The imminent ascension to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, a man whose supporters and detractors both agree is exceptional in the context of American history, raises a question which historians and social scientists generally prefer to shy away from: To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals — history’s archetypal Great Men and Women — as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?
Professional academics — historians, political scientists, sociologists, among others — who have tried to offer perspective on Trump’s victory and upcoming presidency have generally emphasized the latter. They tend to identify the key phenomenon of the 2016 election as “populism” — an upsurge of hostility to elites, which they explain by reference to the changing social and cultural conditions that left a large group of white Americans economically vulnerable, fearful of outsiders, and bitterly resentful. They credit Trump with successfully mobilizing this group but devote more analysis to the social phenomenon than to Trump himself.
But the explanatory power of populism may be far stronger for explaining the election than in forecasting what is about to happen next. Though impersonal forces may have given rise to Trump, the president-elect himself resists analysis as a predictable, impersonal force. And so, even as Trump claims a mandate to remake the United States, he may force social scientists and historians to look beyond their usual analytical tools in order to explain his presidency.
The academic penchant for structural explanations is hardly surprising — and not just because most academics find it difficult to take Donald Trump seriously (unfortunately, history has suggested, time and again, that we have to distinguish between respecting people and taking them seriously). The modern social sciences have always found it difficult to deal with the sort of unpredictable, willful phenomenon that Trump represents. From the 18th century onward, these disciplines, including history, have taken seriously their status as sciences. That is, they have taken seriously the idea that scholars can discover regular, predictable patterns of change at work beneath the apparent flux and confusion of history. These regular, predictable patterns might not have the absolute, scientifically verifiable quality of natural laws, but they are nonetheless held to matter more than the character and actions of particular individuals, no matter how prominent.
Marxist historians and social scientists have put these claims forward most famously, but a belief in the power of large-scale impersonal forces has hardly been limited to the left. The great 19th-century French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote magnificent studies of American democracy and the origins of the French Revolution in which even the most prominent historical actors made virtually no appearance. The true protagonist of both books was equality itself, which Tocqueville saw as the defining feature of modern times: a great force that swept over kings and presidents as surely as it did other members of society.
There have always been apparent dissenters from this tradition. Hegel, in his philosophy of history, emphasized the role of what he called “world-historical individuals” — the great examples were Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. The 19th-century British writer Thomas Carlyle delivered a series of lectures in the 1830s in which he argued that “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Yet both Hegel and Carlyle ultimately saw the individuals they singled out as in some sense channeling or crystallizing — or at least acknowledging and reckoning with — larger, impersonal forces. Carlyle, for instance, argued that Napoleon only succeeded because of his faith “that this new enormous Democracy… is an unsuppressible Fact, which the whole world, with its old forces and institutions, cannot put down.”
Yet despite its intellectual power, the “scientific” models have never entirely overcome an older mode of explanation that might be termed “heroic” and that attributes far greater importance to questions of individual character.
Yet despite its intellectual power, the “scientific” models have never entirely overcome an older mode of explanation that might be termed “heroic” and that attributes far greater importance to questions of individual character. Americans have a particular weakness for this way of understanding historical change. They have a boundless appetite for books that celebrate the Founding Fathers. They like to see George Washington’s steadfastness as the reason for the success of the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln’s courage and vision as the key factor ensuring the North’s victory in the Civil War.
Tomes like David McCullough’s best-selling biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams play brilliantly to the public taste for such explanations. It is no accident that McCullough ended his Truman biography with a quote from the journalist Eric Sevareid: “Remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.” Such judgments, backed by McCullough’s colorful, entertaining descriptions of a flinty, no-nonsense, fundamentally decent Truman, tended to reduce the complex historical forces that shaped the first Cold War presidency to wan background context, quickly skimmed through in order to reach the next juicy anecdote about “Give ‘em hell” Harry in action.
As a professional historian, this sort of analysis is entirely contrary to the way I was trained, which was to see social change developing across broad swaths of society, not emanating from particular individuals. Moreover, I was partly trained in France, under the aegis of the so-called Annales school, whose vision of history could not be more different from the heroic one. Fernand Braudel, one of the leaders of the school, taught his followers to pay attention to the deep, slow, geological, and climactic forces that, in determining the shape of the continents and patterns of global warming and cooling, ultimately shape human societies as well. After that, Braudel directed us to study centuries-long patterns of economic and social change. He compared all these subjects to the deep currents moving through oceans. Mere “event history,” by contrast, including decisions taken by powerful individuals, he likened to the insignificant foam tossed up on the ocean’s surface. Much of the history influenced by Braudel barely even mentioned particular individuals, let alone attributed a decisive influence to them. In short, my instinct was long to treat the “heroic mode” as simplistic and misleading.
