With Republicans slowly starting to come to terms with President Trump’s defeat this year, there’s been talk about how “history will judge” his administration.
Sometimes that refrain is used to reassure that there will be an accounting for the awful things that have happened on his watch, while others are using it to argue that we should just let the past be the past and move forward; let’s forget about investigations, truth commissions, or prosecutions and leave the judgements to subsequent generations of historians. All of those invocations of history are implicitly celebrating a return to “normalcy” under a President Biden.
But historians know better. We know that history is not some abstract collection of truths, but is subject to the deliberate manipulations of people aided by the vagaries of time. If history is going to judge Donald Trump, we’re going to have to do a lot of work in the present, despite some recent claims to the contrary. History itself isn’t an actor; people determine how things are remembered, and historians can only render a reliable judgement if we judge him and his administration now.
There’s a lesson for the present in the year 750 A.D., another moment in which a transfer of power was contested, in this case when the Frankish noble Pepin the Short deposed the then-King of the Franks—ruling over much of what is now France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—and took the throne for himself. The story that has come down to us in our sources is one about a peaceful transition between one dynasty and the next. But that’s not what actually happened and historians were bamboozled for generations. Left alone, the judgment of history is notoriously fickle.
The sources for Pepin’s coup, of which there aren’t many, say that the transfer of power was entirely peaceful. The previous king, Childeric III, was feckless and ruining the country. Pepin wanted to set things right and so went to the pope in Rome to act as an external arbiter. The pope agreed with Pepin’s claims and so he returned to Francia where he was supposedly “acclaimed” as king by all the Frankish people. This last part shouldn’t surprise us, as medieval people voted all the time and there were lots of electoral systems across the medieval world to determine rulership (though Pepin commanding an army at the time precludes this from being remembered as a “free and fair” election). In addition, because kings functioned as both religious and political leaders since antiquity, the pope’s assent seemed to legitimize Pepin’s rise, placing him in the tradition of Christian Roman emperors such as Constantine, while a bishop (and later the pope) anointing Pepin with oil placed his rule in the spiritual tradition of the kings of Israel. It all seemed “legal” and aboveboard. The former king, Childeric III, seemed to accept his fate and was sent to a monastery to live out his days.
We don’t know what happened to Childeric after that. It’s possible Childeric died of old age in that monastery, but it’s perhaps more likely he was murdered in the succeeding years, or that he died in battle trying to retake his throne. Regardless, we’ll likely never know what actually happened because the Royal Frankish Annals, our major historical source, falls mysteriously silent for the years 751 and 752. The entry for 750 talks about the selection of Pepin. Then, in 753, when the source calmly resumes, Pepin is the undisputed king and all potential rivals have simply vanished from the story.
The Royal Frankish Annals is not a work that we today might immediately recognize as “history.” It’s a year-by-year accounting, often a more-or-less bullet-pointed list of events marked off by the year even in our oldest manuscripts. Some entries are longer and some are shorter but the point is their completeness, the author of this genre (the “annal”) showing that the years moved successively and that some were marked by momentous events worth recording. Here, this annal details every year in succession between 741-829, beginning with the death of Charlemagne’s grandfather and ending during the reign of Charlemagne’s son (Louis the Pious).
That is, it details every year except for those two years after Pepin took the throne; the two years in which the entire Frankish kingdom was reshaped. The omission of those two years is both obvious and cleverly hidden in plain sight, a moment that alerts us to something important about the transition of power, reminds us that this was a coup d’état, and almost certainly a messy one at that.
The Royal Frankish Annals may not have been written at the Carolingians’ royal court but it was certainly written for them. The text is a litany of triumphs, a subjective and selective (not to say “false” though) report about the recent past intended to reveal from their perspective a deeper truth about the movement of events. The words in the manuscripts make everything seem aboveboard, but historians know how to also read silences. And in this case, the silence of those missing years screams out to us about the dangers of “letting history judge.”
In the modern era, generations of scholars took sources like the Royal Frankish Annals at their word. The deposed Merovingian dynasty was supposedly weak and decrepit. The Carolingians were supposedly dynamic, popularly recognized by their peers as deserving of the throne. Only recently has that narrative—one consciously constructed some 1200 years before—been revisited, with scholars bringing into focus the violence of an autocratic state that used the weight of its armies to conquer its external enemies and suppress religious dissent, and then very consciously used its control of the written record to shape how future generations remembered it.
We shouldn’t wait 1200 years for another reckoning. The Trump regime has failed in its own coup attempt, but it too is trying to shape how history will judge it. We know that the administration forced the National Archives and Library of Congress to remove photo documentation critical of Trump. The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, has classified millions of documents related to immigration enforcement under a designation intended for destruction rather than preservation. And those are just examples we know about. We learn more every day about the spasms of shredding and deleting currently underway, the efforts that try to hide both the corruption and the abuses perpetrated by this administration.
What’s more, as medieval historians used to thinking about long-term change, we know how time tends to blur subtle differences. Trump may feel like an aberration now, but give it a few decades or centuries and he’ll blend right in with Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), and George W. Bush (torture) as Republicans whose regimes broke the law and got away with it. Elite impunity, in fact, is a norm of our era, and a heavy factor in why some of the same bad actors arise again and again. If anything, it’s for that, not the specifics of the moment, that history—or rather historians—will likely judge us.
But it’s not too late. The country could form commissions to investigate and make public the abuses done in our names by the Trump administration. We could, for once, hold the elites responsible for their misconduct. Now that would be something that history might judge, and judge favorably.