Placing the U.S. Presidential Election in Various World Historical Contexts

Eric Martin's picture

I am curious as to how/if others have been addressing the recent U.S. Presidential election in their world history courses?

I am under the impression from my students, that to a large degree, the issue has simply been ignored in all of their college courses. That position seems to be the prudent/safe route in terms of faculty avoiding criticisms of politicizing a classroom whose content may have nothing, or very little, connection to contemporary U.S. politics. And, at the same time, it seems like we are missing a major teachable moment if we do not take the opportunity to have some kind of facilitated, intellectual discussion in the classroom with our students concerning one of the major events being discussed outside of the classroom. And, for some of us, the recent election may directly connect to the material we are teaching. 

I simply asked my students the Thursday after the election if they were interested in discussing what happened, issues the election has brought up, and seeing what kinds of connections we might be able to make to medieval world history (second half of HIST 101).  Every student in the class was interested in discussing the events and they made it clear it was the first time they had been given that opportunity at the college. About half of them were happy with the results of the election and didn't understand the protests they were seeing on the news. But not everyone was happy; and the fact that students in a freshman level course were able to have more civilized discussion with people they disagreed with than we saw in any of the primary or final presidential debate was something I took as a positive sign.

In fact, that was my focus. The one thing we knew would be a result of the election -- no matter who became president --  is that a sizable portion of the U.S. population would be angry and dissatisfied. And, to me, it seems like college students of all majors ought to learn how to understand the point of view of someone they disagree with and learn how to have a civilized conversation with them about that point of view.

The election took place during my transition between "The Role of the Barbarian in World History" (Vikings and Mongols) and "The Black Plague." I wasn't particularly successful in uncovering the historical connections between the medieval period and the current election. I'd be interested  in any ideas subscribers to H-World have on the matter and for making the broader case that understanding some medieval history is useful for understanding the contemporary situation. Even thought exercises would be welcome.  

However, I suspect the more fruitful terrain in terms of establishing solid historical connections rests in HIST 102 and looking more at the social, political and economic history of the 20th century. So, how has the Wold History community been putting the current U.S. election into a broader global framework and what are some of the historical contexts you are suggesting to your students that we should be paying attention to in order to understand what is going on and the current climate we are living in?

And what about those of you who teach at institutions outside of the U.S.? Are you dealing with the latest U.S. election in your World History courses and, if so, how?

Categories: Teaching

Hello Eric,
Thank you for raising this question. I have not explicitly raised the question about the presidential elections, precisely because I wasn't sure how I would handle what I knew would be a fraught discussion. However, I am foregrounding climate and disease issues in my "Global History to 1500" course, and looking at the ways human interventions have shaped our planet, even in the pre-modern world. I taught my two lectures on the Black Death this week, connecting this largest pandemic in human history with the Eurasian interconnections amplified by the Mongol Empire, climate shifts (in both the 13th and 14th centuries), and, of course, the latest scientific research on plague itself.
I intend to end the course by inviting the students to think about all the ways the path toward globalization and industrialization was already laid out in the pre-1500 period. And ask them, if we could set the "reset button," when would we do it?
In my "Global History of Health" class, in contrast, we reach the HIV/AIDS pandemic this week, so lots more room to discuss the current political situation. I'm looking forward to that discussion.

Monica Green
Arizona State University

I agree with Eric that this is an important discussion to have with students, if they are interested. And most are very interested.

I am currently preparing a conference paper on ethnic politics and citizenship in historical perspective in a particular African country that wound up in a civil war. I am going to link it to a comparison with U.S. history and its drama with citizenship definition and civil war. As a final discussion point, I want to look at the concept of nation state--a "new" concept in world history--and whether we could imagine a world without it. Would that be positive or negative? These are all questions that give a long historical view for students to latch onto and mull over in discussion and research.

If we are teaching world history in any era, this current election or Brexit give valuable opportunities to liven up our classrooms.

I have barely discussed the recent election in my world-history surveys. But to take a step back and place the election in a world-history context, I would stress globalization. In the Fall 2003 issue of the World History Bulletin, I reviewed the second edition of Bentley and Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters textbook. Whereas the first edition generally presented "encounters" as good things (and the more encounters the better), I argued that the text's take on globalization was less optimistic in the second edition. There were new or longer sections on global pollution and global terrorism, for example. That was in 2003.
Of course, we can debate the pros and cons of globalization but it seems obvious to me that a significant portion of the American electorate is uneasy with global free trade, global immigration, and global cultural transmission and fusion. Same thing goes for the UK Brexit voters. With my reference to the changes in the Traditions and Encounters text, I am arguing that the context is not only globalization per se but how historians and academics generally have addressed globalization in the past 25 years, and that is a big fat topic that could be addressed in a freshman survey.
Finally, I stated above that I barely addressed the election in my lectures. I did, however, mention the well-known fact that in the 2nd century BCE, Italian Roman citizens, upset by the economic changes wrought by the latifundia system, cheap grain imports, high unemployment, new non-Italian citizens, and decadent cultural intrusions, began to wear hats that proclaimed "Make Rome Great Again."

