Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
February 11, 2022 at 11:20 a.m. EST
Just weeks before losing his bid for reelection, President Donald Trump went to the National Archives to launch his quixotic 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic” education. There, he styled himself as the defender of “centuries of tradition” that culminated in the U.S. Constitution, which was “the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.” That tradition was under assault, he said, by an all-pervasive radical left, including corporate boardrooms, statue-smashing “mobs” of protesters on the streets and insidious educators in classrooms who “try to make students ashamed of their own history.”
“We are here today to declare that we will never submit to tyranny,” Trump said. “We will reclaim our history and our country.”
The 1776 Commission, widely derided by American historians, was unceremoniously scrapped the moment Trump left the White House. But Trump’s grandstanding over U.S. history is now a central plank in the GOP strategy to reclaim Congress in this year’s midterm elections. It has already helped Republicans to victories, notably in Virginia, where new Gov. Glenn Youngkin has promised to purge schools of “divisive” attempts to examine the legacies of racial injustice and white supremacy in U.S. history.
And well beyond the United States, nationalists of various stripes are seeking ammunition in the past for their battles in the present. The question of history — or, more precisely, how it should be remembered — courses through global politics. The context varies in each country, but increasing numbers of right-wing parties and nationalist leaders are staking their claims to power as defenders of a glorious past under attack from enemies within.
History gnaws at France’s sense of itself in a volatile election year. It occupies the rhetoric of demagogues in Poland and Turkey, and strongmen in Russia and China. It fans the flames of religious bigotry in India, the world’s largest democracy. And it stretches the widening political divides in the world’s oldest one, where GOP politicians have been bashing critical race theory and passing state laws that restrict how teachers may discuss questions of historical interpretation, race and identity. One proposed law in Texas, for example, would suppress discussion of slavery in school history curriculums about the state’s fight for independence from Mexico.
To those on the right in the United States and elsewhere, the recent focus on shameful, uncomfortable legacies is a sign of an imbalance, an excess of doctrinaire leftist scolding that corrodes the national psyche. And it provides fertile terrain to cultivate a politics of grievance, not least as the old tethers of 20th-century politics further loosen in many societies from traditional moorings such as class or economic interest. Instead, tribal passions and myths of belonging are at center stage, and political forces on the right aim to harness them.
Last September, Pope Francis wrote to Mexican bishops to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the start of the nation’s struggle for independence from Spain. He urged them to “recognize the painful errors” that were committed by the Catholic Church alongside the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World. Back in Spain, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, leader of the Madrid region and a rising star in the mainstream conservative Popular Party, lashed out, countering that Spanish conquistadors five centuries ago brought only “civilization and freedom.”
What does this posturing accomplish? For Ayuso, it helps tap into resurgent nationalist feeling in a country where the more recent history of fascist dictatorship remains a perennial political flash point. She and her allies hope to claw back power from a fragile coalition government led by the center-left Socialists, but they face a mounting challenge on their right flank, with the ultranationalist Vox party surging in opinion polls.
In 2019, the Socialist-led government rebuffed calls from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to formally apologize for the rampages of the conquistadors, though some leftist lawmakers were sympathetic to the idea. Ayuso grumbled to the New York Times last October about politicians both in Madrid and in the Americas who “have to blame the Spanish for a supposed original sin.”
That sentiment finds an echo in all sorts of political environments. See Russia, where the regime of President Vladimir Putin recently forced the shuttering of Memorial, a pioneering human rights group that, among other achievements, built a database of millionsof files documenting the injustices of the Soviet Union’s system of gulag prisons.
Memorial’s expansion through dozens of affiliate organizations was a sign of a new openness in post-Soviet Russia. But for Putin, surfacing the depth of Stalinist atrocities from decades past threatens the unvarnished Russian patriotism he’s trying to cultivate around his autocratic rule. At a December hearing, a state prosecutor asked why, “instead of taking pride for our country, victorious in [World War II] and which liberated the whole world,” does Memorial “suggest that we repent for our … pitch-dark past?”
Some of the descendants of the losers of World War II have been asking similar questions. The anti-immigrant, ultranationalist Alternative for Germany party emerged from obscurity in part thanks to growing resentment over the country’s entrenched “memory culture” around the horrors of the Holocaust. In 2017, Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s founders, provoked outrage when he suggested that Germans should be proud of their soldiers who fought in World War II, while arguing that no other country in Europe had done more to atone for the sins of its past. Another party member decried Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame.”
To Germany’s east, illiberal ruling parties in Poland and Hungary have taken things further still. In 2018, Poland made it a crime to link the country to Nazi atrocities committed on its soil, appealing to a nationalist voter base even as it earned international opprobrium. In Hungary, long-ruling Prime Minister Viktor Orban styles himself as the vanguard of the anti-liberal front, the propagator of an exclusionary Christian nationalism that excites conservative intellectuals in the United States but rankles the liberal technocrats of the European Union, which the country joined in 2004. His government has revamped school curriculums to promote pride and patriotism, eliding certain historical defeats and rehabilitating a host of Nazi-era fascist collaborators.
