Early Wednesday morning, November 9, Vice President–elect Mike Pence referred to election 2016 as a “historic night.” The media agreed: countless headlines pronounced this a “historic election.”
Claims to historic achievements are most often attributable to a kind of self-promotion that is as conventional as it is lamentable. But in this case, even allowing for a certain amount of media hyperbole and headline inflation, I still found myself asking: What should historians make of that word—“historic”? Were our colleagues in journalism—those who write the proverbial first draft of history—deferring to our expertise through invocation? And if so, how do we accept the challenge? Readers of Perspectives have by now formulated and begun articulating their response as members of a national polity, as partisan participants, as members of communities and families. But how do we frame a response as historians?
To start, we ask what makes any event “historic.” Out of a basketful of possible criteria, I here offer an imperfect starting point: a historic event significantly initiates, redirects, accelerates, or halts change over time. This includes the conventional “first,” but leaves room for argument as to whether something is “historic” if it is an innovation without a vector, a singularity rather than a starting point.
By that definition—which many readers will already have ripped to shreds but which I’m going to stick with regardless as a heuristic device adequate to this speculative task—it is nearly impossible to assess how “historic” an event is in its immediate aftermath. Convention tends to label all “firsts” as historic, but to assess the enduring significance of change—be it breakthrough or cataclysm—takes sufficient evidence and critical distance. A new element typically takes time to affect the mixture it joins, and a historian’s role is not to predict the future or foresee the direction of change, but to contextualize what is new, a departure from what came before.
I tried doing just that eight years ago. A few historians were challenged by MSNBC to participate in an online forum that took as its premise the idea that electing the nation’s first African American president was “historic, certainly, but what does it mean?” With less than 12 hours to work, I didn’t have much of a vector leading away from our starting point. The media had ruled the event historic, and I was disinclined to quibble. Noting the ubiquitous media optimism about “history being made” or the “milestone in our nation’s history,” I remained skeptical. As a historian, I questioned whether the election was a culmination of progress or a peculiar event that had somehow transcended deep cultural and political roots:
As we congratulate ourselves for overcoming four centuries of racial oppression, we need to recognize the extent to which Barack Obama also stands outside of that history. Barack Obama stands tall as a symbol of black achievement but he does so as a man with no roots in those aspects of the black American experience that have poisoned American race relations. He has no roots in American slavery, the era of Jim Crow, or urban ghettos. Is it possible that the only African American who could cross the fragile bridge across the racial divide was a man unassociated with the great crucibles of African American life?
Historic or not, the election of 2016 took me back to 2008 by making painfully clear the fact that racism remains legitimate in the United States as both act and discourse. Anyone who thought the election of our first black president was a nail in the coffin of bigotry and intolerance is now either confronting zombies or admitting that the coffin had no corpse.
Most of us woke up on November 8, 2016, expecting a “historic” election. We prepared to ask questions about the first woman president resembling those asked by MSNBC eight years ago. How would her election night compare to that heady evening in 2008? How would we assess the meaning of the first woman to follow 43 men to the American presidency? A historic event, to be sure.
So yes, I will agree that something “historic” has occurred, and that we ought to have something to say about it as historians.
Instead, we elected the first American president who has neither held public office nor commanded an army, a man whose many departures from the norms of campaign discourse, disclosure, and demeanor constitute an abundance of firsts. The president-elect broke nearly every rule of conventional wisdom that governs modern political strategy.
So yes, I will agree even less than 24 hours after the event that something “historic” has occurred, and that we ought to have something to say about it as historians. We should be less interested in who “got it wrong” (something overstated in the shock of the short term, considering that Clinton won the proportion of votes predicted by most polls) than in what exactly did happen, why it happened, and what it tells us not only about recent developments in American economic and political history but in social and cultural history as well.
We can begin with what we know best: history. The president-elect has invoked a history that sits more comfortably in collective memory and conventional wisdom than in evidence or scholarship. “Make America Great Again” is a historical statement and clearly refers to the 1950s. That decade preceded vast changes in the American demographic, cultural, economic, and social landscape. Historians who study the decline of American industry do not generally agree with Trump’s narrative of how those industries declined and hence are apt to be skeptical of his plans for their resuscitation. Other historians have substantially documented the inequalities of that era that made it less than great for large portions of the population. Everything has a history, including a politics that is deeply rooted in histories of race and gender. I look for historians to explore how we got here from 2008, and how we fashioned a mythical 1950s—a world allegedly upended by political correctness and the globalizing elites who foisted on “real Americans” a regime of multiculturalism, feminism, and moral decline.
I leave to the political scientists the initial analysis of why voters presumably hostile to immigrants, moral relativism, the decline of faith in public culture, and the replacement of an industrial economy with service employment would vote for an irreligious libertine who has employed thousands of underpaid immigrants in hotels and casinos, many of them built with imported steel. The central historical question is not what we got wrong, but why it happened. Eventually, figuring that one out will fall to historians as well.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.