History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Trump’s Executive Order, Immigration, and Budweiser’s Super Bowl Commercial


On January 31, Budweiser posted its 2017 Super Bowl commercial on YouTube. In the last week, the video has been viewed over 20 million times. The one-minute ad, entitled “Born the Hard Way,” presents a series of fictional vignettes depicting the 1857 voyage of Adolphus Busch, Budweiser’s founder, from Germany to St. Louis.

Released only days after President Trump’s executive order, which severely restricts immigration from seven nations, suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days, and bars Syrian refugees from the United States, “Born the Hard Way” has ignited a huge debate across social media and the internet. On the one hand (and One Thing after Another paints with a broad brush), those who support President Trump and the travel ban, because they wish to safeguard the security of the country, see the ad as an implicit rebuke. On the other, many interpret the commercial as a moving tribute to the centrality of immigration to the American experience.

What surprises One Thing after Another is the visceral reaction to an advertisement that probably would not have raised eyebrows a couple of years ago. Why is the social media world so sure that a representation of a German immigrant’s journey in 1857 is an assault on the travel ban imposed in 2017 against predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East? The analogy seems a bit of a stretch, even if Adolphus Busch is greeted in New Orleans by an unsavory character yelling “Go back home!” in his face. Why did Sarah Palin tweet “Budweiser Debuts Super Bowl Ad, and Its Politically Charged Message Has Americans Speechless”? Why did Stacey Dash, formerly of Fox News, write, “Dear Budweiser, your immigrant founder came here to make beer, not bombs (so spare me the heavy handed ad)”? Why is Brietbart convinced that Budweiser is playing politics? Why is there a movement afoot to boycott Budweiser (and see here) for making a supposedly political commercial?

A number of the claims made by critics seem a bit off-target if one looks at the genesis of the commercial. According to Adweek, work on “Born the Hard Way” began eight months ago (long before it seemed likely that Trump would become president) and forms part of a broad, long-term, multifaceted campaign to win back market share. The main role of expensive Super Bowl commercials within this campaign consists of building the brand (a one-minute spot during this year’s game will probably cost $15 million while the commercial itself cost $2-$3 million). The idea of showing the origins of Budweiser emerged in October 2016, and a script (the twelfth one considered) was approved around Thanksgiving of that year. According to Laura Rowan, group strategy director at Anomaly (the creative agency that participated in coming up with the idea), “This is the story of the original self-made man, one of the founders of the American Dream, making it the hard way, and his path that all came after him followed.” Rowan’s use of the phrase “the hard way,” along with the commercial’s title, link this effort to the phrase “brewed the hard way,” which has been the centerpiece of Budweiser’s message for the last couple of years (see Budweiser’s Super Bowl XLIX ad).

In any event, it is this kind of thinking about building a brand and capturing market share that led to the production of “Born the Hard Way.” As Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Marketing for Budweiser, asserted:

It’s true, Adolphus Busch made an incredible journey to this country, and that’s really what this is about. It’s about his vision, his dream, everything that he does to achieve that. . . . Even though it happened in the 1850s, it’s a story that is super relevant today. That’s what we’re honing in on; it’s the pursuit, the effort, the passion, the drive, the hard work, the ambition, that’s really what this is about more than anything else. . . . There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country. . . . We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.

In other words, the Budweiser ad was intended as political, but not in the way that everybody seems to think. Instead of using the story of the company’s immigrant founder to express the value of immigration, it sought to extoll the virtues of hard work—an idea that it believes its consumers share.

Budweiser’s argument seems to make sense. Family-owned firms (or firms that have a long tradition of family ownership—Budweiser passed from the Busch family to InBev in 2008) are very proud of their founders and history. One has only to remember how Ford Motor Company produces encomiums to Henry Ford or the way Hewlett-Packard reverentially refers to David Packard and his famous garage in Palo Alto. It is entirely possible that a company enamored of its founder and his virtues might not have stopped to think about the different ways in which his story might be understood.

At this point, readers may start thinking that One Thing after Another is letting Budweiser off the hook by exonerating it of playing immigration politics. Yes and no; you should read on. This entire incident reminds this blog of three related points with which many historians (and scholars in closely related fields) will be familiar. First, crying foul because Budweiser has produced a “political” ad is naïve; all messages, whatever the medium, are political. An ad supporting immigration is just as political as a commercial touting the value of ambition, determination, and hard work. Through the act of associating certain images and ideas with a product, commercials are engaged in politics, whether it’s in the name of selling soft drinks, cars, cleaning supplies, or Snuggies. And if you stop for a second to think about the entire purpose of commercials—getting people to buy stuff that they might not otherwise want—you realize that commercials are a supremely political act.

