The Conscience of the Nation

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.

Hillary Clinton is also having her problems on this front.  It’s time to stop the Jedi mind-tricks.

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  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.”

4 thoughts on “The Conscience of the Nation

  1. Tom: Again, your remark about whether or not to call Trump’s remarks “history” is not the point. You have been reading (and commenting on) this blog long enough to know that my point was about how history students learn how to evaluate arguments based on evidence. This is a skill that anyone who studies history should learn. It is transferable. It can be applied to all kinds of matters, including an evaluation of politics.


  2. There’s more to history than nitpicking details. History is not merely quantitative. This is a forest for the trees question, and to call Trump’s now-withdrawn remarks “history” is a bit of a stretch and to emphasize them to the exclusion of the actual issue is far more vulnerable to the charge of politicization.

    All lies are not created equal.

    It has been said that those who deal with words for a living place undue emphasis on their importance, and short what it truly significant, action. In this case, of far greater significance–and lasting consequence–than Trump BSing on the stump is Obama’s provable lie that there was no trade of cash for hostages.


  3. You’re missing my point here Tom. Or else you a deliberately ignoring it in order to politicize this issue. My point is about historical thinking and evidence-based arguments.


  4. Which is historically important, what Obama/Hillary did or what Trump said about it?

    Again, the media narrative controls where the spotlight shines at the moment, but that is not history. What Trump said will be forgot within a week, but the consequences of giving so much cash to a terrorist state could be felt for decades.

    Oh, look. The very same George Stephanopoulos’ “news” channel. Well done.

    ABC Only Offers Seconds on Obama’s Cash to Ayatollahs Scandal
    By Kyle Drennen | August 3, 2016 | 12:36 PM EDT

    While both NBC’s Today and CBS This Morning devoted full reports to The Wall Street Journal exposing the Obama administration secretly paying a $400 million ransom in cash to Iran to secure the release of American hostages, ABC’s Good Morning America only managed two news briefs on the topic that amounted to less than a minute of air time.

    GMA news anchor Amy Robach promoted the story as a “bombshell report…that claims the Obama administration secretly sent $400 million in cash to Iran just as the Iranians freed four American prisoners.” However, the 7:14 a.m. ET hour segment only lasted 33 seconds. At the top of the 8 a.m. ET hour, Robach repeated the same brief in just 23 seconds.


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