Forgotten Past; Doomed Future

David Greenberg has published an op-ed in Politico (link below) arguing that we ought not compare Trump’s impeachment to that of any of the other Presidents who have faced impeachment. He rightly points out that the context of all of the other instances is different and therefore not prescriptive. Using the analytical tool of applying two questions to each case, he argues that none of them match the contemporary situation.

The two questions are: “Are impeachment and conviction justified?” (constitutional) and “Are impeachment and conviction possible?” (political) His conclusions can be summarized in a simple chart.

Johnson Nixon Clinton Trump
Justified No Yes No Yes
Possible Yes* Yes* No No*

*Johnson was impeached but not removed from office, Nixon was not impeached but resigned. At this point it seems likely that the House will impeach but doubtful that the Senate will convict Mr. Trump.

Using this limited analytical approach renders the conclusion that since each case is different we cannot make any assumptions about the outcome of Trump’s dilemma. This is true but hardly enlightening. If this is all that history can tell us, there is really little motive for studying it.

What Greenberg is really arguing is what any trained historian will tell you: that contrary to popular perception history does not repeat itself. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it. As Mark Twain is reputed to have remarked, history does rhyme. And the fact that it does gives us all the more reason to remember and understand events of the past.

The reason is that even though the particulars of any given case may be different from what passed before, those instances in the past that resemble the present offer us insight into how people are likely to act, and what the consequences of that action might be. I have for years argued to my college history students that the reason history seems to repeat itself is because humans collectively tend to respond to similar pressures in similar fashion, barring better information. And given Americans’ cultural apathy toward history, we are rarely able to remember, let alone learn from the past.

For example, if someone steps on my toe a natural reaction would be anger. I might instinctively react by punching the person who did it in the nose. But if I attack the offender I am likely to suffer consequences far worse than having my toes stepped on. If I do it once and suffer the consequences I will hopefully respond differently the next time it happens. But if I can’t remember (or deliberately forget) what happened previously, there’s little to stop me from making the same stupid mistake again.

And so it is with humans and history. It is not without reason that Santayana’s warning is ubiquitous: those who fail to remember are doomed to repeat. If we want history to stop repeating, we have to remember and learn from the past.

In the case of Trump’s impeachment, it is true both that it differs in significant ways from the few historical examples we have, and that we have no way of knowing what the outcome will be. History will not tell us the future. But it will inform us about the present.

So, for example, when the left is convinced of the President’s guilt and can’t understand why Republicans don’t abandon their President in droves, it helps us to remember that Nixon’s Republican support in the Watergate affair was solid until irrefutable evidence of his guilt was brought to light. It helps us to know what tactics were used in the past both on defense and offense and what the consequences were, to give us some insight on what is likely to work and not work. You can be sure partisans on both sides are scouring the historical record looking for clues. There is an enormous stockpile of information to guide us in our actions today, so that we don’t have to begin as if we had never seen malfeasance in public office nor navigated the troubled waters of impeachment.

Again, Greenberg is correct to point out that comparing and contrasting today’s problems to similar situations in the past will not yield certainty about the future. But in arguing we should not compare the Trump situation to previous ones I can’t help but think that Mr. Greenberg is suggesting we throw up our hands in despair and just wait for the chips to fall. That is an incredibly defeatist and irresponsible position, especially for a historian. Americans are woefully deficient in understanding our history. Historians should be encouraging more inquiry, not less.


 

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