“Stick to history,” the anonymous of Twitter often tell me. I have always wanted the History Hit podcast to embrace the widest possible definition of history.
I have explored Stonehenge and Bronze Age settlements in the North Sea. I have veered from 2nd Century BC China to NASA veterans of the Apollo Missions.
History, it strikes me, is everything that has ever happened to anyone who has ever lived on this planet, and the stuff humans have got up to off it too. History is Henry VIII, Catherine the Great and Abraham Lincoln, but it is also happening now.
History is politics and politics is history
The Brexit process, the midterm elections in the US, and, yes, Donald Trump, are truly historic. Not only will they be poured over by historians of the future, but they are all rooted in deep historic traditions.
Brexit sees Britain wrestle with the ancient question of the exact nature of its relationship with its European neighbours, so near and yet so far.
Trump appeals to history all the time. He talks about past greatness and promises to restore it. He defines himself as a nationalist, while his enemies brand him a fascist. Historians must weigh in and help the rest of us interpret what is going on.
The past explains the present
As it turns out, the anonymous critics are wrong on what the audience seem to want too. The podcasts about contemporary politics always have a historic element – like understanding what the 18th century Founding Fathers envisaged when they framed the constitution. They also always have people tuning in.
People want to know why hung parliaments, Trump, Brexit, the German far-right, Gaza riots and IS demolitions happen. They all have roots deep into the past, yet their historical dimension is too often ignored in the normal news cycle.
Trump and historical parallel
It has been an extraordinary privilege interviewing historians about Trump over the past two years, asking them to rise above the tweets and give us a considered view on what it all means.
From Sarah Churchwell explaining the genesis of the term ‘American Dream,’ to Ruth Ben-Ghiat on parallels with Mussolini and Joshua Matz on the development of impeachment in the US constitution, I have had some of the world’s best scholars sharing their insights and their fears.
They all agree that Trump is not literally a fascist. Fascism in Italy was a phenomenon particular to the time and society in which it was born.
However, there are fascinating similarities between the rhetoric, methods and even body language of Trump and Mussolini.
His certainty that he alone can fix society, he can protect it from the evils that stalk its margins, he can return it to a state of past glory, these are all tropes of dictators throughout history.
Likewise, his demonisation of the opposition, of the judiciary and the media. He identifies ethnic groups as threats and insists that he is, above all, a protector. He uses new technology to reach beyond traditional platforms for disseminating information and embraces conspiracy to undermine and obscure reality. He and his allies do what they can to suppress voting.
One of the most memorable recent podcasts was Calder Walton on Soviet attempts to influence American elections during the Cold War, by pushing misinformation, undermining trust and reinforcing division.
It was a terrifying conversation, yet a great example of why history is for all of us, right now. All this stuff has happened before, we would be wise to pay heed to it.