a global approach to history need not be “flyover history”. I can think of pithy responses, typical for an academic: to study roots is to study routes, and so on. But if all history-writing that is not Great White Men is going to be branded as “multicultural crap”, then pithiness is not enough. We need to find a language—and quickly—to fight back stronger.
That’s easier said than done. It requires historians to develop—or rediscover—a language that speaks to society as well as to the academy, that is both emotional as well as analytical. Perhaps, as a negative strategy, we need to label egregious uses of the past simply as “bad history”—no caveats necessary. Perhaps, on a more positive note, we need to embrace the responsibility of being “experts” in order to expose the fallacies of the Farages. It would be great, moreover, if we could reclaim the adjective “great” and talk about what makes great history-writing—diversity, connections, disconnections and all. If Mr Trump’s victory therefore forces historians to think more clearly about the stakes of what it is we do, then we may eventually be able to look back and say that the President-elect was unwittingly good for history, if nothing else.