The Trump era news cycle moves fast. As we try to separate the urgent from the important, it’s worth asking who and what will really be remembered a century from now.
It’s not likely to be what you’d expect. For the past few years, I’ve been combing through the archives of the New York Times Sunday magazine for my website SundayMagazine.org. And what I’ve found is that even the biggest news of the time quickly fades.
The 100-year test is much different than the half-century test. After 50 years, tens of millions of people are still alive. After 100 years, the living witnesses are gone.
So let’s examine who and what from around 1918 is—and isn’t—still widely remembered in 2018. Those findings can help us make informed guesses about who and what from 2018 might still be remembered in 2118.
In early 1918, World War I was still raging and writing at the time explicitly suggested that President Woodrow Wilson would join George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the ranks of America’s most legendary presidents—the three leaders who had commanded during the nation’s biggest military conflicts up to that point.
But a 2009 study asking respondents to name as many presidents as they could found that fewer than half of respondents could remember Wilson. Indeed, WWI probably ranks as only the third-most remembered American military conflict of the 20th century, behind WWII and Vietnam. Since last summer, younger Americans might primarily think of WWI as the war that Wonder Woman fought.
What about cultural icons? The three highest paid and most popular movie stars at the time were Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Only Chaplin is still remembered today by anybody other than silent film buffs. The two most popular sports were baseball and boxing, with basketball and football a distant second tier. The 10 most popular songs of 1918 are virtually unheard of today, including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”; “Hello Central! Give Me No Man’s Land”; and “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight.”
So, the $64,000 question is who and what from now will still be remembered in a century. The answer is probably much less than we think. That’s thanks to a potent psychological bias known as the availability heuristic, in which people have a tendency to rely on examples that come quickly and easily to mind when evaluating a topic. To prove my point, the phrase “the $64,000 question” is a reference to the most viewed television show of 1956, which is largely forgotten today.
Let’s go look at a few of the top contenders.
September 11 is the obvious top contender. But 2016 was the first election featuring voters with no memory of that day—which will only be increasingly common in 2020 and beyond. As some commentators were already writing a few years ago, “the 9/11 era is over.”
In no way do I mean to minimize the tragedy of September 11. The tragic 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by Germany caused 1,198 deaths and helped galvanize the American public into World War I, just as 9/11 led to our military interventions in Afghanistan and (much more controversially) Iraq. But the Lusitania is not widely remembered today by the general public. Perhaps it would have fared better if James Cameron had made a movie about star-crossed lovers on that ship instead.
Another applicable analogy here might be the Kennedy assassination. But if we assume a minimum age of five to form a clear memory, only about 21 percent of Americans still remember the Kennedy assassination from their own experience—and that was just 55 years ago.
“But everybody still knows the Kennedy assassination,” comes the natural retort. Fair point. But again, the 100-year test is quite different from the 50-year test. After a century, will September 11 or Kennedy’s assassination be better remembered than those of Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley are today? Everyone alive in 1881 and 1901 remembered where they were when they heard the news, too.
Today’s tech icons and inventors might fare better. After all, computers, the internet, and smartphones have transformed our lives. Will Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates—the devices, services, and websites they invented—still be widely remembered in a century?
Current technology will likely seem as primitive to the citizens of 2118 as the telegraphs and early radios of 1918 seem to us. Radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi boasts hardly any name recognition today. Lest one fall prey to the belief that today’s technology is fundamentally different than the telegraph or original radios, recall the infamous prediction of U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles Duell in 1899: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
In fact, the phenomenon of technological outdatedness can be far more recent than even the demise of Atari and Pong in the mid-’80s. Already, the revolutionary iPod of 2002 appears on its deathbed: Apple discontinued two of the three remaining iPod models last year. But to be fair, the airplane’s and lightbulb’s primary inventors are still widely known a century later. Proof: you know who I’m referring to without my mentioning their names. Everybody still knows Henry Ford for bringing automotive travel to the masses; maybe Elon Musk will be similarly remembered for bringing them space travel.
So how about today’s biggest cultural phenomena, like Harry Potter, Hamilton, and The Hunger Games?
If the list of every Billboard #1 song provides any clue, they can all be forgotten. How well do you still remember “Cheerleader,” “Rude,” and “Somebody That I Used to Know”? And those all topped the charts within the past five years.
Similarly, the 100 highest grossing films of all time yield many titles which today’s average moviegoer probably has never even heard of, including 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and 1953’s The Robe.
Chuck Klosterman in his recent book But What If We’re Wrong? discussed this phenomenon in regard to authors. Analyzing a 1936 Colophon magazine poll predicting which contemporary writers would be viewed as canonical in 2000, Klosterman notes that three of the top 10 were poets, of whom only one (Robert Frost) remains widely known today. Klosterman then adds, “Now, the fact that Colophon voters went only one-for-three in their poet prognostication is not what matters here; what matters is that they voted for three poets. If such a poll were taken today, it’s hard to imagine how far down the list one would have to scan before finding the name of even one. A present-day Colophon would need to create a separate category for poetry, lest it not be recognized at all.”
So what about marquee athletes? After all, Babe Ruth is still remembered 100 years later. But America’s most popular sport today is football and viewership has plunged in recent years, dropping by 17 percent since 2015. Participation in youth tackle football has dropped 20 percent in the last decade, largely over concerns about concussions and permanent brain injuries. Would Tom Brady or Peyton Manning still be remembered in a hypothetical future where even football itself might barely be?
Margot Robbie, nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Tonya Harding in I Tonya, thought that both Harding and her 1994 scandal were entirely fictional upon first reading the screenplay. The ice skating scandal was inescapable in 1994, but Robbie was born in 1990.
Finally, let’s get to politics. The aforementioned 2009 study found the three least remembered presidents were Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Chester A. Arthur—each of whom, when he served, was one of the most famous and discussed people in America. Will the same fate befall Obama or Trump?
Obama’s status as the first African-American president alone will likely suffice to keep his name in public memory long after he’s entirely left the stage. As of this moment, though, Trump’s long-term status seems more questionable.
Some historians have posited that the president who Trump most resembles is Zachary Taylor: hugely controversial at the time, a wealthy and inexperienced political outsider who divided his party in two—and who is now almost completely forgotten.
Jesse Rifkin was named one of the country’s top three best general interest columnists of 2016 by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He runs the website SundayMagazine.org.