"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about. Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power.”
– Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944)
The best moment to start learning from the past is the moment when those events can start being classified as “the past.” When the memory of what occurred is still raw, when the wounds still hurt, when you still cannot sleep because you’re trying to make sense of what happened. Certainly, it takes time to be able to fully know the lasting impacts of what has transpired (as that plays out over decades and even centuries), but learning from yesterday is not a task that can be put off until tomorrow.
In other words, the proper time to start making sense of the presidency of Donald J. Trump is now. While many publications have devoted several days of coverage to just that effort, by the end of January most of those same publications are already getting swept away by the need to stay focused on what is happening today. After all, history does not feature any built in rest periods where everyone can stop and ponder what took place before having to move ahead. Trump may no longer be in office, but the pandemic his administration catastrophically mismanaged is still ravaging the country (abetted by his administration’s bungled vaccine rollout), the conspiracy minded mob he helped rile up has not abandoned their faith, racism and misogyny remain deeply entrenched, the climate catastrophe grows nearer, and [insert your own topic of particular concern that is continuing in this moment]. The work of making sense of Trump’s presidency (and “Trumpism”) will be an ongoing effort, but in this space between his presidency and whatever his next act will be, it is worth trying to think through what you learned.
Obviously, I cannot answer that question for you, what follows is my attempt to answer that question for myself.
Sorting through the events of the last several years it is easy to focus on the big things: the pandemic, the rise of an increasingly conspiratorial (and violent) far-right, the fragility of institutions that proved themselves to be fairly corruptible. Such a focus quickly gives rise to a push to emphasize other significant occurrences that have too often been forgotten: the Muslim ban, the abandonment of Puerto Rico during/after Hurricane Maria, child separation, the daily breaking of norms. There is the debate over whether or not it is really accurate to describe Trump as a fascist, the question of which commentators were closest to correct in predicting how Trump’s presidency would go, and the discussions regarding the level to which the media (legacy and social) helped create Trump. There is no shortage of topics to wrestle with for scholars from a range of disciplines.
And yet, when I think about the Trump years, I keep thinking about two jokes I told on Twitter.
To be honest, I tell a lot of jokes on Twitter. To be more honest, I tell a lot of bad jokes on Twitter. However, the two jokes I have in mind, are jokes that seem to have resonated with other people (insofar as they both resulted in a decent amount of engagement). Perhaps what makes the jokes stand out in particular for me is the way in which they seem to nicely bracket Trump’s presidency—the first was from a few days before his inauguration, the second was from the final days of his presidency. The first joke was making fun of an absurd comment by a member of Trump’s incoming administration, the second joke was an exhausted acknowledgement that there wasn’t anything to laugh about.
The first joke
In January of 2017, much of the country was still in something of a state of shock from the election results. How could it be that Trump was really about to become President?!? True, the initial disbelief had subsided, but there was something about watching Trump’s cabinet nominees come before the Senate that truly and finally forced the reality to sink in. People were anxious, people were aghast, people were confused—and though there were many who were trying to warn about just how dangerous Trump (and his appointees) would be, there was also a great deal of uncertainty. Thus, the cabinet hearings presented an opportunity to see just what was coming. Many of the hearings were fairly bland and predictable (which is not to say they weren’t worrisome), but one of the hearings contained a moment of startling strangeness.
On January 18, 2017, in the midst of her confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos responded to a question by Senator Chris Murphy about guns in schools. And while she could have easily trotted out a bland line about keeping schools safe, DeVos instead talked about a school in Wyoming that had experienced some issues with bears. Noting that this Wyoming school might therefore want to have a gun on the premises so as to fend off bear attacks. This was a bizarre thing to say, this was a rather funny thing to say.
To be clear, there was nothing genuinely funny about DeVos’s plans as Secretary of Education, and though she was not one of the most visible members of Trump’s cabinet, throughout her time DeVos slowly and steadily worked to undermine civil rights protections for students while giving predatory for-profit colleges carte blanche. DeVos came in with a set of right-wing education goals, and she pursued those goals to the detriment of millions of students, parents, and teachers. Of course, on January 18, 2017, it wasn’t yet clear everything that she would go on to accomplish…what was clear was that she had just said something very odd about bears.
At the time the joke seemed to resonate with many people. I cannot pretend to know precisely what it was about it that made so many people hit “retweet” or “like.” In the moment I chalked it up to people needing to let off steam, people needing to laugh, people needing to find some way to blend their very real concerns with a simultaneous sense that there was just something strange going on. And though I do not fully recall everything I was thinking when I told the joke, I feel like I was guided by many of those same sentiments. It was an attempt to laugh in the face of danger. Granted, laughing won’t keep you safe.
