On social networks and talk radio, in classrooms and at kitchen tables, the country’s past is suddenly inescapable. Many, many people — as President Trump would put it — are sharing stories about key moments and figures in American history to support or oppose one controversial White House executive order after another.
Andrew Jackson and Huey Long are alive in Facebook feeds. Twitter is afire with 140-character bursts of historical moments — the St. Louis steaming toward Miami in 1939 with Jewish refugees fleeing Germany’s Third Reich, or the “Saturday Night Massacre,” President Richard Nixon’s firing of a special prosecutor in 1973 during the Watergate scandal.
Trump may or may not make America great again, but he has certainly revived interest in U.S. history. It has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony were in the news, not to mention import taxes, the Revolutionary War, Japanese internment camps and the Immigration Act of 1917.
“I’ve never seen so many people desperate to refer to historical examples,” said David Bell, a Princeton University history professor who last month moderated a panel on Trump at the American Historical Association’s annual conference. “Everyone seems to have an example.”
While Barack Obama’s election renewed discussion of the nation’s tortured racial history and Hillary Clinton’s would have spawned a look back at women’s rights, historians say the speed and breadth of Trump’s policy pronouncements have prompted the electorate to deploy history as an offensive or defensive rhetorical weapon.
“History really feels explosive to many people right now,” Harvard University historian Jill Lepore said. “People are reaching out for whatever twig is streaming by to give some meaning to what they’re seeing.”
Decades and even centuries are jumbled together. Frederick Douglass became a trending topic on Facebook last week after Trump talked about him as if he were still alive . Alongside news feeds, the 19th-century abolitionist was listed between the Cheesecake Factory and the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that restricts political activity by tax-exempt religious groups. Trump has vowed to “totally destroy” the amendment.
The historical references are not limited to this country. A headline last week on Breitbart News, a conservative website that was run by Trump White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, said, “Why Saint Thomas Aquinas Opposed Open Borders.”
Even Adolf Hitler is hard to avoid. Last week, a student in Norway tweeted that the Nazi dictator was being discussed in class. “Someone will bring up Trump before class ends,” he wrote. “I just know it.” Less than 20 minutes later: “YEP THERE WE GO.”
In the United States, there have been enough Hitler comparisons on social media to inspire satirists. Steve Hely, a former writer for “The Office” and “30 Rock,” recently tweeted several “ways Hitler was better than Trump.” One was “Wrote his own book.”
Hely’s satire gets at the concerns scholars have about the recent flood of historical citations.
Americans are terrible armchair historians. A nationwide survey by the American Revolution Center found that “more Americans remember that Michael Jackson sang ‘Beat It’ than know that the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution.” Professional historians worry that specious and cherry-picked comparisons will reverberate through social networks as gospel, deepening the country’s divisions.
Last month, a guy named Eric in Ohio — fearful of reprisal, he would not give his last name — posted a video on YouTube titled “Donald Trump, import taxes, History and left wing insanity.”
Eric’s passion is economics and history.
“I have three bookshelves filled with books on that topic,” he said, “so when you combine those two things with posts on Facebook, I tend to respond because it pisses me off.”
The Trump administration, just a few days in office, proposed adding tariffs to imports. Suddenly, Eric began reading posts about how import taxes had led the country to war.
This confused him. So he started asking the posters what they were talking about — the Revolutionary War, they said.
“No, we f---ing didn’t,” Eric said into the camera. “Who the hell is telling you this stuff? Did you get your American history off the back of a Cracker Jack box?”
Putting aside the question of who is right, Eric’s rant illustrates how Trump’s supporters and detractors are drawing on historical moments in a prosecutorial way.
Lepore, the Harvard historian, said that “in more normal times,” she becomes frustrated when complicated, nuanced history is used in “deceptive, misleading” ways. But she is sympathetic to how befuddled people are.
“These moments from the past are enticing because of the depth of uncertainty,” she said.
And they are being used to argue both for doubling down on and disavowing current events.
Take immigration. Those who support Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries point to previous eras when the country was more restrictive on immigration.
“The news channels are overrun with liberals claiming Trump’s ban violates the constitution and is contrary to our traditions,” a Trump supporter wrote on Facebook. “Like it or not, ‘our traditions’ have been to use immigration law to keep out people of other races and cultures, whether they were considered dangerous or not.”
A half-hour later, someone replied, “Thanks to all on this thread for being an oasis of sanity in a wasteland of partisans railing about what is and isn’t constitutional.”
Those appalled by Trump’s actions see it differently.
“The overall effect of Trump’s latest executive order would be to put the U.S. back on to similar footing as the 1930s, when refugees most needed our help to escape persecution,” the Human Rights Campaign wrote in a widely shared blog post that retold the story of the St. Louis being turned away.
Others cut and pasted a long post that Heather Richardson, a Boston College history professor, put on her personal Facebook page, describing the executive order as a “shock event.”
“Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos,” she wrote. “People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.”
But shock events, in Richardson’s telling, can ultimately change the country for the better.
“If people realize they are being played,” she wrote on Jan. 29, “they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln’s strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power.”
Although Richardson writes frequently on politics for several large news organizations, she did not intend her post to be read by a large audience — only friends and family on both sides of the political debate.
She posted it, then went to dinner. When she came home, she discovered it had been shared 17,000 times.
“It just went insane,” she said.
A week later, it was more than 80,000.