By try­ing to see the present through the past, we’re mak­ing it harder to see the fu­ture, writes J. Peter Scoblic


How can we rec­on­cile the con­vic­tion that Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency is a sin­gu­lar abom­i­na­tion with the sense that we’ve seen all this play out be­fore? For months, count­less com­men­taries have warned us — or, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive, re­as­sured us — that this ad­min­is­tra­tion may be head­ing to­ward the same con­clu­sion as Richard Nixon’s. In May, af­ter the fir­ing of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, Nixon chron­i­cler El­iz­a­beth Drew wrote in Politico: “While Watergate was sui generis and is likely to re­main so, Trump’s metas­ta­siz­ing cri­sis, and Wash­ing­ton’s re­ac­tion to it, make for a dis­com­fit­ing re­minder of that pe­riod. And sud­denly it seems in­creas­ingly pos­si­ble it could end the same way.” A few weeks later, New York magazine’s Frank Rich wrote that there is “rea­son to hope that the 45th pres­i­dent’s path through scan­dal may wind up at the same des­ti­na­tion as the 37th’s — a pre­ma­ture exit from the White House in dis­grace — on a com­pa­ra­ble time­line.”

That com­par­i­son has per­sisted, or even deep­ened, as Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has ex­panded. Noah Feld­man and Ja­cob Weis­berg began an es­say last month in the New York Re­view of Books by ar­gu­ing, “As more and more ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion be­tween Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and Rus­sia has come to light, the anal­ogy to Watergate has grown ever stronger.”

There are strengths and weak­nesses to the Watergate com­par­i­son, but our fas­ci­na­tion with it is, per­haps more than any­thing, a prod­uct of our vis­ceral dis­com­fort with un­cer­tainty. At the mercy of a pres­i­dent whose stock in trade is un­pre­dictabil­ity, and amid a pres­i­dency that has pro­vided more sur­prises than most, Amer­i­cans crave fore­sight. We want to know how this story ends.

pro­vides a se­duc­tive an­swer, cloak­ing the cold am­bi­gu­ity of the fu­ture in the blan­ket of the past: If to­day looks like yes­ter­day, we rea­son, our to­mor­row will look like yes­ter­day’s to­mor­row.

But re­ly­ing so heav­ily on this heuris­tic may ac­tu­ally make it more dif­fi­cult to an­tic­i­pate what’s com­ing. Anal­ogy en­cour­ages us to see the past as static, when it was in fact a dy­namic col­lec­tion of pos­si­ble fu­tures that just hap­pened to gel into the present we know. That mis­take blinds us to our own po­ten­tial fu­tures — and what we might learn from them. In try­ing to re­duce un­cer­tainty, we may have en­sured that Trump will sur­prise us even more than he al­ready has.

We take our ex­pe­ri­ence of time for granted. Schol­ars Allen Blue­dorn and Robert Den­hardt put it this way: “As a so­ci­ety, we tend to agree on an ob­jec­tive con­cept of time, one that is uni­tary (sub­ject to only one in­ter­pre­ta­tion), lin­ear (pro­gress­ing steadily for­ward from past to present to fu­ture), and me­chan­i­cal (con­tain­ing dis­crete mo­ments sub­ject to pre­cise mea­sure­ment).”

This com­mon view of time is com­fort­ing — it pro­vides a sense of or­der — but it serves us poorly in think­ing about his­tory. See­ing the present as a func­tion of the past, and the fu­ture as a func­tion of the present, sup­presses the fact that events need not have hap­pened the way they did.

Ob­vi­ously, his­tory can­not be changed, but as it un­folded, the past — like our present — was a froth of po­ten­tial fu­tures. In con­sid­er­ing anal­ogy, then, we must ask not only whether what hap­pened be­fore looks like what is hap­pen­ing now, but also whether what might have hap­pened be­fore looks like what might hap­pen now. To be truly use­ful, an anal­ogy must be pre­cise not only in its ac­tu­al­i­ties but in its po­ten­tial­i­ties.

The Watergate scan­dal had many po­ten­tial out­comes, and Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion may have been one of the least likely.

Tim Naf­tali, who served as di­rec­tor of the Richard Nixon Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and Mu­seum, has writ­ten, “Had it not been for four in­de­pen­dent devel­op­ments, Nixon’s cover up might well have held.” First, John Sir­ica, the judge in the Watergate bur­glary trial, pried the truth from the dis­sem­bling de­fen­dants with the threat of heavy sen­tences. Sec­ond, The Wash­ing­ton Post’s re­port­ing sparked a con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Third, At­tor­ney Gen­eral El­liot Richard­son fol­lowed up on his prom­ise to Se­nate Democrats to ap­point an in­de­pen­dent pros­e­cu­tor. Fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tant, Nixon chose not to de­stroy the tapes of his White House con­ver­sa­tions — even af­ter he learned that their ex­is­tence was go­ing to be made pub­lic.