Second, the kerfuffle over this commercial shows how important history is to popular political culture. Even those who know so very little about history understand that narratives about the past can either offer precedents for present-day actions or delegitimize them. Budweiser sought to use a small slice of history (albeit fictionalized) about its single-minded founder to burnish the image of its beer. But Budweiser could not retain ownership of the story as it became consumed by contemporary politics; it goes without saying that political groups are desperate to control narratives of the past.  In the case of “Born the Hard Way,” the question went from “Don’t you want to buy beer from a company that is as committed to its product as its founder, Adolphus Busch, was?” to, “Does the experience of Adolphus Busch and other German immigrants in the mid-19th century express the value of a less restrictive immigration policy in 2017?” One Thing after Another would like to think that Budweiser has performed an important service by inadvertently presenting this question to the public. Many responses to the commercial, though, seem to indicate that debate on this topic has become a dialog of the deaf—an occasion for expressing shibboleths rather than an opportunity for exchanging ideas.

Still, the third point might offer us some hope. The debate concerning the commercial makes One Thing after Another think of “reader response criticism” as developed by Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and legal scholar. Fish argues that readers do not interpret an objective text—rather, they make the text in the act of reading. The only reason so many readers produce the same meaning from a text is because they belong to an “interpretive community” which has been trained to read in much the same way. This idea, of course, can be extended to visual media, including commercials. Budweiser may have intended to produce a tribute to the bootstrapping character of its founder, but the time and place are such that Americans have read a statement about immigration. In some ways, this situation is more promising than it appears. It would seem that divided as the United States is at this point, we still have enough in common to belong to the same interpretive community. We have all produced the same text and agree on its significance—but we disagree on its value.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the Comics, and Biography


This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.

We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.

Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.

Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.

Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.

Historians and the Fight against Fake News


In an article that appeared in a recent issue of Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin decries the recent prevalence of fake news and recommends that history teachers are especially qualified to take a leading role in educating the public about the difference between this counterfeit article and the real thing.


Levin begins by defining fake news as “deceptions” that “play to the readers’ worst fears” for the sake of “maximizing visitor hits” to “generate massive revenue” on web sites. Levin quotes Neal Gabler who writes that the point is not to present an “alternative truth . . . but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a word where there is no defense against lies.” Levin points out that the advent of the internet, which has allowed just about anybody to post information online, has facilitated the proliferation of fake news. In the age when print media dominated, he argues, librarians and others could serve as the gatekeepers to information, “allowing for a certain level of quality control.” Since then, however, technology has “quickly outpaced educators’ ability to police or even guide students as to how best to search [sic] and assess online information.” The result is not only that fake news has proliferated, but that large numbers of people also give credibility to these stories. Having laid out the problem, Levin asks historians to help solve it by teaching students how to assess they information they gather online. After all, so the argument goes, historians are expert at the “critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources.”

One Thing after Another is flattered whenever someone calls upon historians to solve this or that problem. And this blog is just as discouraged as anyone else at the ubiquity of fake news. However, One Thing after Another is somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for success in this battle, no so much because it doubts the hearts and minds of historians, but because the problem Levin contemplates is more massive and deep-rooted than he seems to realize.

Levin’s focus is somewhat myopic in contemplating this issue and its solution. Levin’s article aims mainly at fake news (which merely seeks to make a buck), but in an aside, he seems to understand that only a thin line divides this phenomenon from misinformation that has clear political objectives (e.g. propaganda). He never stresses the close relationship between the two, does not appear to grasp  what makes them so dangerous to the public, and does not explain why they should be countered so vigorously. Getting facts wrong does not merely lead to poor performances in Trivial Pursuit or bad grades in history courses; it divorces our politics from reality which can only lead to terrible consequences. What makes this problem so difficult to contend with is that history itself shows that people have long been susceptible to misinformation.

