The American Historian

Uncertain History: Trump, Nowotny, and Us

Jon Butler

Donald Trump probably has never met Helga Nowotny, the distinguished Austrian sociologist and past president of the European Research Council. But his ability to exploit Americans’ fears in an uncertain, violent world bears an uncanny, if asynchronous, similarity to Nowotny’s remarkable new book, The Cunning of Uncertainty. Historians should pay attention to both Nowotny and Trump. In starkly different ways, they challenge the teaching and writing of American history and, indeed, of history everywhere.

For months Trump commanded news headlines by stirring American anxieties. The nation’s strong sense of security at home and abroad may or may not have been misplaced, but it underwrote domestic policy, foreign relations, and our national psyche for decades. Amidst its decline, Trump has polished the hunt for scapegoats—a weak president, Republican colleagues, Mexican immigrants, Muslim plotters, and even the Fox News Channel.

Nowotny is no stranger to America, but she may not be familiar with Trump’s version. A high school exchange student in De Pere, Wisconsin—a year she terms transformative—she earned her Ph.D. at Columbia University. Ironically, Nowotny offers the more optimistic, “American” look at uncertainty, while Trump describes the more pessimistic, “European” angle. Their sharply etched views are instructive for our teaching and writing.

Nowotny sees uncertainty as inescapably human, not the result of short-term political failure. “Uncertainty is pervasive, written into the script of life,” Nowotny observes. Uncertainty is inexorable, “played out in the unfolding of the individual life cycle as much as on the world stage.”

To overcome uncertainty, premodern societies tendered “offerings, prayers, sacrifices and promises.” Modern societies took a different path, “taming uncertainty through planning” and “offering an open horizon to the future in the name of technical progress.”

But what is “cunning” about uncertainty, as Nowotny puts it? Uncertainty not only drives us forward to realizations that eclipse fear, but also engenders the creativity that spurs answers and invents achievement. Uncertainty creates choices and propels us to imagine even more, among which the thoughtful and ingenious can choose. Creativity firmly rooted in uncertainty defies prediction. Successful science flourishes in “research [that] cannot predict what it will find or when.” Successful artists, writers, composers—even politicians—plunge into the uncertain to shape new policies and works. None pull away in fear.

Ludwig van Beethoven epitomizes this process. Older readers will remember how, on the wonderful 1950s television program Omnibus, Leonard Bernstein described Beethoven’s composition of his Fifth Symphony. Seemingly so perfect and flawlessly designed, it actually emerged amidst a disordered, uncertain array of musical choices. Uncertainty stimulated Beethoven’s creativity and was critical to Beethoven’s extraordinary final order. (Happily, Bernstein’s programs survive on YouTube.)

But Nowotny asks, “How good are we in educating young people for uncertainty, while continuing to train them for certainty?”

Historians reconstruct a past with outcomes in place, unlike Beethoven or secretaries of state who struggle to craft art and peace from a complex present. Historians sometimes see the end result, or think we do, but not always. Historians then usually work backwards to understand how “it” came to be. But does glimpsing the outcome, however imperfectly, hobble us in conveying the uncertainty of the past, such as the insecurity that colonists felt in confronting pre-Revolutionary turmoil in the 1770s, or emancipation and its aftermath, or the 1929 economic collapse?

I worry that my courses on American religion and the colonial period emerged too neatly because I stressed outcomes, not the messy paths of getting there. Did I hobble students’ and readers’ abilities to puzzle their way through modern dilemmas by masking the past’s mysteries and anxieties? Did I teach answers when I should have taught confusions, dilemmas, and the uneven routes to answers?

Books by John Demos, Ann Fabian, and Eric Rauchway—Demos my long-time colleague, Fabian and Rauchway the 2016 OAH annual meeting Program Committee co-chairs—show us how grasping uncertainties illuminates our complex past, illustrating uncertainty’s cunning in uplifting but sobering ways.

Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America reconstructs the chaos that engulfed Puritans who physically survived the so-called 1704 Deerfield Indian massacre. Demos offers a visceral account of a Puritan future transformed by death, capture by Catholic Indians, and the shock of Eunice Williams’s choice of continued life with Indians and a Mohawk husband when the captives were released. Demos’s leading question “Where does the story begin?” opens the unstable ground on which so much history begins. His exploration of the external and internal ruptures wrought by capture, shifting Puritan, French, and Indian social worlds, and their natural and supernatural domains demonstrates the transformations created by the search for cultural and personal safety amidst conflict and persistent aspiration.

Fabian’s Card Sharps, Dreams Books, and Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America explores the underside of purported rational American business enterprise and rising capitalism in nineteenth-century America. Card Sharps describes an economic world—too often told as a quasi-linear history linked to the doings of great men—strewn with lotteries, gamblers, dream books, numbers runners, and bucket shops, as well as stolid farmers speculating on future prices for the wheat, corn, and soybeans they grew without considering themselves gamblers. This was the great, if dubious, victory of the Chicago Board of Trade, its allies, and managers who “made themselves into virtuous producers by transforming prices into products produced and speculative markets into a social service.” Through words, slogans, and public relations, they transformed chaos and uncertainty into seemingly rational economic behavior, or so it appeared.

Rauchway’s title signals the outcome: The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace. But his chapters energetically describe the debris created by the 1929 economic collapse and the uncertainty swirling around every fix—opposition to “baloney dollars,” the magic of the gold standard, fear of inflation amidst bottoming deflation, bankers petrified by depositors and change alike, plus fear of “college professors” and their untried theories. The Money Makers traces the uncertain path forward, Pummeled by internal tensions, Keynes’s political naiveté, a suspicious Congress, a recalcitrant Supreme Court, and a deteriorating international milieu, Roosevelt and his advisers worked through internal tensions of their own. Rauchway’s stress on uncertainty allows readers to comprehend the ingredients for success, especially Roosevelt’s leadership and, frankly, his wisdom. But the still living shibboleths about the gold standard and reduced government spending as solutions to recession should remind us that uncertainty sustains myths as fully as it births discovery and fosters achievement.

The past was not equally kind to the figures Demos, Fabian, and Rauchway sketch. But Nowotny is right. Comprehending the uncertainties thrust before them illuminates paths to maneuverability—some imperfect, some remarkable—and helps readers and students press beyond the fear of uncertainty all too shamelessly exploited in every place and every age, certainly our own.


Jon Butler is past president of the OAH and Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies at Yale University. He is the author of several books, including The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (1983), Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990), and Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (2000). He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.