Historians and long-view intellectuals teach us about our giants. And audiences in the tens of thousands listen to them. This year has already produced villainous buffoons of historic proportions, on both sides of the Atlantic. David Brooks provides a handy list of Englishmen to complement every thinking Englishman’s choice of Manhattan’s Donald Trump.
Playing with the fatal flaws of David Cameron and Trump—one’s disastrously obsessive calculations and the other’s terrifying crowd-pleasing impulses—confirms that entertainment can be educational. Otherwise entertainment would’ve already destroyed our species.
Also, of course, getting personal can win elections and does assist voters in selecting whom they want to lead from the menu they’re offered on Election Day. Focusing on the individual is fine for partisans and their Facebook chorus. But it’s for the moment and not obliged to tell the whole story. We leave that work to trusted historians.
History’s professional storytellers do influence us, but they too consistently emphasize the players, not the ideas that keep holding us back. They warn us that history repeats itself because humans don’t learn from their mistakes. They too are human.
Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a highly influential blockbuster The Guns of August about the leadership that launched the First World War. Following her lead, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Margaret Macmillan and other esteemed scholars have also produced highly influential books on the prejudices, secret demons, and follies of the leaders at Versailles, the launch of two world wars and the second Iraq War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and the Great Recession of 2008.
Bad things happen when the bad guys get power.
We’ve all grown up to despise the carelessness of the aristocrats that launched the First World War. Yet we know relatively little about the power of the popular convictions—especially, a righteous nationalism—that they relied on to keep the slaughter grinding on for four years.
We read widely—including the gossip of maids and former employees, psychobabble, and the hunches of speech and body language experts—to get a fix on the temperament of the next man or first woman to carry America’s nuclear Red Button around for the next four years. However, the climate of laissez-faire tolerance toward the existence of that insane Red Button receives only passing notice.
Observers spot crypto-fascist flashes in the words of the Brexit leaders and the tweets of Donald Trump. Further, they see their wins as evidence of a raging, hurting middle class, brutalized by globalization. Yet not one of these demagogues has demonstrated excessive passion, either right or left, for exercising state power. At the same time, we also know that real family incomes are up and that government spending as a share of GDP is today approximately what it was back in 1970—when Reagan was a governor, and Margaret Thatcher a backbencher.
Be hard on politicians, by all means. However, worrying that today’s clowns are working up to match the monsters of the 1930s is a waste of time. Let’s be harder on the old abstractions they’re playing with. How nationalist emotions, unbounded by external entanglements, can be both self-destructive and dangerous.