But a long career of teaching modern European history to undergraduates has slowly undermined these certainties. It has been particularly hard to teach the history of 20th-century Europe without often lapsing into the heroic mode — or rather into the mode of “heroes and villains.” It has been hard to avoid the conclusion that as the destructive power of states increased — exponentially — in the 20th century, and as the scope of their activities broadened, the character of the people who controlled them rose hugely in significance, especially in dictatorial states. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are the most obvious examples. It can be argued that large-scale historical forces would have brought figures like them to power in both Germany and the Soviet Union and that those same forces dictated many of the policies that they in fact pursued.
But these larger forces in no way dictated everything these monstrously willful tyrants did. Their characters, and the choices they made, mattered. The decision to pursue rapid, hugely disruptive industrialization in the Soviet Union, coupled with the violent collectivization of agriculture, depended on Stalin’s character and his particular strategies for seizing and maintaining power for himself. It is doubtful that any of his political rivals would have pursued the same policies — or, for that matter, have implemented the horrific deliberate starvation of Ukraine or the Great Terror of 1937-38. As for Hitler, although it can be argued that large-scale historical forces pushed Germany toward totalitarian dictatorship and aggressive militarism, it is much harder to see why another German dictator would necessarily have embraced his insane racial theories. These theories led both to the Holocaust and to the attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. And it was the latter foolhardy adventure that brought about Hitler’s rapid downfall.
In my undergraduate lectures, I also highlight the significance of another character: Winston Churchill. Pig-headed, romantic, and a die-hard imperialist, Churchill was probably the British politician least traumatized by the horrific slaughter of World War I. That slaughter left many of his fellow leaders ready to pay almost any price for peace. Churchill, by contrast, was not only ready to fight Nazi Germany well before 1939 but could rally the British people with a rhetoric of glory and honor that much of his generation thought had been discredited forever by the horrors of trench warfare. During the decisive hours of the Battle of Britain, Churchill’s personality mattered, enormously.
These examples also suggest that individual character matters far more at some moments than at others. After 1942, for instance, the characters of Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill all started to matter less than before. The most important “character-dependent” decisions had been made, regarding Soviet industrialization and terror, the drive to war and then the Battle of Britain, and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. After 1942, it was the industrial might of the allied powers and their access to natural resources — i.e., impersonal social and economic forces — which became ever more important factors pushing the war to its conclusion. A similar story could be told about the American Civil War. As that conflict’s most eminent historian, James McPherson, has argued, war leadership, including especially Abraham Lincoln’s, mattered most through the summer of 1862 and the Battle of Antietam. After that battle, which checked an ambitious offensive by the Confederacy and ended its hopes of receiving European recognition and support, the North’s advantages in population, industry, and resources made themselves felt more and more, overcoming often superior Southern generalship. But up to Antietam, the individual decisions made by Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the most important generals — all themselves dependent on issues of character and personality — mattered a great deal.
So how can this history help us understand our current political moment? On the one hand, quite obviously, personality mattered in the 2016 election. In Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party managed to nominate one of the least personable politicians in recent memory. She lacked both her husband’s uncanny ability to bond with strangers and Barack Obama’s ability to inspire with soaring rhetoric. As her opponent cruelly but quite accurately observed, until the very end she needed celebrities at her side to draw a crowd.
Trump, by contrast, whatever you may think of him, forged a powerful, personal connection with millions of voters. Not only did he understand and channel their anger at the elites they believed had abandoned them; he delighted them with his utter disdain for the rules those elites allegedly enforced and that he mocked as “political correctness.” In a close election, it’s true by definition that any number of factors decided the outcome — including Russian hacking, and the extraordinary behavior of the FBI — but personality was certainly an important one.
