Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Last summer I called out POTUS candidates for their failure to make evidence-based arguments in a post entitled “Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks.”

My decision to support “Historians Against Trump” had little to do with making a political statement or suggesting that the use of historical analogies is helpful in predicting the direction that a particular candidate like Trump might take the country.  Historians can provide context to our present-day political debates but I am not sure that history can always predict the future based on what happened in the past.

 I supported the Historians Against Trump movement out of my concern over the Trump campaign’s failure to make evidence-based arguments, display the kind of empathy necessary for a democratic-republic to survive, and exemplify even the most basic skills of historical thinking.  (My original “Jedi Mind Tricks” post also called out Hillary Clinton for her failure in this area).

This interaction between CBS journalist Bob Schieffer and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge illustrates my point about evidence-based arguments.  By the way, the last time I checked evidence-based arguments were important to historians and historical thinkers.  At least that’s what I try to teach my students at Messiah College.

The Historians Who Are Supporting Donald Trump

Trump Gingrich

By now you have heard of Historians Against Trump.  But what about historians who are for Trump.  Rick Shenkman and Sharon Arana have managed to find six historians who support Trump.  They are:

Victor David Hanson

Timothy Furnish

Derek Boyd Hankerson

David Barton

Eric Metaxas

Newt Gingrich (He has a Ph.D in history)

I don’t know much about Hankerson apart from the fact that he thinks blacks fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are probably aware of the fact that I do not classify Barton or Metaxas as historians.  (Click on the links above).

I also found it interesting that Wilfred McClay was initially part of the pro-Trump list. Read the article to see McClay’s e-mail exchange with Shenkman and Arana.

ADDENDUM:  I just learned that Larry Schwiekart of the University of Dayton is also supporting Trump.

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

HistoryTrumpThe debate over whether historians should sign a letter opposing Donald Trump’s POTUS candidacy has received a lot of attention.  (See our coverage here).

A few of these conversations took place yesterday on my Facebook page.  I asked some of the historians who wrote on my page for permission to publish their thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

John Haas, Bethel College (IN):

Back in the 1920s and ’30s sociologist William F. Ogburn was on the war path trying to discredit the notion that social scientists should be engaged with the present at all in their professional work. His strongest argument, it seems to me (if I recall correctly) was that taking stands on contemporary controversies would politicize their work, and ruin their reputations as objective scientists generally.

The problem, to get back to your specific question, is that in a democratic society history will be used to justify numerous courses of action to the people, and it’s the “lessons of the past” that the people are interested in. Politicians and pundits will generate and disseminate them, using them for their purposes, even if we won’t.

We can sit back and say, “Well, it’s far more complicated than that,” or “The discontinuities with the past outweigh continuities, rendering those ‘lessons’ dubious,” or just, “Read my book,” but the people have no patience for that. And who can blame them? The enlightenment dream of an educated and virtuous republic never imagined that the attainment of reliable knowledge upon which policies would then be constructed would be such a difficult, immense, contentious and ambiguous task. It takes years of full-time devoted study even to a corner of the field before you really start to know anything. The public can’t do that, and without doing it, they have a very hard time judging among contending voices.

If historians drop into the political realm, they run the danger of being dismissed as mere partisans. (Andrew Bacevich is a great example–theologically and politically conservative, his reputation among his fellow conservatives was trashed when he came out for Obama in 2008. The intense tribal-loyalty dynamics of contemporary politics makes this almost unavoidable.) But, on the other hand, if historians won’t speak up, others will, spinning out “lessons of the past” to suit their agendas, and the people, hearing no other voices, will begin absorbing those “lessons.”

It’s not particularly helpful to say so, but never mind: When we do this–if we do it–it needs to be done really well. Put simply, too many historians sound like any other partisans when they’re weighing in on political issues. I believe we need to stick to our guns: Use a scientific, positivist literary style–unemotional, grounded in facts (especially statistics), etc.–and simply hammer the conclusion in place. Jettison adjectives. Kill anything that even shows the promise of becoming a darling. Be as careful in formulating “lessons” as in determining matters of mundane fact. Practice, in other words, the virtues of professional restraint.