A sin­gle death may have been a fifth pre­req­ui­site for Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion. Jour­nal­ist Tim Weiner has writ­ten about the piv­otal role that Nixon’s close friend­ship with FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover might have played: “One of his­tory’s great what-ifs is whether the Watergate in­ves­ti­ga­tion would have gone for­ward if Hoover hadn’t died six weeks be­fore the break-in.”

If we grasp that his­tory was full of pos­si­bil­i­ties, we im­prove our chances of learn­ing from it. In fact, as psy­chol­o­gist Philip Tet­lock and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Aaron Belkin have writ­ten, we can­not learn from his­tory un­less we imag­ine al­ter­na­tive past fu­tures — bet­ter known as coun­ter­fac­tu­als — be­cause they al­low us to iden­tify what caused what. We can know whether an event mat­tered only if we ask what the world would have looked like if it hadn’t hap­pened.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing such his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties also opens us up to learn­ing from the fu­ture. On its face, that idea may seem non­sen­si­cal. Af­ter all, the fu­ture hasn’t hap­pened yet, and gen­er­ally we think of learn­ing as a func­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence. Our men­tal mod­els of how the world works are based on — and con­stantly be­ing up­dated by — the cause-and-ef­fect re­la­tion­ships we ob­serve. Yet we use those mod­els, based on the past, to plan ahead; we act in the present to bring about an ex­pected fu­ture.

Psy­chol­o­gist En­del Tul­v­ing dubbed this “men­tal time travel,” and its im­pli­ca­tions are pro­found. Our ex­pec­ta­tions of the fu­ture are cen­tral to the con­cept of choice — they are what give peo­ple agency. If we couldn’t imag­ine al­ter­na­tive fu­tures and choose among them, the in­ten­tional would be merely the in­stinc­tual. Our hu­man­ity is a func­tion of our abil­ity to look to the fu­ture and act on it.

But when we do that, the fu­ture looks back and acts on us — that is, we learn from it.

We can en­vi­sion dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the fu­ture and work back­ward to dis­cover what con­di­tions would pro­duce them. In that process, we forge new be­liefs about causal re­la­tion­ships, new men­tal mod­els. Imag­i­na­tion, in other words, can have an ef­fect sim­i­lar to ex­pe­ri­ence. His­tor­i­cal coun­ter­fac­tu­als and pos­si­ble fu­tures are flip sides of the same what-if coin.

This sim­i­lar­ity be­tween past- and fu­ture­think­ing has sup­port in the phys­i­cal and so­cial sci­ences. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have found that the brain uses sim­i­lar pro­cesses to re­mem­ber the past and to en­vi­sion the fu­ture. One study showed that peo­ple who suf­fered mem­ory loss fol­low­ing dam­age to the hip­pocam­pus also had dif­fi­culty imag­in­ing de­tailed fu­tures. So­ci­ol­o­gist Karl We­ick ar­gues that we can make sense of the fu­ture only if we en­vi­sion it as hav­ing al­ready hap­pened — that we think in the fu­ture per­fect. And, us­ing com­puter sim­u­la­tions, or­ga­ni­za­tional the­o­rists Gio­vanni Gavetti and Daniel Levinthal have demon­strated that, in un­cer­tain en­vi­ron­ments, “cog­ni­tive search” (imag­in­ing the fu­ture) can be more adap­tive than “ex­pe­ri­en­tial search” (re­vis­it­ing the past).

Chal­leng­ing men­tal mod­els by think­ing about the fu­ture is com­mon prac­tice in busi­ness and the mil­i­tary, be­cause it pro­vides a de­fense against sur­prise.

Con­sider the use of sce­nario plan­ning, which orig­i­nated in the early 1960s with Her­man Kahn, a de­fense an­a­lyst no­to­ri­ous for his will­ing­ness to “think the un­think­able” about nu­clear war. Kahn used sto­ries to imag­ine how the Sovi­ets or other en­e­mies might em­ploy the bomb. “We draw sce­nar­ios and try to cope with his­tory be­fore it hap­pens,” he once ex­plained.

Kahn, in turn, in­flu­enced Pierre Wack, a Royal Dutch Shell ex­ec­u­tive who feared that the West­ern-dom­i­nated oil in­dus­try was about to col­lapse in the face of Arab na­tion­al­ism. His col­leagues dis­missed the idea, so Wack de­vel­oped a method to chal­lenge their as­sump­tions by gen­er­at­ing “co­her­ent and cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive sto­ries about the fu­ture,” as Shell’s chief econ­o­mist has writ­ten. In do­ing so, Wack changed Shell’s men­tal model of the world, and the com­pany was pre­pared for the price shock that hit in 1973.

