Attorney General William Barr ignited yet another firestorm last week by dismissing all charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Then Barr threw more gas on the fire when Catherine Herridge of CBS asked him, “When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?”
“Well,” Barr replied, “history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
The full quote turned out to be less cynical than the ubiquitous sound bite. Barr added, “I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It … upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.”
My own view of the Flynn episode is that the former decorated general behaved poorly—by his own admission lying to the FBI—but the FBI behaved terribly, too. Flynn was caught up in a counterintelligence investigation that became a politicized criminal investigation without sufficient evidence of a crime.
I believe it’s possible Barr’s doing what he thinks is best for the Justice Department and the country. Whether he’s made the right decisions, however, is something historians will debate for years.
Which brings us back to that hoary cliché about the winners, or the “victors,” writing history.
“I hear that phrase all the time and it drives me crazy,” University of Massachusetts historian Vincent Cannato told me. He concedes there’s some truth there. If the Romans conquered some Celtic backwater, the Romans wrote their history. The hitch, Cannato noted, is that nowadays, “plenty of history gets written by the ‘losers.’ Much of the historical profession today is dedicated to recovering the voices of marginalized groups.”
European intruders were the victors in the settling of North America, and for a while, the story of noble white men battling savages dominated. That’s gone now. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Howard Zinn to believe some correction was long overdue. The 1619 Project, which just won a Pulitzer Prize, was not exactly a story told by the winners.
What’s vexing about Barr’s use of the aphorism is that he’s applying a semi-truism about ancient military history to democratic politics and the rule of law. The suggestion, even with his caveats, that his decisions will be vindicated by history only if his side wins is disturbing.
That’s not how it works. The Hollywood writers who lost their jobs during the McCarthy era were obviously not the victors, but they ultimately got to write the history of their defeat. Standard textbooks today teach that they were heroic martyrs of a fascistic moral panic over communism. (The actual story is somewhat more complicated.)
Then there’s the question of how historians will treat the Trump presidency. If you talk to some in the administration, you’ll hear that history will vindicate them. I find it difficult to contain my skepticism about that. Indeed, even those who say it tend to avoid claiming that history will be kind to Trump himself. Rather, they say that certain policies will be justified, or that individuals who sacrificed much to keep the White House on the rails will get some sympathy.
Maybe. Still, if I had to bet, once Trump is out of power, the vast majority of administration memoirs will be self-serving and thus quite damning of Trump’s presidency.
On the other hand, something Cannato told me makes me think I could be wrong. In the modern era, the winners didn’t write the losers’ history. The losers wrote their own. After World War I, the Germans wrote their version of events—about how they were stabbed in the back by traitors and Jews—which is one reason we got World War II. Similarly, the Japanese lost WWII but wrote their own history and have thus failed to address the legacy of Imperial Japan.
The culture war is not a civil war, but it shares a similar dynamic. Each side subscribes to wildly different narratives about the country and the times. If today you actually believe Trump is a great president, you probably won’t stop thinking it tomorrow, particularly when so many people believe that being hated by people you hate is proof of greatness. History may just end up being more “fake news.”
The Trump era has demonstrated that if there’s a market for something, there will be politicians eager to provide it. I still think history will be very unkind to our current president, but it may take a long time for that to be an uncontroversial opinion.
Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.