“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1841. This so-called Great Man Theory of History has long since been discredited. Most historians now believe that kings and presidents have relatively little impact on ordinary people’s lives. Demography, climate and technology matter much more.
But the Great Man Theory of History lives on in journalism. Read the news these days and you’d think that Donald Trump and his entourage were the key forces shaping the future. Likewise, the coming French election is being reported worldwide on the presumption that the next president will change history. This focus on personalities instead of trends is fun but misleading. Just as the smartphone probably did more than Barack Obama to shape the past few years, so tech and not Trump should shape the next.