This is Why You Teach History

Back when we could get together, one of the things we would do as a family is play a game called “Salad Bowl”. It’s a group game; each person writes the names of 10 people, real or fictional, living or dead, onto slips of paper, folds them up, and drops them into a salad bowl. Then you divide into teams. Each round, one person from each team draws slips from the bowl, and try to provide clues to their teammates so they can guess each name. The team that’s able to guess the most names wins. If you know who the person is, it’s a lot easier to give clues than if you don’t. Part of the strategy of the game is picking names that your teammates will know, but will stump your opponents.

We were playing a few years back, and I decided to throw “George III” into the bowl. I frankly figured it would be a gimme – who doesn’t know the British king the American colonies rebelled against during the American Revolution?

My nephew, that’s who. At that point, he was a high school senior, and had no idea who George III, and wound up using my brother’s middle name as a clue. Apparently they teach social studies at his school, not history.


History does repeat itself. It repeats itself because we’re human, and human nature doesn’t change. And this is why I was leery of Donald Trump even in 2016. in “How Did We Get Here“, I wrote, “Trump really worries me. I do see the parallels to the rise of Nazism in Germany in his campaign.” The demonization of an outside group, in this case, Muslims and immigrants, the creation of a cult of personality, the appeal to nationalism; these are all parts of the Nazi playbook.

Right after the 2016 election, I was hopeful that Trump would tone things down, and recognize the rule of law. He didn’t. He doubled down on the incendiary rhetoric.

And finally, came the 2020 election. I don’t think everyone who voted against him disagreed with his more mainstream positions. I think there were a fair number of conservative people, like John McCain’s widow, who held their noses and voted against Trump, because they perceived that he was a threat to our democracy. If you had learned about the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, it was pretty easy to see the parallels.

And so it proved to be. He continued to spout lies about the election, and I think a fair part of the populace, disarmed by a lack of historical knowledge, bought them. If you didn’t have the historical grounding to see through it, if your only grounding in civics is social media, it was easy to be duped. And this is how the assault on the Capitol happened.

I don’t know how this will play out. The night of the riot, there was clearly a sense of norms having been breached. Twitter has cut Trump off, as have other social media outlets. There were a lot of everyday people in postwar Germany who had to live with the fact that they had been casual Nazis, and were horrified once they saw what they ultimate conclusion of that was. I hope that’s what happens here – that the scales fall from the eyes of the Trump supporters, and they see what a petty, narcissistic, possibly even delusional man he is. But I’m not confident. We had a really close shave this time. Will our institutions withstand the next assault on them?

It’s up to us.

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