Levin, along with many others, seems to see the influence of dubious news of uncertain provenance as something new. For example, by declaring “post-truth” the word of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary gives credence to the notion that fake news and other sorts of misinformation are a product of the early 21stcentury. According to the OED, “post-truth” is an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition, however, does not describe a particularly novel state of affairs. History is replete with examples of peoples who were convinced by appeals to dearly held prejudices or who were inspired to act upon unfounded rumors that corresponded with cherished beliefs. One has only to recall the reaction of the slave states to John Brown’s raid or the activities of French peasants during the Great Fear. In many ways, fake news and post-truthiness remind One Thing after Another of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (1964). Hofstadter discussed a longstanding rhetorical tradition in American politics which was characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” where “style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than with the truth or falsity of their content.” He continued by associating this paranoid style with a series of episodes in American politics including the anti-Masonic movement, the Know-Nothings, populism, and McCarthyism. In other words, it seems clear that the species of lie that Levin worries about is part of an ancient, intractable genus.

It is for this reason that we have cause for pessimism. Pace Levin, many people are not purely rational animals who are willing to change their opinions when confronted by facts. We are all reluctant to give up our shibboleths and world views. It is here that we should recall Hofstadter’s speculation that the paranoid style is “a persistent psychic phenomenon” that consistently affects “a modest minority of the population.” However, he argues that under the right circumstances, this minority can “be built into mass movements or political parties.” When our tendency to grasp falsehoods is encouraged by fake news or misinformation, untruth begets untruth, until we are, as Gabler puts it, set “adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies.” It is in this world that the paranoid style thrives. As Hofstadter put it:

A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

Don’t we all know somebody like that?

Hofstadter’s reference to the value of a historical sensibility brings us back to the question of what historians ought to do when confronted by this contemporary cocktail of fake news, misinformation, the internet, and the paranoid style. For one thing, the burden of truth cannot become the historian’s alone. The difficulty is so vast and entrenched that other public figures must share in the work, especially two classes of people held in low esteem these days: journalists and politicians. However one feels about journalists, it is obvious that they are crucial to dealing with this problem of fake news or misinformation (although one could argue that soi-disant journalists are the problem). But why politicians? In this case, One Thing after Another is inspired by Walter Bagehot’s comments in the introduction to the second edition (1872) of The English Constitution. Bagehot, who was then editor of The Economist, wrote a new introduction to this classic work in an attempt to forecast changes wrought by the Reform Act of 1867, which had redistributed representation in the Commons and expanded the size of the electorate by reducing the property threshold for voting. It is in this context, where the franchise had been extended to the upper portion of the working class for the first time, that he made the following observations:

The mode in which the [political] questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them. No doubt when statesmen live by public favor, as ours do, this is a hard saying, and it requires to be carefully limited. . . . What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives those in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. . . . And so he will both guide and benefit the nation. But if, especially at a time when great ignorance has an unusual power in public affairs, he chooses to accept and reiterate the decisions of that ignorance, he is only the hireling of the nation, and does little save hurt it.

The relevance of this excerpt (and others in The English Constitution which state something similar) is that Bagehot saw political leaders as bearing an educational responsibility to the nation, a task they shared with journalists. For sure, this view of politicians and journalists was based on a low opinion of the new electorate and a fear that if left to its own devices, working people might engage in class politics. And Bagehot wrote in a different era when the upper classes still dominated national politics and media outlets were limited. Still, the point stands. One Thing after Another wonders if we have completely lost the sense that politicians ought to educate the electorate instead of saying whatever is necessary to win votes from their base.

Pointing out that journalists and politicians are a necessary part of the solution only reveals how large the problem is. In the meantime, historians (imperfect as they themselves are) can only hope to contain the influence of misinformation, not eradicate it. They must labor like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, knowing that in the long run they cannot win, but that it is the right thing to do.

Elliott-Traficante at the New Hampshire State Senate

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While reading the Fall 2016 issue of Portraits Magazine, One Thing after Another learned that Joshua Elliott-Traficante ’09, who majored in history at Saint Anselm College, had been appointed Policy Director for the New Hampshire State Senate. This blog is always in search of excuses to contact alums, so it decided to look Elliott-Traficante up and ask him about his job.

Q: What does the Policy Director for the NH State Senate do?