A sim­i­lar process is at work in war games, ar­ti­fi­cial case stud­ies that are par­tic­u­larly help­ful in com­plex sit­u­a­tions in which past ex­pe­ri­ence does not pro­vide suf­fi­cient guid­ance. The goal of these games is to help play­ers an­tic­i­pate a broader range of pos­si­bil­i­ties — or, even bet­ter, to in­still a men­tal plas­tic­ity that en­ables them to re­spond to the un­ex­pected, ac­cord­ing to Pete Pel­le­grino, a war game de­signer with Cu­bic Global DeA­nal­ogy fense cur­rently at the U.S. Naval War Col­lege.

Fleet Adm. Ch­ester Nimitz, who com­manded the Pa­cific naval forces dur­ing World War II, main­tained that be­cause of the ex­ten­sive gaming he had done as a stu­dent at the Naval War Col­lege, noth­ing Ja­pan did sur­prised him. By that he did not mean, Pel­le­grino says, that the games pre­dicted what ul­ti­mately hap­pened — his school gamed plenty of un­likely sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing a show­down with Ger­many in the Caribbean. But those ex­er­cises cul­ti­vated an in­tel­lec­tual flex­i­bil­ity that al­lowed Nimitz to quickly adapt to new sit­u­a­tions.

That, then, is how we may learn from the fu­ture — and it is why his­to­ri­ans Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have urged anal­o­gists to see “time as a stream,” in which the fu­ture is con­stantly on the verge of be­com­ing the past. Amid the chaos of the present, they wrote in their book “Think­ing in Time,” we must pause “to pon­der pos­si­ble fu­tures.” We must push our “imag­i­na­tive fore­sight to the limit” and con­stantly ask what is new about the present. “The fu­ture may sur­prise. It sur­prises be­cause some­thing in the present, hard to see, weak­ens the past as a guide.”

Adan­ger of fix­at­ing on the Watergate anal­ogy — on any anal­ogy — is that it sets us in a rut. Watergate has be­come the model for how Amer­i­can pol­i­tics works when crim­i­nal­ity is sus­pected, and it may be blind­ing us to other pos­si­bil­i­ties. The Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion might last far longer than Trump’s crit­ics hope. Its find­ings might not im­pli­cate the pres­i­dent di­rectly — as for­mer act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Sally Yates and for­mer Man­hat­tan U.S. at­tor­ney Preet Bharara em­pha­sized this past week, there’s a high bar for proving crim­i­nal con­duct. And there is the ques­tion of whether the Repub­li­can Congress would ever con­sider ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment.

What’s more, re­cent events sug­gest that we are not men­tally flex­i­ble enough to imag­ine what Trump will do next. Did the Watergate anal­ogy pre­pare us for a pres­i­dent who de­mands the po­lit­i­cal loy­alty of the ser­vice mem­bers he com­mands and holds ral­lies blam­ing the me­dia for “try­ing to take away our his­tory and our her­itage”? Did the Watergate anal­ogy pre­pare us for the racism of Char­lottesville and the pres­i­dent’s sym­pa­thy for its per­pe­tra­tors? Did the Watergate anal­ogy pre­pare us for a pres­i­dent whose idea of strat­egy is to re­peat­edly taunt a dic­ta­tor newly ca­pa­ble of strik­ing the United States with nu­clear weapons?

Cer­tainly there are par­al­lels to Watergate in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Trump’s po­ten­tial col­lu­sion with Rus­sia and his re­sponse to them. But those par­al­lels can’t an­swer the most im­por­tant ques­tion: How does this end? They can’t pre­pare us for a pres­i­dent who would be un­likely to leave of­fice peace­fully, as Nixon did, but who in­stead might ap­peal to the racist, pop­ulist and au­thor­i­tar­ian im­pulses that pro­pelled him to of­fice.

Per­haps the es­sen­tial les­son of Watergate is that the union could sur­vive the cor­rup­tion of its most pow­er­ful fig­ure while key in­sti­tu­tions emerged stronger. Told this way, the story is a happy one. But it need not have been. As his­to­rian Dou­glas Brink­ley, who co-edited two vol­umes of the Nixon tapes, put it to me: “When we talk about Watergate, we latch on to the fact that U.S. checks and bal­ances en­dured. How­ever things shake out, our in­sti­tu­tions per­se­vere. But what if they don’t per­se­vere?”


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