Éric Zemmour, a French nativist firebrand and proponent of the once-fringe notion of the “Great Replacement,” which casts native-born Whites as an endangered species in their own societies, emerged in recent months as a serious far-right contender in the upcoming presidential election. He leavens his outright hostility to Islam and immigration — which has already earned him three hate-speech convictions from French courts — with a large dollop of historical revisionism. No matter his Algerian Jewish roots, he has indulged in apologia for the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Third Reich, and rejects any suggestion that France needs to atone for its colonial sins in countries like Algeria, let alone address the racial inequities currently festering in its banlieues, or working-class suburbs. Zemmour has accused President Emmanuel Macron of “rewriting the history of France, always to its detriment.” That’s a reaction to the latter’s years-long effort to open a more public and transparent conversation about France’s bloody actions in its war against Algerian revolutionaries in the 1950s and ’60s. Macron laid a wreath last year near the site of a massacre of Algerian protesters in Paris in 1961, described aspects of French colonial rule as a “crime against humanity” and launched a historical commission that has acknowledged numerous misdeeds carried out by the French state.
The vehement opposition of Zemmour, among others, to that reckoning has had an impact. Last fall, mindful of intensifying nationalist anger to his right, Macron even provoked a diplomatic incident with Algeria after he suggested that the country existed only thanks to French colonial rule. In January, he delivered a speech spotlighting the suffering of the pieds-noirs, the nearly 1 million European colonists who fled across the Mediterranean to France after Algerian independence. Many of their descendants vote for candidates on the right.
In the Trumpian mold, Zemmour proclaimed that his (still unlikely) victory over Macron in April’s election would herald the “reconquest of the greatest country in the world,” cloaking himself in the heroic mantle of legendary French leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. His invocation of a reconquest — Reconquête is even the name of his new political party — is intentionally loaded: It summons a grand and bloody medieval history, stretching from Frankish battles against Moorish invaders to Spain’s decisive victory over the Iberian peninsula’s last Muslim kingdoms and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims that followed.
Such gestures are rife in modern politics, especially among right-wing nationalists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for years rooted his religiously tinged nationalism in an embrace of his nation’s Ottoman imperial past, conjuring the legacy of a fallen caliphate in an implicit repudiation of the rigid secularism that defined the modern Turkish republic for decades. Erdogan is the country’s most consequential leader since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But while the latter engineered a rupture with the Ottoman legacy in his bid to modernize Turkey, Erdogan taps into it to burnish his own nearly two-decade rule. Critics see in his demagoguery the deliberate affectations of a “new sultan.”
In India, since coming to power in 2014, ruling Hindu nationalists have set about chipping away at the country’s pluralistic foundations, building a more politicized, chauvinistic Hindu identity in a nation defined by vast linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity. They have recast the story of India as fundamentally Hindu and view a millennium of Muslim rule in parts of the country as tantamount to an era of “slavery,” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it.
Modi loyalists have been dispatched to bring to heel leading state-run universities, while his party’s supporters hound prominent historians at home and abroad whose scholarship they deem anti-Hindu. A broader climate of hate flourishes: Rights groups now even raise the specter of genocide stalking India’s increasingly marginalized and vilified Muslim minority.
Why, in the third decade of the 21st century, does the past weigh so heavily on the present? History was supposed to “end,” as political theorist Francis Fukuyama suggested just as the Soviet Union neared its dissolution. Liberal democracy, undergirded by market capitalism, had won out over Soviet state socialism. The future after the Cold War would — or at least should — be shaped by the serene march of a globalizing liberalism, advancing across the world’s increasingly meaningless borders.
Things didn’t turn out that way. The universalism implicit in Fukuyama’s worldview foundered amid ruinous wars and financial crises. Globalization provoked new yawning inequities within societies; emboldened autocracies proved resistant to the winds of change that were supposed to sweep them aside.
Western democracies, meanwhile, slumped into a kind of torpor. Opinion polls show rising apathy and disenchantment and widening fragmentation across the political landscape, with factions on the extremes often generating the most energy. The bland, corporatized cosmopolitanism brought about by globalization lacks the vitality and authenticity of an earlier, more confident era of Western politics. Illiberalism is on the march, and with it come calls to sweep out the prevailing order and make the nation “great again.” The nationalist fixation on the past always carries with it a fantasy of the future, of a world reborn and renewed.
Fukuyama has repeatedly accepted the limitations of his original formulation — that no amount of procedural or technocratic reform could account for the allure of identity politics and the overwhelming, inchoate desire for “recognition,” something sought by individuals as well as nations. And so history, far from ending, is now itself the field of contest in a febrile global age.
Perhaps no leader knows that more acutely than Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose iron-fisted rule has been accompanied by a major project of historical revisionism. New party guidelines limit from view discussion of the epochal disasters of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, helping further solidify Xi’s status as the great inheritor and steward of a now-century-old communist project.
An acknowledgment of “left errors” carried out by Mao and his radical cohort was allowed four decades ago under Deng Xiaoping, who engineered China’s transformation into a state capitalist behemoth. But Xi and his loyal cadres have somewhat changed tack in a bid to buttress their own legitimacy as China’s economy slows. With much in the balance, Xi promotes a muscular nationalism that can afford little self-doubt. Beijing authorities now target those engaging in acts of “historical nihilism” that are “distorting the history of the party” and “attacking its leadership.”
Beijing has deleted millions of social media posts that it says evince this “nihilism,” while making it a crime to spread false “rumors” about the party’s history. This tightening of the official party line comes alongside the ruthless suppression of political freedoms in Hong Kong and repression of ethnic minorities on China’s western periphery.
Buffeted by uncertainty, Xi marked the centennial of China’s Communist Party last year with steely confidence, donning a Mao-style jacket while declaring that his nation’s rise on the world stage was part of “an irreversible historical process.”
It’s a conviction that nationalists elsewhere, like Trump, may not accept. But they certainly would understand it.