A: The Policy Director does a little of everything, but above all he or she advises the Republican senators on all aspects of public policy. This usually starts when the Senators are getting ready to file bills for the next session which is where we are now. I’ll help take an idea, and working with our drafting attorneys, turn it into a bill. Most of the time, if it is a straightforward bill, the Senator will do it on his or her own, but if it is something complex, that is when I will step in and help out. In addition, I help the Senate leadership in creating and communicating the agenda for the session. As the session starts, I keep track of all the bills going through the chamber, from introduction to committee hearings, all the way until they get voted on on the floor. It’s a bit like being an air traffic controller: I need to know where everything is, what it is, and where it is going next, as well as fixing things before they become problems.

Q: What do you enjoy most about this position?

A: No two days are ever the same, and I’m never bored. One day you are working on drafting a piece of important legislation, the next you are doing in-depth research on a random policy issue, so you can get a Senator up to speed. Like college, most people “in the real world” are procrastinators; sometimes we will only find out about an issue with a bill hours before it is supposed to be voted on, so it makes for a fasted-paced environment. There are some session days I managed to rack up 10,000 steps on my fitbit without even leaving the building. There is a sobering sense of responsibility that comes with the job, since your ideas and opinions can influence legislation that impacts the whole state.

Q: What career path did you take that eventually culminated in your landing this job?

A: Like most people’s career paths, mine hasn’t been much of a straight line. I originally was thinking of going into academia and applied to a mix of MA and PhD programs in European History and somehow managed to get into a Master’s program at the University of Chicago. Unlike the “Got Monk?” or “Where Blue Runs Deep” t-shirts you’ll find at St. A’s, UChicago has a decidedly less upbeat “Where Fun Goes to Die” on theirs. After finishing there, I did a summer language program in Germany. I was still thinking of applying for PhD programs that Fall, but needed to find a job in the meantime. A guy I had done some political work with while in college had a friend who ran a think-tank up in Concord and was looking to hire someone for at least a year, maybe more. With a research- and writing-heavy background, I was a great candidate and got the job. I dove into the public policy and left the academic track behind. For me, working in policy was the perfect mix of academic research with politics. With the exception of a brief leave in 2014 to work on a gubernatorial campaign as a policy advisor, I was there until Fall 2015. I had been poking around looking for my next move and this position opened up. An old colleague from the think tank was moving on from this job and recommended me for it.

Q: How did your undergraduate experience, particularly your major in History, help prepare you for this career?

A: Three things stick out in particular: it made me a better writer, it taught me how to do research, and it taught me how to be a critical thinker. These skills aren’t just important for my job, they are in high demand by employers everywhere.

As a senior about to head off to grad school, Professor Perrone suggested that I practice editing by going back over some of the papers I had written while at St. A’s to practice editing. I was absolutely horrified at what my writing was like as a Freshman and wondered how I hadn’t gotten terrible grades on these papers. As I worked my way through, I noticed that (thankfully), the quality got better and better. Being able to do research on what other states are doing on an issue, for example, is something I do every day. How different databases work can be completely different, but those basic skills on how to do research are universal. Critical thinking seems to be a lost art these days, but it is invaluable in trying to think through a policy problem. Like research, it doesn’t matter what the topic or the issue is—those skills can be applied to nearly any field. When thinking through a problem, you can’t possibly know everything. It helps to remember the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict: Listen.

Q: What’s the best part about living in Manchester, NH?

A: As a student, I really didn’t venture that much into Manchester, but it is worth making a little time to go explore beyond Target, Walmart, and Market Basket. On the history side, the Currier Art Museum is a hidden gem and a great place to spend an afternoon. Despite being nowhere near the size of the Museum of Fine Art or the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, it has an impressive collection and manages to attract terrific visiting exhibits. There are plenty of great restaurants downtown that weren’t there when I was a student that won’t break the bank (or Mom and Dad’s bank when they come to visit.) It’s a cliché, but Manchester is close to everywhere else. An hour to the coast, an hour to the lakes and mountains, and an hour to Boston. If you are a skier (and winter is around the corner), there are also a lot of great mountains close by. Everything is close enough you can go and do something fun without needing to take an entire day to do it.

After Brexit, Whither or Wither British History?


Dane Kennedy recently wrote an essay in Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, in which he analyzes the impact that Brexit will exert on the study British history.


In his survey of the field, Kennedy reaches two main conclusions. First, Brexit may make British history obsolete. The Brexit vote exposed important national divisions within Britain; England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, while Scotland, and to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland, sought to remain. The outcome of the referendum may only exacerbate these divisions. The Scottish National Party, which committed itself to the “Remain” campaign, is already weighing the wisdom of holding another Scottish independence referendum (the last one, held in 2014, was defeated 55% to 45%). By complicating relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Brexit paradoxically makes it more likely that the two will increasingly draw closer in an attempt to safeguard their common interests (e.g. stabilization and peace in the region). Should Britain begin to disintegrate, Kennedy asserts, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will increasingly focus on their own histories rather than a common British one.

