The historian Thomas Carlyle famously argued that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He wasn’t alone in upholding this “Great Man” theory of history, which posits that our past and present are the product of specific individuals who made their mark on the world through their unique qualities and interventions. Although this approach has few open adherents today, you’ve probably encountered its ideas. The romantic notion of the solitary revolutionary remains powerful in popular culture, and is implicit in countless biopics produced by Hollywood to this day.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why this worldview fell out of fashion among academics. Not only did it typically center a certain sort of male as history’s protagonist, but its top-down theory of change overlooked the bottom-up forces that elevated leaders and provided the impetus for their actions. To give a very simplified example: Take away George Washington and we’d still have America, because the fundamental social and economic forces dividing the colonies from Great Britain made a split inevitable.
After studying history in college, I was pretty much sold on the shortcomings of Great Man narratives, which seemed to represent an understandable but childishly reductive approach to world events. Societal developments were far too complex to be the product of individual authors. The personal characteristics of leaders were interesting, but not determinative of outcomes.
Then Donald Trump was elected president.
At first, this didn’t change my mind. After all, Trump did not create the currents of discontent that propelled him to victory; he surfed them. The backlash to the Obama presidency, with its racial, economic, and anti-elite elements, was not Trump’s doing. He simply gave voice to what was already there. He was the face of but not the force behind these momentous events.
I still believe those things. But I also think it has become hard to deny that Trump was a unique figure whose personal idiosyncrasies—and, I would argue, malignancies—altered the course of American history in directions it otherwise would not have gone.
To understand why, one needs to read a speech that was delivered last week:
When they called the race, I said the numbers doesn’t look like it’s gonna add up. But one of the things I want to tell all of you is: You never stop dreaming. I don’t want any of you to stop dreaming. I don’t want any of you to stop believing in America. I want you to believe in America and continue to believe in the Constitution and believe in our elected officials most of all. Continue to pray for them, because all of the prayers you’ve given me, I felt those prayers …
There are no excuses in life, and I am not going to make any excuses now, because we put up one heck of a fight …
I thank you so much. As I said, you can’t blame no one, because I want you to continue to believe in this country, believe in our elected officials.
These words were delivered by Herschel Walker, as he conceded his race for Senate in Georgia. On paper, Walker looks a lot like Trump: a celebrity candidate with no political experience and a tendency toward bloviation, bizarre stories, and sexual scandals. It’s easy to see why Trump personally anointed him as his standard-bearer. Yet, when faced with electoral defeat, Walker graciously conceded the race and reaffirmed his faith in American democracy. His concession speech was remarkable because it was unremarkable.
And it wasn’t just Walker. Almost every candidate handpicked by Trump for their personal loyalty readily conceded their race. There was no nationwide “Stop the Steal” protest. The anti-democracy movement that Trump sought to create in his image didn’t materialize. The former president selected most of his preferred candidates because they backed his claims of 2020 election fraud. But when the time came, they were unwilling to make their own, and accepted the verdict of the voters.
And it wasn’t just the candidates who eschewed election denial. After all, the reason so many Trumpy nominees were compelled to concede in the first place was that they were rejected by the electorate—including Republicans. As postelection analysis has shown, Republicans actually turned out more voters than Democrats in November. They even won the national popular vote. But in races involving Trump’s candidates, many Republican voters split their tickets, punishing Trump favorites like Arizona’s Blake Masters and Kari Lake who questioned the 2020 results. It turns out that running against democracy is not a recipe for democratic success.
Watching Trump’s candidates and former voters jettison anti-democracy agitation, I found it hard to escape a simple conclusion: Trump is a unique—and uniquely malignant—figure in American politics. His willingness to shatter the basic norms of democracy, reject election results, and call for the termination of the Constitution, are specific to him. Had another Republican candidate surfed the currents of American discontent to victory over Hillary Clinton—a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio—we would not be here today. But because Trump happened to be the beneficiary of those forces instead, history was forever changed.
As president, Trump enabled bigoted, anti-democratic actors who would otherwise have had great difficulty breaking into the mainstream. With his incapacity for shame, he lied incessantly about the most easily debunked matters. In his churlish refusal to ever admit defeat, he brutalized public trust in our electoral system in a manner that no traditional politician would have countenanced. We are where we are because Trump is who he is.
It’s sobering to realize that history can turn on the personal quirks of one person. But it’s also comforting, because as the 2022 midterm results suggest, some of the ugliest aspects of the Trump era aren’t inherent to our system or deeply embedded in our society. They are the downstream effects of one bad actor. Remove him and the pollution he caused will remain, but once disconnected from its source, it can slowly be cleansed, as we saw in this past election.
Trump may have been the great man of history, but the people still get the final say.
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