Last spring, in response to Denis McKim’s thoughtful post about the potential impacts of the pandemic on the study of Canadian history, I started a short piece on how the larger social crises were shaping our historical perspectives. As spring turned into summer, and we took advantage of the Atlantic bubble, my notes stayed in the glove box of our car while we spent as much time outside as we could. Waiting for the results of the election in the U.S. reminded me of that aborted essay, as well as the post I wrote for Borealia when Trump was elected in 2016.
Unlike 2016, the crises of 2020 do not, at least for me, raise questions about how, or even whether, we should approach the writing of national history. What struck me most as we endured the early phases of the pandemic was how much of our public discussion focused on the future. Even as we struggled to understand the nature and extent of Covid-19 infections globally, the mainstream media seemed to be fixated more on how long the pandemic would last than what its near-term impact would be. While we were experiencing the immediate disruptions of the pandemic, we spent a surprising amount of time talking about what would come next.
This appeared similar to what psychologists have called prefeeling. Reading so many people talk about the end of something while it was just starting prompted me to think about whether historians should factor this into our study of other periods. To what degree did people experiencing plagues, famines, or revolutions spend their days imagining the future? This question is, in a way, linked to the rise of the history of emotions; however, it raises the issue of feelings toward time – where our mind is, temporally – rather than feelings towards people, places, or things. Like our stubborn bias in favour of seeing people in the past as rational historical actors, we tend to presume that people in the past focused mostly on their present. Making a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self, psychologists have argued that humans are typically unaware of the reasons behind their actions. Whereas historians describe presentism as imposing our perspectives and values on the past, psychologists describe it as seeing the future through the eyes of the present. As we struggled to comprehend the pandemic and our responses to it, it struck me that historians of 2020 will need to consider how much of our emotional time was spent thinking about when it will all end.
This yearning for resolution is, I think, a typically human trait. The question for historians is, of course, how it manifests itself across vastly different periods, cultures, geographies, and societies. I share the common historians’ distrust of human universals (other than death), but I do wonder whether the peculiar experiences in 2020 are part of a larger and deeper pattern that traverses the sacrosanct periodizations on which our discipline still relies. Historians, particularly those of the Atlantic world, enthusiastically make all sorts of comparisons across geography, from New England to India. Such leaps around the globe are, indeed, typically celebrated as prized markers of intellectual sophistication. Yet most cosmopolitan historians balk at the idea of sustained comparisons across epochs. One of the reasons why I so admired the late David Graeber’s book on debt is because he made such ambitious comparisons across centuries. If he was right about how debt was such a motivating factor in European colonization, then surely the history of the future was, too. The power of debt lies in its claim over your future: the fear comes not so much from what happens today but rather what will happen the day your credit runs out.
As we await the results of the American election, we face a similar fear. From the moment of Trump’s election four years ago, we have talked relentlessly about how long it will last. Fear of Tumpism is, at root, the fear of being trapped in a madhouse without an exit. As I said four years ago, as Canadians we never voted for or against Trump, but we all will have to face the consequences. One of the cruelties of the past four years is that, regardless of what happened, in a way, Trump always won. Wherever one sat on the political spectrum – no matter how much one hated Trump – most of us were talking about him. For four years, he has dominated not so much the headlines of today but the horizons for tomorrow. For one to write an accurate history of the past four years, therefore, one would have to focus an awful lot on how much Trump’s presidency shaped our idea of the future. For historians, this should prompt us to consider how people in previous eras dealt with crises like the ones we’re facing. Did they escape into a nostalgic past, confront the challenges of the present, or focus more on when it would end?
While it’s fashionable these days to quote Orwell’s dictum that who controls the past controls the future, I wonder whether we might have it backwards. Despite all the right-wing rhetoric about history (in both the U.S. and other countries facing authoritarianism), Trumpism has remarkably little to say about the past. What it’s really about, in my view, is not so much turning back the clock as stopping it. What drives people to attend MAGA rallies is the same thing that drives those who want to suppress the vote: fear of the future. I don’t think they want to return to 1955 so much as they simply oppose the changes unfolding around them. For historians, this has important implications: it suggests that we should perhaps pay less attention to right-wing rhetoric about the past, despite all the ink spilled on conservative views of monuments. I am not denying that history is important to right-wing populism but I think that it serves a secondary, largely symbolic role. What matters most, in a figurative sense, is the battle over opening or closing the possibilities of the future. Like the literal struggle today to ensure that every vote gets counted, the struggle over our ideas of the future will affect us all for years to come. The outcome of that struggle will, in the end, determine how we look at the past.
By the time you read this, we may know how part of this story turned out. Perhaps Biden will be President and much of the world will have exhaled. The outcome of the election is imminent but still feels achingly distant – like the feeling of running after someone who is within earshot but always a step ahead – and future historians will be left wondering why we didn’t see it coming.
Jerry Bannister teaches history at Dalhousie University.