I swear I want to write about actual “monster” monsters, but politics as a playground of ghouls and fiends tends to dominate my headspace. Maybe that’s one of the greatest fears to be realized by the election of Joe Biden: people will stop paying attention. That was even one of the primary public reactions. Trump is no longer president so we can start ignoring the presidency again. Isn’t it nice how “boring” he is?
For all the foot-stamping outrage over “cancel culture,” over “our history being erased,” the real erasure is of those very horrors when they’re part of living memory. People spoke longingly of the genocidal Bush II regime during the Trump regime and complained that Trump wasn’t like the good Republican presidents that had come before. Why couldn’t he be more like Reagan, that half-talented, sub-literate, television presenter who publicly mourned the deaths of Nazi soldiers and allowed a pandemic to run unchecked? Oh, and remember the glory of Reagan colluding with a foreign power during the run-up to his first election in an effort to undermine his opponent? Nothing like Trump.
Maybe it’s not the figures of history, of even history itself, that are the monsters, but the process of historicization itself, the transformation of the present into “history.” Our public reappraisals of the founders like Jefferson or creators like Lovecraft seem less about judging people from the past through a contemporary lens and more about the paucity of contemporary spaces where this kind of criticism is permitted. To put it another way, the past is a safe space to direct criticism because it absolves all of us in the present from responsibility.
Yes, obligatory Santayana invocation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but I’m talking about something a little different.
Let’s look at W as an example. He was appointed president after arranging for a paid mob to attack ballot-counting locations in Florida. Trump tried the same thing, but was stymied by COVID restrictions, having to target multiple states, and, in Philadelphia, by people occupying the streets in response to the Philadelphia Police Department murdering a man in front of his mother. Because of the police’s rioting and paranoia about people potentially telling them, “no,” they prevented any of the GOP’s paid rioters from coming in and stopping the vote count. Philly finished the count which gave PA, and thus the presidency, to Biden.
But those connections were never mentioned—that “Stop the Steal” was a managed operation that had been done by the GOP before and that what protected the ballot counters was the Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police movement. Erasing those parts changes the story. “Stop the Steal” is no longer an action the Democrats should have anticipated and prepared for (and should anticipate happening again), it was a couple of sore losers deluded by Trump—a man who is no longer a concern since he lost the election. Also, Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police didn’t save the election for the Democrats, instead it became the reason the party didn’t do as well as they could have.
When we forget the history of five minutes ago, we’re not doing it for the sake of moving forward. The rehabilitation of W is about absolving all those presently in power of their complicity, both in letting it happen the first time and in letting it happen again. The monster of history is not history itself, but the way “history” is divorced from our sense of the present precisely because it is the past. Therefore it is not something we can respond to, resist, or protect ourselves from. Which means it’s not our fault when it all happens again. Because who could have seen it coming? After all, history is not “now” and not our present concern.