Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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Paul Thiel

Note to history professors: cognitive dissonance sucks.

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