Against Historical Cherry-Picking
By Daniel Tippens
Early in his presidency, Donald Trump passed his first executive order pertaining to immigration, preventing travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United State for 90 days. At the same time, Trump has been laying on some heavy rhetoric about deporting illegal aliens from the United States.
Many were quick to draw a historical analogy between these policies and those of Nazi Germany. Hitler ordered both the prevention of non-Germans from coming into the Reich and the deportation of all non-Germans who had arrived on or after August 2, 1914. Those who pointed this out wanted, in some form or another, to suggest that we are moving in the direction of Nazi Germany, in some relevant and important sense.
Jason Stanley recently authored an article in The Stone in The New York Times, in which he observes that Donald Trump is intent on deporting all “criminal aliens,” and the way he has pushed this policy is by speaking of many illegals as rapists or “poisonous snakes.” Following these observations, he says:
It is worth noting that this tactic of dehumanization — referring to humans as animals — has historically been used to foment hatred and violence against chosen groups. In the lead up to the Rwandan genocide, for instance, Tutsis were regularly described as snakes.
Of course, an even more recent example of the same kind of argument came when Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. Given that Comey was investigating possible ties between Trump and Russia, political pundits quickly jumped on the opportunity to draw an analogy with Richard Nixon’s decision to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor leading the investigation into Nixon’s involvement in the cover up of the Watergate break-ins. Given that Nixon did this to obstruct justice, we can infer that Trump had the same intentions.
The kind of argument being made in all of these cases — historical analogy — is roughly the same. One draws an analogy between an action or policy made by the president (or politician) and a policy or action made by an historical figure, and then makes some inference about what is going to happen, a heinous motive that the president harbors, or a claim about how the country is being run today.
While I only chose three examples, due to their prominence in the media, arguments of this kind have been appearing in the public sphere since Trump was elected. Academics, politicians, and commentators alike employ them to push their positions. They are easy to make, but in my view, they also are typically specious.
Take the first case: Trump’s immigration ban and deportation rhetoric. Of course it is true that Hitler had somewhat similar policies, at least in the sense of expelling large amounts of non-Germans and preventing outsiders from entering the country. However, there are significant differences between the two. First, determining who was German and non-German was tied to a highly promoted eugenics program, involving an explicit attempt to “purify” the fatherland of all people who weren’t a part of the genetically superior Aryan race. In addition to their immigration and deportation policies, Germany was beginning to enact forced sterilization techniques as a way to promote this goal. Second, these policies and attitudes arose as a result, in part, of the bitter resentment that the Germans felt toward the Allies, who had forced them to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
Differences also abound with regard to the Saturday Night Massacre and the Comey firing. NYU Law professor Richard Epstein, troubled by the narrative being pushed that relieving Comey of his duty is similar to the Nixon scandal, wrote an article in Vox pointing out the large differences between the cases. For example, unlike special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Comey deserved to be fired, given his handling of the Clinton email investigation, treating the investigation with “kid gloves,” and deciding to announce a second investigation into Clinton during the presidential race. Additionally, just prior to being fired, Cox had issued a subpoena for some recordings of conversations that had occurred in the Oval Office, and Nixon was refusing to comply. In other words, the evidence was compellingly mounting up against Nixon leading up to Cox’s firing. No similar amount of evidence has come to light against Trump.
In light of all of these factors, it seems that simply pointing out that Nixon also fired the person charged with investigating him says very little about whether Trump is similarly guilty and attempting to obstruct justice. The fact that Trump’s immigration and deportation policies are somewhat similar to Nazi Germany’s loses its predictive capacity, since an analogy is only as useful as the overall similarity between the two relata.
After pointing out all of the contextual differences between current policies and their historical “analogues,” it begins to look like those who use these kinds of arguments are typically engaging in a kind of historical cherry-picking. They are looking through history to find a loose similarity between something a bad person did (Hitler, Nixon) and something our current president is doing, which ends up also having the rhetorical force of an ad hominem argument — Hitler enacted these kinds of policies and so has Trump. Therefore, Trump must be like one of the most heinous people in history.
To be clear, I am not taking Trump’s side here. I think his immigration ban was deeply concerning, his rhetoric against undocumented immigrants alarming, and his firing of Comey at least questionable, even if it was deserved (why did he wait until now to fire him?). But I also think that these kind of ad hominems disguised in historicity, if used frequently enough, can actually cause some problems.
First, there is a concern about a boy crying “wolf!” too many times. I certainly think that, when done with care and attention, historical arguments like the ones above can be extremely informative and helpful. But if we throw around historical analogy arguments in large quantities, with a clear ad hominem rhetorical undertone and in a cherry-picking manner, which results in predictions or inferences that rarely pan out, we will cause the arguments to lose their force in general. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with words. Just take a look at how liberals use the word ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’ so flippantly that these labels, which were once powerful accusations, have lost much of their significance. If you take a look at conservative media outlets, they now openly laugh at liberals who call all manner of seemingly trivial things “racist” and all sorts of innocuous-seeming people “bigots.” When people who disagree with liberals on many social policies now have this accusation launched at them, it causes them merely to flinch and not recoil and reconsider. Using morally charged accusations far too frequently,and in an expansive manner can drain the force from the words, and the same can be true of historical arguments, when not used responsibly. Funny enough, John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that one reason why free speech is so important is so that ideas remain alive to individuals. The thought was that when people continue to discuss issues throughout history without restraint, the ideas, with all their nuance, remain entrenched, which seems like a good thing. Unfortunately, irresponsible discussion and use of arguments can have the opposite effect — an erosion of rhetorical and argumentative efficacy.
But even if these arguments don’t lose their potency, and we come to give them a good deal of weight, they can all too easily become tools for opponents to use against us as well. Given that history is so expansive, if one digs deeply enough they can always manage to cherry-pick a “historical analogy” with almost any policy you can imagine. It shouldn’t take much effort for white supremacists or alt-right writers to find historical cases where immigrants with radicalized ideologies did some damage when allowed to immigrate into a country. When they realize this, they will certainly jump on the “appeal to history” bandwagon and begin rooting their heinous propositions in flimsy historical “analogues.”
What I propose, then, is that we essentially leave the historical arguments to historians, who have the expertise to actually make informed predictions and arguments with all of the relevant historical context in mind. Otherwise, we risk crying “wolf!”, or worse, supplying wolves with tooth sharpeners.