Cheney's belief in Trumpers going down in "dishonor" feels good. But history doesn't work that way.
If we want Trump and his allies to live in infamy, we need to hold them accountable for their crimes now.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. I hope you enjoy this thoughtful piece from Noah Berlatsky. I’ll be back Tuesday afternoon with a wrap of the next January 6 committee hearing. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to get it right in your inbox. Cheers — Aaron
“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
That stirring declaration from Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, made at the first January 6 committee hearing on June 9, has been widely quoted. It serves as a kind of statement of purpose for the hearings themselves.
In time, Cheney is saying, the nation will shake off its stain of racism, authoritarianism, and treason, and will embrace virtue. Those who deserve infamy will be consigned to infamy; those who deserve praise will be praised. The scales of justice weigh slowly, but they weigh true.
Do they, though? Can we really count on the nation to progress steadily towards good, and to sift the patriots from the Trumpers? The evidence is not promising.
There are no shortage of examples of historical figures who were at least as despicable as Trump and who, decades or centuries later, are celebrated rather than vilified.
Christopher Columbus, for example, committed genocidal crimes against the Carib and Taino people he met when he landed on Hispaniola. He enslaved indigenous people en masse; he encouraged his men to rape women. He demanded native people give him gold; if they didn’t he chopped off their hands. His program of cruelty and terrorism led to mass suicides and starvation. European diseases added to the devastation. Within a generation, the island, which had been home to hundreds of thousands of people, was virtually depopulated — only 32,000 Taino remained by 1514.
Yet, Columbus is not remembered as a mass murdering monster. On the contrary, we have a national holiday in his honor (although attitudes toward Columbus are changing as cities and states celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day). People laud his bravery and vision in sailing from Europe to the Americas; they even claim falsely that he was the first one to do so. Relatively few people know about his crimes. History hasn’t confirmed his dishonor. It’s made excuses for him.
Or there’s Henry Ford, the famous automaker, who was a vicious, untiring, unrepentant antisemite. He bought his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, in 1918 in order to spread antisemitic propaganda. He republished the debunked, influential tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which claimed that Jews were engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to control the world. He inspired Hitler, who cited him approvingly by name in Mein Kampf.
But people don’t remember Ford as a hatemonger who contributed to the Holocaust. Instead, he’s mostly remembered as a successful businessman, and has entered pop culture as an icon of entrepreneurship and uplift. His bland feel-good quotations (“Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again”) are cheerfully consumed by millions of internet surfers. Most of them have no idea that he also published a book titled, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.
It's not that Columbus and Ford are universally admired and lauded. Obviously, you’re reading about why they’re terrible right now, and I’ve provided links to other people who explain why they are terrible. But in general in the popular consciousness, they aren’t bywords for iniquity, hatred, and cruelty. Their standing is contested, but they’re still much praised—like Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee, or Woodrow Wilson.
The passage of time doesn’t in itself sift out good from bad. Instead, debates about past individuals and past actions tend to drag on indefinitely. If anything, over time it can be more difficult to unambiguously condemn wrongdoing as powerful figures become entrenched as iconic or as central to the national story.
Columbus was mostly ignored for centuries after his landing. It was only during the American Revolution that he was touted as a non-British origin story for the colonies. Rather than history confirming his dishonor, it unexpectedly turned around and made a slaver and murderer into a hero because he happened to not come from England.
History has no heart and no soul; it isn’t marching steadily towards restitution. Still, you could argue that there’s virtue in speaking and acting as if it does.
We can’t say for sure that the nation collectively will make Donald Trump a synonym for Benedict Arnold rather than treating him more like Henry Ford. But when Cheney says Trump will be condemned, it’s rhetorically powerful and inspirational. Why not just go along with it, even if it’s maybe not true?
Historian Joan Wallach Scott grapples with that question in her 2020 book On the Judgment of History. She points out that the Cheney-esque evocation of the judgment of history is not just a faith in time passing. It’s a faith in the virtue of the state. Or as Scott explains:
The notion of the judgment of history rests on a progressive linear view about the necessary superiority, in every domain, of the future as compared to the past, but also — crucially — about the state as the political embodiment of that future.
It’s important in this context that Cheney frames her remarks in terms of “dishonor.” “Honor” is a concept steeped in national duty and patriotism. History will in Cheney’s view remember her colleagues for betraying the nation in particular. Cheney is expressing faith that the nation will heal itself, which is also a faith that the nation is good in itself. The union in history is virtue; what is unvirtuous is not the union and will be rejected by history.
The problem with this kind of argument is that it ignores or erases the ways in which Trump is not a rupture with national history, but a continuation of it. As just the most obvious example, the 3/5 compromise literally writes manipulation of the vote for white supremacist ends into the Constitution. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “it was slavery that allowed American democracy to exist in the first place.” That tradition of white authoritarianism was upheld by the highest court in the land in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, giving states the green light to disenfranchise Black voters as the Founders intended.
Trump’s efforts to discard votes in Black neighborhoods and cities is perfectly in line with the nation’s institutions and values as presented in hallowed documents and affirmed by recent courts. If the nation really moved through history towards greater and greater virtue, we shouldn’t recapitulate the same violence, the same hatred, and the same sins over and over again in slightly varied forms.
More, if faith in progress and the nation’s virtue could inoculate us against Trump, it seems like it should have done so already. It hasn’t. Instead, the assurance that history will sort the wheat from the chaff for us seems to lead, not to triumph, but to a closing down of possibilities.
Thus, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues that the one path forward for the nation is to elect Liz Cheney president. National healing requires the elevation of an extremely conservative Republican who as recently as 2019 was vigorously defending concentration camps at the border and cosigning Trump’s racist attacks on her House colleagues.
“If we cannot agree on the sanctity of the Constitution and the rule of law, we are no longer capable of self-government,” Reich insists. Sacred faith in the document that gave us the 3/5 compromise and its laws is more important than any other principle. We have to fulfill the national progress of history by pledging ourselves to the nation and its history, even if that nation and that history gave us Trump. We can’t dream of anything better. There is only the one path.
To imagine a brighter future requires paradoxically that we acknowledge America has no path and no destiny, and possibly no brightness ahead of it. We don’t know that history will denounce Trump unequivocally. For that matter, it’s quite possible that Trump and his fascist colleagues and heirs will get to rewrite the schoolbooks, and make Cheney and Biden the Benedict Arnolds of the nation.
The future isn’t already written; it’s what we make of it, for better or worse. If we want Trump and his allies to live in infamy, we need to hold them accountable for their crimes now, as best we can. To the extent that history exists, it’s just us. That’s a grim truth. But it’s a hopeful one too.