Competing Views of Our History Are at Heart of Brexit/Trump Conflict

Fear and euphoria have greeted this years Brexit and Trump victories. The elections were about far more than one candidate or one option triumphing over another, however. They were about two competing visions of Western history.

On the one side, the ‘fear’ faction, the view is that we should have no history, so to speak. Everything that happened in the past, the wars, the Imperial ambitions, the racism, the clearly demarcated roles for men and women, and above all the nationalism – all these are sources of shame. Emblematic of this shame of history is WWII and the Holocaust. According to this vision, history should be left in the libraries or in documentaries.


On the other side, the ‘euphoria’ faction, the view of history looks different. In this world, wars were heroic. People knew their place. Nationalism and religion bonded people together. Men and women lived up to standards of conduct. Everyone within a geographical area knew one another and shared things in common. While the international political world was chaotic, the domestic scene was one of bliss and above all, stability.

One can easily see these competing visions of the past coming to the fore in debates. Nigel Farage was roundly criticised for unveiling a poster that looked like a Nazi era piece of propaganda. Confederate and national flags are being proudly hung out once more in public. There are cries of ‘taking our country back.’ The n-word is no longer a dirty word. Demonstrations feature swastikas and not just on the ‘fear’ side. British and American voters are talking openly about a ‘splendid’ isolationalism. Trump has announced he wants to renew 1930s style trade tariffs. The list goes on and on.


2016 has reminded us that history is very much alive. I don’t just mean in the sense that history repeats itself cyclically. I mean that our interpretations of history determine how we function in the present. From the end of WWII up to recently, one view of history, the ‘fear’ vision, was largely unchallenged. Today, three generations after WWII, it finds itself in serious crisis and under assault by those who no longer want history to be consigned to … well, history.

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