I’m not, to be honest, convinced we’re up to the task. But I think there’s no alternative. The stakes are too high.

Katy McDaniel, Marietta College (OH):

This is a great exchange. To my way of thinking, historians should not *routinely* publicly comment on specific political candidates in a campaign season in this fashion. However, there are times, there are times. And in these times, I think we historians bear the responsibility of informed commentary, of recognition and identification of dangerous demagoguery, even in such a direct manner: that’s a part of our jobs as historians in a democratic society. Otherwise, our silence makes us complicit in what would surely prove to be a disastrous shift in our country, perhaps even away from democracy. This is not hubris; it is responsibility.

Bill Kerrigan, Muskingum College (OH)

I find this whole argument that historians, as historians, “should not” publicly express their views on national politics bizarre. The implicit assumption is that voters need to be protected from such speech because they might be unable to assess the validity of the arguments the historians are making. But of course we know that voters reject arguments and evidence presented all the time. Sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes because they are simply not open to considering perspectives that challenge their already firm beliefs. Fish’s argument, it seems to me is really just another variant on the one that tries to silence a celebrity, for example, for expressing a view on politics, on the grounds that their profession does not qualify them to have any particular insight. Collectively, these types of arguments are harmful because they discourage people from all walks of life from being engaged in the public square. They encourage political apathy, and are I believe, a threat to democracy. Let a group of historians present their view as historians. Let dissenting historians present their own counterviews. Let soap opera stars, and minimum wage workers, and plumbers, and housepainters, and hedge fund managers all publicly present their views. Surely each comes to the table with a distinct perspective that can contribute to the debate. And trust ordinary citizens to listen and read them all, hopefully with a critical but open mind. Let’s stop telling people, or groups of people, that publicly expressing political concerns is a form of hubris. It is fundamentally an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic argument to make.

Plagiarism Happened Last Night

I don’t know how parts of Michelle Obama’s  2008 DNC convention speech got into Melania Trump’s speech at last night’s GOP convention in Cleveland.  Maybe she deliberately stole Obama’s words.  Maybe she looked at Obama’s speech, drew some ideas and phrases from it, and was sloppy in her use of them.  I am guessing a speechwriter is to blame.  The fact that the Trump campaign has said that Melania spent 5-6 weeks working on this speech with a speechwriter does not help matters.

Whatever the case, I think most of us agree that plagiarism happened last night.

The only exception is the Trump campaign.  Here is campaign manager Paul Manafort:

I think its fair to say that Manofort and the Trump campaign deny that plagiarism happened last night.

But plagiarism DID happen last night. The evidence is all over the news today.

This is partly why I signed Historians Against Trump.

Things in the past happened.

Historians use available evidence to inform the public that things in the past happened.

Historians make sure the evidence that proves that something happened in the past is not ignored.

As Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob argued in their book Telling the Truth About History:  “something happened out there…and we have the ability, if we have the faith, to learn what that something is.”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

a18c6-wineburgDuring all of the debate surrounding the “Historians Against Trump” movement (see the summary post at History News Network) I thought about our interview with Stanford education professor and historical thinking guru Sam Wineburg on Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.

In the course of the interview, our producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling asked Wineburg why kids should learn how to think historically.

Here is what Wineburg said:

Well, what’s the alternative to thinking like historians? Thinking like totalitarians?  Thinking like fascists?  Historical thinking is training for the mind, training to deal with the cacophonous voices of a democracy, training to think through a reasoned position that is supported by evidence.  The alternative is uninformed opinion, some of which we are experiencing right now with the claims of the leading contender for the Republican nomination who makes claims that cannot be supported at all, and yet people are credulous and believe in them and I think that is a testament to the failure of our educational system.

Listen to our interview with Wineburg here (Episode 4).  I especially recommend it for K-12 teachers.  

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Make AmericaChris Gerhz, aka “The Pietist Schoolman,” a history professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, was another signer of the “Historians Against Trump” letter.