Looking back on that joke now, it seems that the basic gist of the joke was correct. Students really would have been better off if a bear (brown, black, grizzly, polar, panda, whatever) had been made the Secretary of Education. But when think about that joke now, I don’t see the actual joke, what I see is that moment of uncertainty. It was clear that DeVos would be a menace, but courtesy of the bear comment she also came off as somewhat clownish. In the present moment legions of commentators have been desperate to argue that they always knew how dangerous Trump would be, that they were sounding the alarm from the outset. But it’s worth trying to remember what it was really like in those moments before Trump took office (before he immediately began to enact policies like the Muslim ban), and it’s worth remembering that a fairly standard response at that time was to scoff. Trump seemed like a fool, some argued that he hadn’t really wanted (or expected) to win, and there really was a sense at the time that there was something kind of funny about all of this.
I don’t regret telling that joke. If I’m honest, I still think it’s kind of amusing. And I hope that it brought some people a bit of comfort in the moment.
But it really feels like DeVos got the last laugh.
The Second Joke
Despite all of the calamities that unfolded during Trump’s presidency, it seems quite likely that historians will pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the events that took place in his final weeks. Both in terms of the actual events themselves, and in terms of the many steps that led there. You probably know the events to which I’m referring without me even needing to state them, but for the sake of clarity: the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the US passing 400,000 COVID-19 deaths on January 19. Those are the closing catastrophes that cap off a calamitous presidency. I would wager that many books will appear in the coming years that foreground those events in their introductions, before constructing the history of the Trump administration in a way that makes it seem like it was always going to conclude with those events.
From the moment he was sworn in, alongside his ominous inaugural address, one of the defining emotions amongst those who were wary of the Trump administration was anxiety. What would Trump tweet today? Who would Trump attack today? Who would Trump incite violence towards today? What bizarre conspiracy would Trump give voice to today? Which nuclear power would Trump bully today? What would Trump do to undermine science today? What norm would Trump shatter today? What consequences would Trump escape today? Until he was banned from Twitter, it was not all that uncommon for many people to start the day by checking Trump’s twitter feed to see what they needed to be worried about that day. It is essential to note, that these anxieties were not idle or hyperbolic. The point here is not to provide a comprehensive list of Trump’s misdeeds, but Trump (and his administration) quickly proved that people were right to be worried. At risk of being crass, anyone who closely followed Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria knew how catastrophically his administration would handle something like a pandemic.
Anxiety was certainly one of the dominant emotions, and yet at a certain point anxiety mutated into a steady state of acceptance. For some people this gave rise to lethargy, or apathy, to tuning out the political world, but to many others it resulted in feeling like you couldn’t look away. Even when you had other things you really needed to be doing.
It is a very strange thing to be writing a dissertation on a carefully averted disaster while living through a disaster that seems to just keep getting worse. Thus, in a moment when I should have been focusing on my own research but during which I was in fact doomscrolling, I made this joke:
The phrasing “supposed to be researching,” certainly seem to have made it so that it was less widely applicable than the previous joke. Nevertheless, this one also seemed to resonate with a decent number of people. And there is something rather depressing about a joke like this speaking to a lot of people.
There is simultaneously a lack of specificity to saying “the historic crises I’m living through,” and a great deal of specificity. It invites the joke’s viewer to project whatever crisis is keeping them up at night onto the left side of the image, even as the joke refers to crises (plural). Honestly, this is less of a joke than a cry of despair packaged in an amusing meme format so as to appear less depressing.
The Trump presidency felt like one long crisis made up of an unending series of other crises. And even as the specific crises multiplied, mutated, and metastasized the larger crisis continued. Of course, many of the things that Trump (and his administration) exacerbated, existed long before Trump was ascendant on the political stage. Trump amplified racist reaction, but racist reaction existed before Trump. Trump provided a powerful microphone to conspiratorial beliefs, but such strange ideas existed before Trump. Trump enacted cruel policies, but it is not as if cruel policies are a new feature of US politics. Trump did everything he could to stymie progress on climate change, but powerful groups have been working to block action on climate change for decades. That a pandemic occurred during Trump’s presidency is not his fault (dangerous viruses can emerge on any leader’s watch), but he certainly bears responsibility for catastrophically mismanaging it when the pandemic did occur. Throughout all of this, all of these horrors, there were many people who stayed quiet and kept their heads down, but there were many people who marched, organized, and took to the streets. Many of us were not passive consumers of the crisis, but that you are actively trying to push back against the crises is itself a kind of acknowledgment of the state of emergency in which you find yourself living.