I've had some interesting discussions in my classes. Two aspects have been particularly engaging.

After discussions of the importance of elections and the peaceful transfer of power, my classes have wondered at the hysterical reactions that had taken so many people into the streets, in particular people who confess to not having voted, to reject the outcome of an election accepted by the leaders of both campaigns and pronounced fair by the departing administration. This usually leads to a discussion of the importance of the necessary--if often implied--agreement of all citizens to accept the results of a legally constituted electoral system.

The second topic has more to do with the evolving character of popular government and specifically with the question of how a nation as rich in talent as the US could end up having to chose between two such damaged and polarizing candidates. This aspect expands into a conversation on the difficulties of public life, and in particular the pressures that keep intelligent and principled people from running for public office.

Very enlightening experience to listen to my students.

I came across the following story today concerning a high school teacher in in California who is ending his career after a parent complained about his lesson plan that drew parallels between Hitler and Trump. I do not know much else about the story in terms of how this comparison, that was bound to be sensitive, was actually handled. But the story portrays the teacher as concerned about accurate historical scholarship.


It seems like the matter brings up a couple of issues. One concerns the use of such a historical comparison in the first place. It seems like moving away from the Hitler/Trump focus and instead examining the populist mood and the general grievances that helped to place both in positions of power might be a way of addressing the issue without being accused of politicizing the classroom. I am curious if anybody on the list made an effort to make such comparisions this term in the classroom.  I assume many our student were already familiar with the comparison through their social media feeds. If nothing else, it seems like a good place to discuss how to make a good historical comparision. The second issue that immediately comes to my mind is that of a potentially changing climate in which there will be more pressure to present history in a particular, sanctioned, fashion. I realize that high school teacher have always had to deal with such issues more so than those of us teaching at the college and university level. 

Any further thoughts on the matter would be most welcome. 



It is not clear from the story Eric Martin linked to how, exactly, the teacher was using the Hitler analogy. The analogy has been so overused and misused over the years - Reagan, Bush, Scott Walker and Obama are the ones that come to my mind right away - that one has to wonder if this particular "boy has cried wolf" far too many times. I would favor a teacher using the analogy not to illustrate anything but to dig into why analogies of that sort are a misuse of history. They are a misuse, given that history is the interaction of repeatable patterns with contingency. Take what this teacher said about Hitler and the Jews vs. Trump and the Muslims. If I were teaching the class, I would present that as a simple analogy that others in the press all over are employing and then explore with the students the ways the analogy might seem valid, but also the dozens of ways the analogy obscures vast differences between the two men, their views, the political forces and institutions of their societies, the situation regarding Jews in Germany and Muslims around the world, etc. I would let all students freely voice their views pro and con Trump and what was and was not valid in the analogy. This is the teachable moment this particular teacher does not seem (from the story) to have explored.

I've had some interesting discussions about the recent elections viz. Hitler & Trump in my World History classes as well. As we were discussing the rise of Hitler to power in the 1930's, we discussed why Germans would vote for such a man. While he never approached getting 50% of the vote in the 1930's, he certainly was popular especially as conditions started to improve from the societal devastation caused by the depression (a clip from the "Triumph of the Will" helped them see this). Students saw the parallels with Trump, like Hitler, being an outsider but speaking plainly to the economic problems their citizens were facing at the time and willing to make bold changes to the status quo. We also discussed the concern some in the U.S. government had during the 1930's toward the potential radicalization of the populous and how they instituted programs like the CCC to both provide work to help families, but also to indirectly reduce the tendency of young men toward radicalization. They also saw the parallels of citizenry willing to overlook obvious flaws (anti-Semitism) in Hitler with Trump's flaws (denigration of women), believing him to be addressing the more important economic problems in their lives such as the loss of jobs over the past decade in the Rust Belt. We also did evaluate the relative equality of comparing Trump's comments to Hitler's virulent racial beliefs. The discussions were stimulating and fostered critical thinking among the students.

The Hitler/Trump parallel was mentioned in my classroom as well, though issue of the affinity of the left for totalitarians at the other end of the political spectrum was also raised, in particular in connection with the recent fawning eulogies of Fidel Castro.

I didn't find this particularly productive, since these are polarizing analogues, usually based on a very incomplete understanding of history by the people employing them.

As Eric notes, moving away to the real operative issues was more productive of informative conversation. In particular the populism and the urban/rural divisions that seem to have favored one side this election despite a long history of favoring the other in previous years has been explored with interesting results.

Last week I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books China Blog comparing Mr. Trump to Chiang Kai-shek: It may be of interest to some readers. As I note in the post itself, this comparison is necessarily imperfect, as all such analogies are bound to be. It is still useful, though, especially for moving beyond comparisons to Hitler.

It also seems that this discussion about analogies provides an opportunity to impress on students the value of different scales of historical analysis. Some analogies work better at different scales than others. For example, the case of the late Roman empire might draw our attention to important large scale structural factors that are undoubtedly important. However, such a large "net" might not be as effective for "catching" the personal characteristics that have inspired comparisons between Trump and individual leaders. Both are no doubt important to understand.