Check out Graham Vyse’s piece at The New Republic in which he suggests that Donald Trump is radicalizing American historians.
I am not sure if “radicalizing” is the right word here. Historians have been radicalized for a long time. The professions leans heavily to the left.
But Trump’s misuse of the past seems to be getting more historians out of the ivory tower and into a deeper engagement with the public. This is a good thing.
Here is a taste of Vyse’s piece:
But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”
Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”
For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.
Vyse’s piece focuses on Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, but it also quotes Allan Lichtman, Julian Zelizer, and David Blight. The latter three are all historians who do speak to the general public.
Read it all here.