The Atlantic

How Novel Are America's Challenges?

Two historians debate whether recent shifts are different in kind or merely in magnitude.
Source: Carlos Barria / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum


Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:

The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.

In short

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