If the joke about DeVos and bears was sort of a wry snicker in the face of impending dangers, than the second joke was an inured chuckle in the midst of those dangers becoming all too real.
In the first case, the joke is on DeVos, but in the second case, the joke’s on us.
Though many predicted he would need to be forcibly removed from the White House, on the morning of January 20, 2021 Trump left, boarded a plane, and flew to Florida. Even with the pandemic still surging, violent right-wing insurrectionists plotting their next move, and many of Trump’s policies still in effect—by the end of that day many people were taking deep breaths of relief. If the Trump years had made it vaguely acceptable to publicly voice pessimistic assessments, by the end of Biden’s inauguration, pessimism was once more considered a sign of privileged obstinance.
With the wounds left by the Trump administration still bleeding, there were many who argued that only moving on would allow for healing. Now, they argued, was not the time to stare at the cut but to cover it up with a bandage and move ahead. While those who came out and openly argued for “moving on” (often doing so because they did not want to be held accountable for their own complicity) were blasted for this position, much of the media (and very many people) still seem to be moving on fairly quickly. It is too early to say with any level of definitiveness that “we have learned” or that “we haven’t learned” (and who the hell is the “we” here?) from Trump’s presidency, but the eagerness with which so many people are moving on suggests that much has not been (and will not be) learned.
The DeVos joke was told on January 18, 2017, the crises joke was told on January 11, 2021—not exactly four years apart, but pretty close to that. Thus, at least for me, they seem to rather fittingly bracket the Trump presidency. The sense at the outset of wary expectation, the feeling at the end of overwhelmed acceptance; the fear of the bad things to come, the strange way in which the bad things start to feel normal; the joke at someone else’s expense, the steady realization that the joke is really on yourself. In January 2017 we were anxious about the calamities to come, by the start of January 2021 we had become so accustomed to thousands of people dying from the virus every day that it scarcely even makes headlines when a new daily death record is set. The attack on the Capitol genuinely shocked many people, but the day the US passed 400,000 COVID-19 deaths was for many people just another Tuesday. One of the truly wretched things that transpired between when the two jokes were told is that so many of us just got used to living in a state of constant crisis. Myself included.
The text on the right hand side of the second joke reads “the historic crises I’m supposed to be researching.” I confess, that second joke really isn’t an exaggeration at all. I really did make less progress on my own research than I meant to because I kept finding myself distracted by the crises I was living through. But that doesn’t mean I conducted no research, or that I learned nothing from studying disasters, risks, and crises these last few years.
Here’s something I’ve learned: many societies aren’t particularly good at learning from the crises they’ve just been through, and many societies are even worse at learning from the disasters that have been narrowly averted. It is easier to write the aftermath report than it is to get people to read it from cover to cover. Hollywood is good at depicting all manner of cataclysms, but as a society the US is pretty lousy at imagining (and then preparing) for disasters.
It’s too early to tell, much too early to tell, and therefore it is far too early to pass judgment. And though I hope that I am wrong (and will work to make sure that I am proven wrong), I don’t think that we (again that pesky “we,” the society sized “we”) are going to learn much of anything from this. Already the efforts are under way to change the subject, to paint Trump as an aberration, to focus on an optimistic narrative wherein normalcy was restored because Biden beat Trump and our institutions proved resilient enough to thwart Trump’s attempts to overturn the election result. In the coming months, Trump really might be indicted, but you don’t need to wait for that to see the ways in which Trump was an indictment of our entire society. From a certain historical perspective, the Trump years are something that “just happened;” with “just” in that case signifying that this happened recently. Yet from another historical perspective, the Trump years aren’t something that “just happened;” they weren’t a random fluke, rather they were the product of prejudices and problems that are deeply buried in the history of the US and in its culture. Holding Trump accountable doesn’t just mean holding that single man accountable, it must mean holding the history and culture that allowed such a man to ascend to power accountable as well. Which will require the US to look at itself in the mirror.
If we were better at learning from history, more willing to heed history’s warnings, Trump would never have been elected president. But he was.
Luckily, history is a fairly generous teacher. It allows us to keep retaking the test until we get a passing grade, keep resubmitting the paper until we demonstrate that we understood the subject, more time is always offered to do the reading even if the particular lecture was weeks ago. So long as history continues to unfold the grade on our transcript can still be changed.
There is still time to learn.
And if we do not, it will only be a matter of time before there’s another Trump.
I wish I was joking, but I’m not.
“No other method exists for acquiring knowledge about the human heart than the study of history coupled with experience of life, in such a way that the two throw light upon each other. It is our duty to supply this food to the mind of youth, the mind of Man.” – Simone Weil (1943)