Column: How Knowing the Past Can Guide Our Distracted Times

  • Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934, left, and Donald Trump campaigning in 2015. (AP photographs) AP photographs

  • Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor in the federal criminal investigation of the Watergate burglary, in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 5/19/2017 10:16:18 PM
Modified: 5/22/2017 12:46:28 PM

Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932 on a platform that included balancing the federal budget. Between his election in November and his inauguration the following March 4, however, Roosevelt became convinced that the only way to rebuild the economy was for the government to provide economic stimulus. The shorthand phrase was “priming the pump,” a metaphor that would have been familiar to most Americans at the time, though less so now.

Priming the pump, which entails adding water in order to pump more water, became shorthand for Roosevelt’s New Deal economics, the strategy of federal deficit spending — the “alphabet soup” of New Deal programs — to stimulate the economy and put Americans to work. It was a novel and daring strategy, one associated with British economist John Maynard Keynes, but it worked.

Imagine my surprise last week to learn that Donald Trump invented that phrase. “I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good,” Trump told a reporter for The Economist in an interview published on May 11.

Let’s set aside for a moment that whereas Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression and an unemployment rate of 25 percent, Trump inherited a fairly robust economy (albeit one with persistent inequities) and what many economists regard as something pretty close to full employment. Anyone with any sense of history whatsoever would recognize the fallacy of comparing 1933 with 2017, much less that Trump invented the term “priming the pump.”

We have little grasp of history these days. Many of my students have never heard of the Peloponnesian Wars or the Defeat of the Spanish Armada or Bloody Sunday or Billy Graham. When the news broke last week that the president had fired James Comey, director of the FBI, my mind immediately raced to an October evening in 1973, the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when Richard Nixon abruptly fired the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after the resignations of Eliot Richardson, the attorney general, and William Ruckelshaus, his deputy, who refused to carry out the president’s orders to dismiss Cox.

The circumstances aren’t perfectly parallel, of course, but they’re close. Despite following the unfolding story of Comey’s dismissal all that evening, it wasn’t until the next day that I encountered any commentary that noted the similarities between current events and the Saturday Night Massacre 44 years earlier.

For better or worse, we live in the age of Trump, which means (among other things) a disregard for history. The president himself has declared his lack of interest in history, as if such a declaration were necessary. He suggested that his presidential hero, Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, might have prevented the Civil War, even though Jackson was nearly 16 years in the grave when the guns blazed at Fort Sumter. Trump is either unaware of or uninterested in the fact that his “America First” slogan emerged as the watchword for isolationism, with overtones of anti-Semitism, prior to World War II. His apparent coziness with Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB, suggests that Trump may not fully grasp the painful lessons of the Cold War.

When he does invoke history, he does do for the purposes of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he complained during graduation ceremonies at the Coast Guard Academy this past week. (I suspect that presidents with the surnames Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Carter and even Bush might want to be part of that conversation.)

Historians call this disregard for history presentism, the tendency to view only the present or the very recent past as important and worthy of consideration. And it’s become something of an epidemic, not only in Washington. In my field, the noted historian Frances FitzGerald (author of Fire in the Lake and Cities on a Hill) recently published a 700-plus-page book that purports to be a comprehensive history of evangelicalism in America. She dispatches with the first two centuries of the movement by page 142, however, and all but ignores the noble social reform efforts of 19th- and early 20th-century evangelicals. Her attempt to explain evangelicals’ overwhelming support for Trump in the 2016 election ignores the history of the Religious Right and its formative ties to racism.

Why is history important? A sense of history reminds us that we are not alone, that similar events and circumstances have occurred before and that maybe, just maybe, we can learn from the past. History provides context as well as direction. If you know where you’ve been, it’s easier to chart a path into the future. Recovering one’s history is especially important for those who have been marginalized. “A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture,” Marcus Garvey once said, “is like a tree without roots.”

That applies to institutions as well. I love to hear that a church or a similar organization has commissioned someone to write a centennial or bicentennial history. Such productions hold interest for genealogists and antiquarians, of course, but anniversaries like these also provide an occasion to take stock: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Such histories are especially important for educational institutions. Samuel Eliot Morison’s history of Harvard, for example, brims with institutional self-importance, but it also tells the fascinating tale of the transfer of Old World institutions and “civilization” across the Atlantic.

Why has history fallen out of favor? I can think of several reasons. Part of it should be attributed to the general eclipse of the liberal arts in favor of other academic pursuits, but some of the blame also lies with historians themselves. Too many of us have forsaken broad, sweeping, narrative histories for narrow, focused studies. It’s easier, and more professionally rewarding, to produce jargon-laced rhetoric than to engage the broader public.

The larger issue, however, is our collective fascination with technology, which arguably began with John Kennedy’s announcement of the nation’s space initiatives in the early 1960s. With advances in technology by the 1990s, the eve of the new millennium, we began looking to the future, our eyes fixed on every shiny new object peddled to us by Silicon Valley. The rage for social media takes presentism to a new frontier: Facebook, Snapchat. The term Instagram says it all.

A sense of history is more important now than ever. Somehow, I doubt that anyone in the White House is whispering in the president’s ear that the last two economic downturns (in the early 1990s and in 2008) followed massive deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy enacted by Republican administrations. Or that the dismissal of James Comey bears an eerie resemblance to the Saturday Night Massacre.

“Those who do not remember the past,” George Santayana warned, “are condemned to repeat it.” I suggest that the president might want to bone up a bit on Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre.

Randall Balmer is director of the Society of Fellows and a historian of religion in North America at Dartmouth College.

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