FSG Blog
April 25, 2017

The Wrong Way to Use History

Patrick Marren

There have been a lot of analogies being thrown around lately as people try to use history to predict the future.

The presidency of Donald Trump has caused a lot of smart people (and a lot of less-well-educated ones) to dig up stuff from the past that they see as relevant to our current situation – and to where we may be headed in the near future.

Those who like President Trump enjoy talking about how he reminds them of Ronald Reagan, another Republican outsider, who upset liberals but ended up as a transformative president, by anyone’s standard. Others see him as being like Andrew Jackson, a populist who got his way and broke the centralized power of Eastern elites and central bankers. Stephen Bannon, a Trump advisor, allegedly cited Jackson as well, expressing the hope that Trump could forge a new “economic nationalist” coalition based on “America First” isolationism, chopped-down federal government, and “alt-right” appeals to the white working class.

Those who dislike him also bring up Reagan, but as the president who they say began the long term trend toward increased concentration of wealth, destruction of the middle class and a confrontational military posture. And they also bring up Andrew Jackson, but as the truculent slave-owner who broke promises to Native Americans and forced them onto the Trail of Tears.

But mostly the anti-Trump folks reach beyond American history to other, less appetizing historical analogies for Donald Trump. Paul Krugman favors Silvio Berlusconi as a likely parallel, a corrupt showman who disrupted Italian politics and economy for a decade. Some, staying in Italy, ratchet things up and call Trump another Mussolini. Then there are the breakers of Godwin’s Rule who point to what they see as disturbing evidence that the Trump administration is marching along a path first trodden by the Nazis in Germany.

Who is right?

No one knows. Probably none of them completely. Maybe small parts of each of them will even come true.

But there is a larger point to be learned from these facile historical analogies. There is a right way to use history when planning for the future, and there is a wrong way.

The wrong way is exemplified by both sides of the Trump-anti-Trump dichotomy. That is to latch onto one historical example, and conclude from that example that the Trump administration MUST roll out exactly according to that analogy. Trump is hard on some minority? Bam – he’s just like Hitler, and we are headed for a fascist dictatorship. Trump wants to ease regulation on business? BIFF! Trump will be a second Reagan, bringing prosperity and Morning In America II. For these folks, on both sides, you just have to choose between historical analogies, shut your mind down, and wait for the inevitable tragic or triumphant denouement.

But that’s not how the future works. The future is uncertain. Always. It is not a respecter of rules or precedent. It can veer in an entirely unexpected direction. For example, you might be going along, thinking that the Chicago Blackhawks, easily the best team in the Western Conference of the NHL in the regular season and a Stanley Cup favorite, should have no problem with the Nashville Predators, who barely made it into the playoffs and were dispatched twice in the past seven years by the Blackhawks. But you would be wrong, because then the Predators, out of nowhere, might rise up sweep your beloved Blackhawks out of the postseason in four straight. And you might be crushed and depressed for a week and wonder why hockey is such a stupid random game and maybe you should find a hobby.

I digress.

The point is, you cannot use history to PREDICT the future based on superficial similarities between past events and present trends. Prediction is risky. Trump is not going to be like any other president, because even if he tried to be like Reagan, for example, today’s world is not the same as Reagan’s, and so his attempts to be Reaganesque will turn out differently. He’s not going to be like Hitler, because not only are our times different from 1930s Germany, but Trump has a very different personality from Hitler’s and a different way of making decisions.

The right way to use history

With respect to the future, there is only one way to use history: as evidence of what MIGHT happen again, because we KNOW it has happened before. If something has already happened, that means it is not impossible.

But if something has not yet happened, that does not mean it WON’T happen in the future.

So when you are planning for the future, don’t ask yourself, “Which past person or series of events will we relive?” Or if you do, at least then go on to ask yourself, “If I’m wrong, what other historical analogies might be out there that could open my mind to different possible paths the future could follow?”

As regards future planning, don’t use history as set of stories from which you choose the one you want to be right, for emotional, aesthetic, political or other reasons.

Use history as a crowbar to open your mind to what COULD be, because it has already happened.

And once your mind is open, let other possible scenarios enter into your planning. And if you can construct those scenarios systematically and rigorously to cover all plausible contingencies, perhaps with the aid of an experienced outfit like the Futures Strategy Group, well, so much the better.

Use history to OPEN, not CLOSE, your mind. And remember, to paraphrase Twain, that history may well rhyme, but it never repeats itself. To paraphrase Dickens, “These are the shadows of what MAY be, not what MUST be.”

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