Historical analogies seem like useful tools for understanding current events. Everyone has heard, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” a bazillion times. Of course, our analogies are always to past disasters. Most people reading this can probably name a dozen people that have been compared to Hitler and another dozen examples of Western leaders being compared to Neville Chamberlain. For the most part, our analogies to the past are always warnings of pending doom. No one ever compares the present to some tranquil time in the past.
Humans have limited information processing capacity so nature devised ways for us to quickly process information. Pattern matching is one fast way to locate danger in a very crowded scene. If a current event resembles a past event in some way, then maybe they have other things in common. The logical shorthand is AX:BX::AY:BY, with X being the commonality we know and Y being the commonality we inferred. This sort of reasoning is really only useful in avoiding danger, thus the salience of the Santayana quote. Otherwise, he would have said “blessed” rather than “doomed.”
The thing about Hitler, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and so on is that they had no obvious analog in the past. The events in Germany after the Great War were very unique. In fact, there’s no good example from the past to which they compare. Similarly, the world had never seen the likes of Genghis Khan, which is why the Mongols had so much success. One big reason Attila was so scary to the Romans was that he was clearly a different breed of Hun. Because he was not like his predecessors, he was unpredictable and therefore a very frightening figure to the Romans.
Of course, this is why comparing every two-bit dictator to Hitler is silly. Saddam was not Hitler. Qaddafi was not Hitler either. Obama cutting a deal with the Iranians may be stupid, but that does not make him Chamberlain. In other words, our attempts to understand the present by finding scary analogs in the past has led to one blunder after another in the Middle East. Our pathological need to remember the lessons of Vietnam made success in Afghanistan an impossibility. Because we remembered the past, we made entirely new and avoidable mistakes.
The point of this is that the upcoming election is being compared to 1980, 1968, 1932 (you know who) and Trump has been compared to everyone from Hitler to Andrew Jackson. Everyone is groping around for a useful historical analogy in order to make sense of this highly improbably election. The most important political office on the planet will either be filled by the wife of a former President or filled by a billionaire real estate developer. It’s not exactly Henry Tudor versus Richard III, but the consequences are probably going to be much more important.
This election is looking like an extreme outlier. Hillary Clinton is the only presidential candidate to have been accused of violating espionage laws. She may have beat the rap, but name another candidate that had even a whiff of traitorous intent. Trump is the first novice to run as a major party candidate since Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and that’s not a great comparison as Wilkie was involved in politics his whole life. Other than stroking checks to candidates for favors, Trump has not been very political.
Then there is the fact that both parties are a mess at the moment. The Democrats have a collection of geezers at the top and no bench. Their “young guns” are still in college. No one really wanted Clinton, but there was no one else so she is the nominee. On the GOP side, Trump is hated by the party and some segments of the GOP voters. He’s the nominee primarily because the rest of the party is a dog’s breakfast of globalist fantasies and 1980’s romanticism. The sense of betrayal among conservative voters is at revolutionary levels.
What’s most incredible about all of it is the extreme disconnect between the party elites and their voters. Most Democrat voters would prefer less immigration and better polices for the middle-class and working class. Similarly, most Republican voters would respond to similar appeals, with an emphasis on the more business friendly stuff. Yet, neither party is offering much of anything on these issues. Instead they are obsessed with weird fads like transvestites or globalist esoterica that no one outside the global elites finds interesting.
We do seem to be in uncharted territory, which may not be a terrible thing. Historical analogies are often wildly mistaken, resulting is disasters like the endless wars in the Muslim lands. The battles of the Great War were mostly due to the generals clinging to lessons of the past, despite the carnage they were witnessing. Much of what plagues American politics today is a layer of Baby Boomer politicians who can’t stop reliving the 1960’s. A break from the past could be the palate cleanser society needs. Or, we may be rocketing over a cliff.