Second, Brexit will undermine the precarious position of British history in the United States.  As Kennedy points out, up until the 1970s and 1980s, every history department in the United States believed it needed at least one British historian. This belief stemmed partly from a sense that America owed a great deal to its British inheritance, partly from a Cold War Atlanticist attitude that saw Britain as America’s closest ally, and partly from the “Eurocentric orientation of the historical profession itself.” However, starting in the 1990s, in an attempt to diversify their offerings, departments began to hire historians who studied previously neglected areas, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As Kennedy puts it, “in the zero-sum game that characterized academic hiring in those financially straitened times, the number of British history positions declined.” And this number continues to decline today. As academic history in the United States became more diverse and global in outlook, the only factor that helped sustain British history was is its connection to empire. In other words, British history has remained interesting to the profession insofar as it is integrated into world history. For this reason, Kennedy argues that since Brexit “marks Britain’s retreat from the world around it,” academic historians will increasingly lose interest in that country with effects that are “detrimental to British history’s survival as a field of study in the United States.”

Much of what Kennedy writes makes a great deal of sense. For sure, as Kennedy puts it, “while Britain’s post-Brexit future may not change the facts about history, it will change how we view that history and what significance we draw from it.” Here Kennedy reminds us of the extent to which contemporary concerns and events shape our study of the past. If One Thing after Another has quibbles with Kennedy on anything, it is in the claim that Brexit is a major turning point that represents a retreat from the world. Such a statement seems like an oversimplification. Instead of representing a sudden break in the course of events, Brexit is part of a long saga in which Britain has sought to manage its relationship with the rest of the world and particularly Europe. It is worth pointing out that well before a slight majority of Britons voted to leave the EU, Britain had already opted out of a number of important EU polices: the Economic and Monetary Union, the Schengen Agreement, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the AFSJ (Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice). In other words, Britain has long experienced reservations about political integration with the EU. Brexit was the triumph, then, of anti-EU feeling that had existed for some time. To say that Brexit represents a sudden retreat from the world, then, is only partially right. For sure, many voters and politicians who supported the “Leave” campaign felt that political integration with the EU exposed Britain to various elements of globalization that were intolerable (e.g. free movements of peoples). However, a distaste for political integration with the EU (and its consequences) is not necessarily tantamount to shutting oneself off from the world; there is more than one way to to engage with the global economy. Even the most obtuse of the Brexiteers understand that a country with the world’s fifth-largest economy (now possibly sixth-largest with the falling of the pound) simply cannot embrace some type of autarky, especially when exports account for almost 30% of GDP. Enthusiasm for a soft Brexit and bilateral agreements with other nations, unrealistic as these prospects might be, indicate that Britons still wish to relate to the rest of the world—but on their own terms. One Thing after Another does not claim that Brexit was a good idea, that the leaders of the Brexit campaign were models of prudence, or that those who voted “Leave” acted from the best of motives. Rather, this blog argues that Brexit is perhaps not the turning point it has been made out to be. If such is the case, then its impact on British history might be somewhat muted.

Toward the end of his essay, Kennedy expresses skepticism that Britain’s significance at the height of empire will sustain the interest of historians in future years. After all, he points out, the Mongols exerted enormous influence in the past, but there is no great demand for historians of this people. One Thing after Another begs to differ. As Christopher Bayly (a leading scholar of imperial and world history) argued in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, Britain was an “exemplar and controller” of modernity. In other words, starting in the late 18th century and continuing well into the next, Britain played a crucial role in propagating the globalization on which it has ostensibly turned its back. We no longer live in a British century, but we live in a world that Britain helped make. That achievement will help ensure its continued historical relevance for some time to come.

Trump’s Election, the Way History Works, and the Arc of the Moral Universe


One Thing after Another recently read Rebecca Onion’s piece in Slate where she responds to those who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, have tried to console themselves by referring to history.