Here is a taste of recent post:

I’m not naive enough to believe – as Fish reads out of the letter — “that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers.” As the authors acknowledge early on, we historians (like anyone else) cannot fully escape “our own limitations and subjectivity.” But we do seek after truth as objectively as possible — not uniquely (most academic disciplines would affirm this objective), but distinctively (in accordance with the particularities of our discipline — e.g., grounding any historical truth-claim in a reasonable interpretation of available historical evidence. It’s why I’m more bothered than other Trump opponents by Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while serving as secretary of state, which was not only careless but made more difficult the work of those of us who benefit from the transparency of well-kept public records.)

I’m also not naive enough to believe that we should expect political candidates to be unfailingly honest. According to the nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers at Politifact, the other major party’s presumptive nominee has made “True” or “Mostly True” statements only 51% of the time. That’s a higher percentage than the equivalent numbers for the current presidentvice president, and all four majorcongressional leaders.

It’s also nearly five times as high as the same number for Donald Trump.

Not just historians, but anyone else whose profession places any value on truth-telling, should be bothered by a supposedly candid non-politician’s casual disregard for reality. But it’s especially worrisome for historians because the central theme of Trump’s campaign is an ahistorical claim about the past: that America was once great and can easily be made so again. Harshly, but not unfairly, the open letter’s authors describe Trump’s campaign as one of violence — against “individuals and groups” (more on that in a moment), but also “against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.”

Read the entire piece here.

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Trump hatThis one comes from Daniel Drezner, a professor of International Politics at Tufts University.  Here is a taste of his article at The Washington Post:

As the Historians Against Trump observe in their open letter, Trump’s abuses of history — “against historical analysis and fact” — exceed that of the garden-variety politician. So if historians focus their fire on Trump’s invocation of “America First,” or his defense of Roosevelt’s internment of the Japaneseduring World War II, then they are appropriately deploying their expertise to criticize someone who is as historically uninformed as Trump.

I do hope historians limit their criticisms to such cases, otherwise Fish might have a point. But I suspect that what truly rankles Fish about this effort isn’t the possibility of such transgressions but rather the possibility of citizens treating historians as actual experts with a settled consensus on certain historical facts. The very idea of such norms of empirical validity are an affront to Fish’s postmodernism. Which means that he is the worst possible judge of what other academic disciplines do in response to the vast oceans of ignoranceoccupied by one Donald J. Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Historians on TrumpI have long been a fan of Jonathan Zimmerman‘s  op-ed writing.  He is a model of how historians should engage the public as historians.  We have written about his work here.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Zimmerman explains why he will NOT be signing the “Historians Against Trump” letter.  Here is a taste:

… I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Read the rest here.

Zimmerman points to the same issues I raised as I reflected on my FB exchange with Mike Kugler.  I stand by my decision to sign the document for the reasons I expressed in my last post, but Zimmerman is correct in pointing out these flaws in the document.

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

HistoryTrumpYesterday my friend Mike Kugler, professor of history at Northwestern College in Iowa, wrote a an important series of Facebook posts in response to Stanley Fish’s provocative New York Times piece “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump.”

In that piece Fish, in response to the Historians Against Trump movement, argued that historians (and all academics for that matter) as a group should not  be in the business of offering political opinions. He writes: “Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.” Historians, he adds, should be teaching people “how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.”

Here is Kugler’s original Facebook post:

I’m intrigued by Fish’s argument. I wasn’t troubled by the idea of the Historians Against Trump; and some of the people speaking from that platform do have sharp, well-trained historical perspectives on the history of the presidency and American populism. But Fish’s theme, that academics should cultivate a particular kind of humility about what they know and don’t know, seems true. Is there some disciplinary aspect of historical thinking that gives its practitioners special insight into the character and ideological nature of presidential candidates?

This led to what I think was a fruitful exchange with Kugler. I publish that exchange below, beginning with my response to his initial post.  I hope it might be a starting point for further conversation.

