If the fightback against Donald Trump and his intellectual kin starts here, what does that mean for lowly historians? And how does Mr Trump’s victory pose an existential threat to “global” history?

  • Martin Dusinberre

    Martin Dusinberre lehrt seit 2015 Global­geschichte mit Schwerpunkt Asien an der Universität Zürich.

“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.

“diver­sity garbage”

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.

Ortelius: Maris Pacifici, 1589; Quelle: wikipedia.org

Ortelius: Maris Paci­fici, 1589; Quelle: wikipedia.org

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.

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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.