Onion responds first to the “school” of thought (if we may dignify it with that name) that claims the United States has survived disasters in the past and can therefore survive future disasters. Yet as Onion points out, such an argument forms a very weak syllogism: America experienced disasters in the past; these disasters did not destroy America; therefore, the disaster of Trump’s election will not destroy America. The problem is that America today is not the America of the past, and the dangers presented by a Trump presidency are not the same as those that confronted the United States on previous occasions. Onion’s argument calls to mind the phrase that the Securities and Exchange Commission compels all mutual funds to include in their brochures: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Second, Onion takes on the notion that “history” is against Trump. This idea amounts to the claim that events move in a particular direction, and that a Trump presidency is some sort of doomed anachronism that will soon be inundated by an unstoppable progressive tide. Most commonly, this position is expressed with a simple, “It’s 2016!” as if to say that Trump, discrimination, inequality or some other undesirable development is, at the very least, out of joint with our times or, at most, plainly impossible. Others make essentially the same case when they refer to Theodore Parker’s claim (made famous when Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it in an article and later at a baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, so the argument goes, Trump has won for now, but the future, which becomes more just as time goes on, is against him. Onion points out, however (and quite rightly), that history has no trajectory of its own that is free from our choices or actions. In other words, following David Sessions, she writes, “we have control over any moral arc that exists,” and “the shape and flavor of the future is in our hands.”

One Thing after Another likes Onion’s essays very much because she relates history to current events in ways that anybody can understand. In this particular case, she is correct so far as she goes. However, she and Sessions make the same mistake that everybody else on Facebook has made when quoting Parker; they have removed his observation about the moral arc of the universe from the context of the sermon in which it was delivered and thus distorted the meaning of his words. Leaving out as they do how and why the arc of the universe bends toward justice, they make Parker’s famous sentence seem, to use Onion’s words, “a big theory of how history happens.” Understood this way, Parker’s statement seems to imply that if we wait long enough, justice will somehow arrive of its own accord. Such was not at all Parker’s message when he wrote “Of Justice and Conscience” in 1852 (which is where his famous statement about the arc of the moral universe appears). As we try to convey his meaning precisely, it makes sense that we use his own words (and refer to  “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws” where he developed his ideas about justice and conscience).

A prominent Unitarian minister who was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, Parker (1810-1860) (whose portrait is above) preached in Boston for most of his career. Parker argued there was a natural law that expressed itself, among other ways, as the law of Morals. This law of Morals was immutable, universal, and absolutely right. When one acted according to this law, one fulfilled the moral purpose of his existence and carried out justice. According to Parker, God gave all of us a “Conscience” by which to apprehend this law. The conscience, of course, was imperfect, but it was “adequate to the purpose God meant for it.” If one cultivated one’s conscience, he or she could come to internalize the law and love it. Parker set a high store on the conscience, for it showed the way to “Duty” which was nothing more than obedience to God’s will. Parker stressed that duty trumped everything, including “Business,” which consisted of the obligations laid upon us in our roles as citizens or workers. In making this argument, Parker took especial pains to show how notions of duty then pointed in an abolitionist direction—people ought to follow their duty as dictated by their conscience, disobey man-made laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and free their fellow humans from slavery.

Because of their consciences, Parker asserted, people naturally inclined toward justice. Unfortunately, the world did not always reflect this inclination. In the pursuit of their own self-interest, the wealthy and powerful, whether they be “crafty aristocracies” or “monopolists,” had shunned “moral culture” and “scorned justice.” Partially for this reason, government had become “an organization of selfishness” that seemed “to foster the strong at the expense of the week” and “protect the capitalist and tax the laborer.” In such a world, it should come as no surprise that the unjust did not always appear to receive their due punishment.

It is in this context of a world that only poorly reflected divine justice that Parker argued:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged for long.

Why? Because human nature, which yearned for justice as conceived by the conscience, would not tolerate evil forever. The important point is that people would have to take action to bend that arc toward justice. As Parker put it, “In human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.” “You and I can help forward that work,” he told his audience, to “prepare the way for the republic of righteousness.”

And so, in his way, Parker did agree with Onion and Sessions. We are responsible for the arc. We determine how, when, and whether it approaches, asymptotically, the law of Morals. This vision of the world is liberating—we are in charge—but it lays a great obligation upon us as well. Of course, this view of matters raises the question of whether we possess a conscience that truly can recognize justice. The next several years might give us an opportunity to find out.

NOTE: One Thing after Another is indebted to the following post on David Weinberger’s blog: “Does the moral universe arc?”