Many of you have already seen George Stephanopolous’s recent interview with Donald Trump about the Khan family. Watch it here:
A lot has been said about this video. I don’t want to rehash all of those issues. But, as many of you know, I have been making an argument against Trump based on his failure to embrace some of the very basics of historical thinking. I am not saying that Trump or any political candidate should be professional historians (although it wouldn’t hurt). I am, however, trying to use Trump’s popularity to call attention to the contribution that historical thinking (and, for that matter, other types of critical thinking) might make to our democracy.
With that in mind, I want to call attention to one of the more controversial parts of Trump’s remarks. Trump suggests that Ghazala Khan did not speak at the DNC because “she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” The implication here is that Ghazala Khan’s Muslim faith and its view of women had something to do with her silence. I am not an expert on Islam, so I don’t know if Trump is right about this. I do know that Khizr Khan has said on multiple occasions that Ghazala did not speak at the DNC because of her grief. And Ghazala Khan turned to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to explain this.
Trump claimed that his view on Ghazala Khan’s silence was probably correct because “plenty of people have written that” and “a lot of people have said that.” I don’t expect Trump to cite his sources in an interview, but I also don’t want my president making public statements to national audiences about the parents of war heroes based on the notion that “a lot of people have said that.” This reveals Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut until he has some assemblage of facts about a particular issue. When my POTUS speaks I want his or her arguments to be based on solid evidence. The last time I checked, historians were in the business of making arguments based on evidence. Again, you don’t have to be a historian to make statements based on solid evidence, but historians tend to do it better than most.
And then there is this:
In this clip Trump claims that there is a video of United States authorities transferring cash to Iran. Trump does not just mention the video in passing, but he builds an entire argument about Barack Obama’s foreign policy on what he claimed he saw in this video. Trump claims that the tape was released by Iran for the purpose of embarrassing the United States.
The video Trump is referring to does not exist. Trump was making it all up. He used this blatant lie about something that happened in the recent past to stir up his supporters and win votes.
This is why I get fired up about bad history. This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It. I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.
I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands. I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it. Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”