Fea:  Mike: This open letter is not perfect. Of course you are right in saying that not all the historians who signed it, including myself, are trained specifically on the history of the presidency or populism. And I agree with Fish’s point about humility. Actually the letter does acknowledge the limitations of the historian.

I would respond to your take on Fish’s piece in two ways. First, I think specialization is overrated. (I think it’s fair to say that we both know this, based on our teaching loads and the subjects we asked to cover at small liberal arts colleges). I think sometimes those of us who teach the survey or are trained broadly are better equipped to speak to the public than research professors who spend their careers mining one specific field. These scholars may be in a position to tell OTHER SCHOLARS about this or that sub-specialty, but they spend little time thinking about anything else. Let’s remember that we probably know more about fields outside our specialty than most Americans [and thus have a duty to engage the public based on what we know].

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I signed this document because I believe that historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates. The emphasis in the letter on evidence-based arguments, the respect for the dignity of all humanity, the importance of context, the uses of the past in political discourse, the commitment to a civil society (rooted, presumably, in the kind of empathy that historical thinking brings), and the very fact that making America great AGAIN is ultimately a statement about the past. Trump runs roughshod over all these things. For what it’s worth…

Kugler: Like I said above, it’s Fish’s claim about humility that attracted me to his editorial, not his criticism of the Historians Against Trump. I would not be surprised if Fish would suggest that “acknowledging humility” is not the same as living up to it; I can tout my opponent’s virtues at length before I attack her. In my experience I find many academics often to be a strange combination of embattled self esteem and arrogance–including myself. Then, your suggestion about experience in teaching the survey is interesting, and I agree that careful attention to such work over the years does make a teacher a kind of expert in a wide range of historical subjects. Finally, let me ask this question, John. What candidate has lived up to the virtues of historical thinking you and I and many, many others try to embody and teach? Hasn’t Trump provoked this unusual act on the part of over 500 historians, teachers, museum staff etc because his candidacy seems unprecedented in recent history and his statements are often outrageous? If as you say “historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates”, why haven’t other candidates who probably exhibit equally strained relations with historical method, subtlety or evidence provoked the formation of a similar group as Historians Against Trump?

Which then leads back to my question above: Is there some disciplinary aspect of historical thinking that gives its practitioners special insight into the character and ideological nature of presidential candidates?

Fea: All good questions and thoughts. I would hope that historians would call out all candidates who manipulate the past. During the course of the primary I called out Rubio, Cruz, and Sanders. I think two things might be at work here with Trump. First, I am sure politics are involved. The letter talks about being bipartisan, but it is pretty easy to invoke bipartisanship when were are talking about opposition to Trump. So I am guessing that many who signed this [letter] DO have a political axe to grind and see the letter as a legitimate way of sticking it to Trump without being overtly political. Second, I wonder if Trump’s campaign is egregiously anti-historical when compared to Hillary. (But I am sure I will get some push back on this from my conservative friends).

Kugler: The real subject for me, John, you can imagine is the nature of historical thinking as we teach and practice it. Recently I”m quite haunted by the problem of historical context as explanation/diagnosis. Historians typically answer moral, religious, political questions with stories; the stories explain why the “now” at issue looks as it does. But are such stories diagnoses in the sense that they strongly suggest action in response? Historical perspective encourages intellectual humility. But does it, as the Historians Against Trump say, teach “lessons”? I was surprised to see that word used, more than once.

Kugler made me think hard about a few things.  Do we want our students and readers to learn “lessons” from the past?  Of course we do.  But what are those lessons?  Who decides what is a “lesson” and what is not?  It seems that the idea of studying history to learn “lessons” makes the doing of history first and foremost a political act.  Some may have no problem with this, but I imagine that others will.  Still others will admit that the doing of history must always be a political act, but our job as historians is to be on guard so that the politicization of the past does not go too far.

It seems to me that “lessons” is a morally problematic term and not always helpful to historical thinking.  Does providing historical context for current events–an important work of the historian–necessarily lead to “explanation/diagnosis?”  I still stand by the statement for the reasons I stated above, but I also think that we should not dismiss Fish out of hand.

Thoughts?