Even so, the fact that Trump won in the year of Brexit, and a year in which populist forces have gained ground across Europe, clearly points to the limits of any interpretation centered on personality alone. More than a quarter century after the triumphant conclusion of the Cold War, free-market liberal democracy is looking decidedly ragged and threadbare. In the Western world, the divide looms ever greater between highly educated, wealthy, and largely secular elites and much of the rest of the population. The free movement across borders of ideas, goods, and people is seen largely as a boon by the former and largely as a threat by the latter.
Had Donald Trump not emerged to tap into the frustrations of the people who propelled him to the presidency, it is hard to imagine that another candidate would not have managed to do so, if not in this election, then soon. Trump’s personality — the crudeness, the bullying, the disdain for others’ opinions, the self-aggrandizement — all proved a good match for the electoral moment. However much these traits led liberals to despise and fear him — indeed, precisely because they led liberals to despise and fear him — they resonated with millions of other voters who saw in Hillary Clinton everything they hated about a political system they thought of as fundamentally corrupt. But, of course, Trump’s personality traits drove many others away.
In short, it is hard not to agree with my academic colleagues who have put populism, more than personality, at the center of their analyses of the election.
But if personality and character were not the major factor deciding the 2016 election, the Trump presidency will likely be a very different story. Not only is Trump becoming the leader of the most powerful state the world has ever seen, but thanks to Republican control of Congress — and soon, quite possibly, the Supreme Court — Trump has the potential to become the most powerful president in American history. And he is one of the most radically unpredictable men ever elected to that office. He is not guided by a distinct, systematic ideology, and he is not, to say the least, constrained by humility or self-doubt. In foreign policy, he has surrounded himself with advisors like Michael Flynn and Frank Gaffney who give credence to conspiracy theories and see Islam — not just radical jihadism, but Islam itself — as an existential threat to the United States. In domestic policy, he has assembled a team whose ties to international business and the “swamp” of Washingtonian corruption contradict much of his own populist rhetoric.
Despite the vast power at the disposal of the American president, most occupants of that office, even when commanding congressional majorities, have felt constrained by a host of structural conditions of one sort or another. They want to avoid spooking the stock market, damaging their party’s chances in future elections, upsetting carefully negotiated diplomatic agreements, and so on and so forth. They almost certainly have a lower estimate of their own power than almost anyone else. But these constraints, which change far more slowly than a president’s moods, make the actions they take more predictable and therefore more easily subject to social scientific analysis.
Donald Trump, however, is so willful and thin-skinned, so convinced of his own abilities, so enamored of his own unpredictability, and at the same time so unable to concentrate on any particular issue, that he is far less likely to appreciate the constraints that have weighed so heavily on his predecessors or even to understand them. He is also far less likely to listen to his advisors, and these advisers themselves are, overall, far more ignorant of their supposed areas of expertise than any other group of high-level administration officials in American history.
Even in crisis situations, U.S. presidents have generally done their best to follow predictable, well-established decision-making protocols. The television shows that present a president making hugely consequential decisions under pressure, from the gut, with only a handful of close aides in the room, eliminate from the picture the vast bureaucratic operations that exist to provide information, to evaluate the reliability of that information, to analyze it, and to game out the possible consequences of different courses of action. Up to now, presidents have generally respected these bureaucracies in most cases. They know how important it is, in a world of nuclear weapons, for there to be steady, predictable protocols for resolving crises. They remember all too well that during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, only the steadfastness of a single Soviet military officer kept a submarine commander from launching a tactical nuclear weapon against an American destroyer, possibly provoking nuclear war (if you don’t know the story, read this). Donald Trump, alas, is almost certainly less likely to follow established protocols than any of his predecessors. In a crisis situation, how is he likely to react? Can anyone know?
As 2016 draws to a close, the world still seems, thankfully, to be far removed from the sort of crisis situations in which the characters of Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill mattered so deeply. The civil war in Syria, dreadful as it is, remains a regional conflict with little potential, at least at present, to spark any sort of wider confrontation. There is no shortage of scenarios — a major terrorist attack in the West, a collapse of the nuclear agreement with Iran, renewed Russian aggression in its “near abroad” — that could present an American president with deeply consequential decisions to make.
In these decisions, Donald Trump’s personality could assume, difficult as it is to apply these words to him, world-historical importance. As a consequence, the personalities of other leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, could also come to matter in critical ways, as they come into conflict with Trump. If impersonal forces lead to Trump’s personal rise, it’s now all too easy to imagine his troubled personality leading to his country’s collective fall.
Top photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration