How to abuse and misuse history: a guide from twentieth-century politics

By Spike Lister

The utilisation of history in political discourse has itself a long history. For as long as there has been a public space and a shared experience, communities have looked to the past as a lens through which to understand their issues. History offers us a guiding light by which to move forwards or a source from which to draw blood-curdling parallels to our present circumstances. Consequently, it should not surprise us in such complex and disruptive times that historical parallels abound as a means of garnering political support. In periods of political intricacy and seemingly tectonic historic change, it is inevitable that politicians draw from the past to assert the continuity of their policies within a nation’s historical experience, or to draw ominous parallels between history and the present day.

Indeed, for politicians of the last half-century, the use and abuse of history has been a key way of cultivating support. One only need look at the US presidential election of 1976 to understand how history has played a vital role in national identity and politics. The crisis of identity that Americans struggled with in the mid-1970s was one that was responsive to the historic changes taking place in the world. They reacted by reinvigorating the principles and ideals upon which their nation had supposedly been founded, and which they perceived had been obscured by a decade of tragedy. In the wake of globalisation, the Vietnam War, and the hangover of the social revolutions of the 1960s, both sides of the American political spectrum sought to appeal to a revitalised belief in the America that had been seemingly led astray.[1]  Indeed, speaking in March 1976 whilst seeking the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan demanded that President Ford and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘“be held accountable to history”’ for their abandonment of America’s role as a bastion and protector of liberty.[2]

Today, however, we can observe a similar, but perhaps more dangerous political utilisation of history. While Reagan’s evocative image of the past was generally accurate, if excessively impassioned, Donald Trump’s erroneous presentation of the past borders on the ridiculous.  In July, President Trump took the unusual course of addressing Americans at the Independence Day celebration on the Mall in Washington in a ‘Salute to America’, in which he presented a historical menagerie of America’s great achievements, primarily through a parade of America’s military successes. In this speech to the nation, the 45th President of the United States seemed to claim that the Continental Army had taken over the airports in the American War of Independence. In 2017, speaking about Black History Month, Trump appeared to claim that abolitionist Frederick Douglass remained alive and well. [3] Nevertheless, it appears as if Trump’s political astuteness means that he recognises the effective use of the past. What matters is not the accuracy of the historical record, but the emotional response to national histories and its effect on the political sphere.

The inevitable relaying of such historical inaccuracies in these discussions begs the question: What role do historians have in the present crisis? One only need look to analyses of Donald Trump’s presidency, or the recent run of opinion pieces that invoke Churchillian greatness or Machiavellian scheming in Boris Johnson’s recent election, to understand the misuse of history in explaining contemporary situations. As Mosik Temkin has highlighted, comparisons are frequently made between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, and these comparisons are ineffective at best, and deleterious to our historical understandings at worst. Historical analogies mislead us into an assumption that the past will repeat itself, which it rarely does.[4] Undoubtedly, the responsibility of historians is not to offer parallels with the past but to contextualise the present in order to better understand it.



[1] Jussi Hanhimäki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.XVII; Noam Kochavi, ‘Insights Abandoned, Flexibility Lost: Kissinger, Soviet Jewish Emigration, and the Demise of Détente’, Diplomatic History, 29:3 (June 2005), pp. 503 – 530, p.504; Barbara Keys, ‘Congress, Kissinger, and the Origins of Human Rights Diplomacy’, Diplomatic History, 34:5, November 2010, pp.823-851 Mario Del Pero, The Eccentric Realist Henry Kissinger and the shaping of American foreign policy, (London: Cornell University Press, 2010), pp.134 – 135.

[2] Jon Nordheimer, ‘Reagan, in Direct Attack, Assails Ford on Defense’, New York Times, 5 March, 1976,,  (accessed 01/06/19), p.64; Jeremi Suri, ‘Détente and its Discontents’ in Bruce J. Schulman, Julian E. Zelizer (Eds.), Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2010), p.241

[3] Donald Trump, ‘4th of July Event Speech’ Transcript,, David Smith, ‘’A narcissistic travesty’: critics savage Trump’s Independence Day jamboree’,; David A. Graham, ‘Donald Trump’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’, The Atlantic,

[4] Mosik Temkin, ‘Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits’; Garry Wills, ‘How Will History Judge the Trump Presidency?’, Vanity Fair, October 2017, (accessed 08/01/2019).

Image: Photograph of the Four Presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon) toasting in the Blue Room prior to leaving for Egypt and Sadat’s Funeral (1981), under free license via Wikimedia Commons.

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