James Fallows: “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown”

wall street

James Fallows boils it down at The Atlantic:

  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read the rest here.

The Wall: A Political Box of Trump’s Own Making

trump at wall

Here is a taste of a great New York Times piece by Julie Hirschfield Davis and Peter Baker on Trump’s border wall proposal and its political consequences:

To many conservative activists who have pressed for decades for sharp reductions in both illegal and legal immigration — and some of the Republican lawmakers who are allied with them — a physical barrier on the border with Mexico is barely relevant, little more than a footnote to a long list of policy changes they believe are needed to fix a broken system.

The disconnect is at the heart of the dilemma facing Mr. Trump as he labors to find a way out of an impasse that has shuttered large parts of the government and cost 800,000 federal employees their pay. Having spent more than four years — first as a candidate and then as president — whipping his core supporters into a frenzy over the idea of building a border wall, Mr. Trump finds himself in a political box of his own making.

In transforming the wall into a powerful emblem of his anti-immigration message, Mr. Trump has made the proposal politically untouchable for Democrats, who have steadfastly refused to fund it, complicating the chances of any compromise.

“As a messaging strategy, it was pretty successful,” Mr. Krikorian said. “The problem is, you got elected; now what do you do? Having made it his signature issue, Trump handed the Democrats a weapon against him.”

Read the entire piece here.

Hey George Will, Why Don’t You Tell Us What You REALLY Think About Donald Trump?

George Will

Conservative columnist George Will has already told conservatives to vote for Democratic candidates in 2018.  In today’s column he calls Trump a “sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.”  Here is a taste:

Like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story with that title, collusion with Russia is hiding in plain sight. We shall learn from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation whether in 2016 there was collusion with Russia by members of the Trump campaign. The world, however, saw in Helsinki something more grave — ongoing collusion between Trump, now in power, and Russia. The collusion is in what Trump says (refusing to back the United States’ intelligence agencies) and in what evidently went unsaid (such as: You ought to stop disrupting Ukrainedowning civilian airlinersattempting to assassinate people abroad using poisons, and so on, and on).

Americans elected a president who — this is a safe surmise — knew that he had more to fear from making his tax returns public than from keeping them secret. The most innocent inference is that for decades he has depended on an American weakness, susceptibility to the tacky charisma of wealth, which would evaporate when his tax returns revealed that he has always lied about his wealth, too. A more ominous explanation might be that his redundantly demonstrated incompetence as a businessman tumbled him into unsavory financial dependencies on Russians. A still more sinister explanation might be that the Russians have something else, something worse, to keep him compliant.

The explanation is in doubt; what needs to be explained — his compliance — is not. Granted, Trump has a weak man’s banal fascination with strong men whose disdain for him is evidently unimaginable to him. And, yes, he only perfunctorily pretends to have priorities beyond personal aggrandizement. But just as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.

Read the rest here.

Trump’s “God and Country” Language in National Prayer Breakfast Speech

Trump prayer

I offered my take on the speech here. I also contributed to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted as well.

“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.

However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Should Conservatives Abandon the GOP and Vote for a “Straight Democratic Ticket?”

 

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes think that they should.  Here is their recent piece in The Atlantic:

We have both spent our professional careers strenuously avoiding partisanship in our writing and thinking. We have both done work that is, in different ways, ideologically eclectic, and that has—over a long period of time—cast us as not merely nonpartisans but antipartisans. Temperamentally, we agree with the late Christopher Hitchens: Partisanship makes you stupid. We are the kind of voters who political scientists say barely exist—true independents who scour candidates’ records in order to base our votes on individual merit, not party brand.

This, then, is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to do as Toren Beasley did: vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).

Of course, lots of people vote a straight ticket. Some do so because they are partisan. Others do so because of a particular policy position: Many pro-lifers, for example, will not vote for Democrats, even pro-life Democrats, because they see the Democratic Party as institutionally committed to the slaughter of babies.

We’re proposing something different. We’re suggesting that in today’s situation, people should vote a straight Democratic ticket even if they are not partisan, and despite their policy views. They should vote against Republicans in a spirit that is, if you will, prepartisan and prepolitical. Their attitude should be: The rule of law is a threshold value in American politics, and a party that endangers this value disqualifies itself, period. In other words, under certain peculiar and deeply regrettable circumstances, sophisticated, independent-minded voters need to act as if they were dumb-ass partisans.

Read the rest here.

 

Two Quick Thoughts About Jeff Flake

Get up to speed:

1). A lot of folks on the Left are not taking Flake’s speech seriously because he still votes most of the time with Donald Trump.  This is a fair observation, but I think it misses the point and lacks nuance.  Flake never said he was leaving the Republican Party or ceasing to vote conservative.  His primary criticism of Trump is grounded in the way the POTUS debases the office, tarnishes the reputation of the United States around the world, enables the alt-Right, etc….  I think you can say the same thing about Bob Corker and John McCain.  I understand the intellectual purity of those on the Left.  Flake is not a progressive and probably never will be a progressive.  But by attacking Flake for voting with conservatives, those on the Left fail to recognize gravity of this particular moment.  Their criticism of Flake’s voting record would be the same no matter who was in the White House.  I don’t understand why those on the Left can’t bring themselves to be happy about the potential political implications of Flake’s speech.  In other words, if those on the Left want Trump out of office, isn’t what Flake did a step in the right direction?

I like Philip Bump’s piece on this issue at The Washington Post and Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones.  Jana Riess, a Mormon who votes Democrat, wants to buy Flake a cup of coffee.

2). Why aren’t more moderate Republicans concerned that their party will be held hostage by the extremists when Flake, Corker, McCain, and others leave?  Shouldn’t they stay in the Senate and fight?  Ana Navarro actually made this argument yesterday on CNN.

OK–have at it.

Gerson: Trump Broke Conservatism

Trump

Here is a taste of the latest from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson:

A common defense of President Trump points to the positive things he has done from a Republican perspective — his appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and other conservative judges, his pursuit of the Islamic State, his honoring of institutional religious freedom. This argument is not frivolous. What frustrates is the steadfast refusal among most Republicans and conservatives to recognize the costs on the other side of the scale.

Chief among them is Trump’s assault on truth, which takes a now-familiar form. First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause. So, Trump claimed that Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson’s account of his conversation with a Gold Star widow was “totally fabricated.” (Not true.) Wilson, after all, is “wacky.” (Not relevant.) And Trump won the interchange because Wilson is “killing the Democrat Party.” (We’ll see.)

Read the entire piece here.

Is Historical Ignorance a Source of Our Political Polarization?

Ignorance

I largely agree with Jonah Goldberg’s National Review piece on “The Dangers of Arrogant Ignorance.”

Here is a taste:

It is a common human foible to think you know more than you do and to assume that when someone, particularly someone you don’t like, says something you don’t understand that the fault must be in the speaker, not the listener. “It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education,” observed Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

Ideological and political polarization is a big concern these days, and commentators on the Right and Left have chewed the topic to masticated pulp. But it occurs to me that one unappreciated factor is widespread historical ignorance, and the arrogant impatience of reaching conclusions before thinking. The instantaneity of TV and Twitter only amplifies the problem.

Read the entire piece here.

Can an Independent Counsel Be Truly Independent?

A4490-20

J. Edgar Hoover

I hope so.  But, as Yale historian Beverly Gage argues, history reminds us that partisanship is difficult to overcome.

Here is a taste of her New York Times piece “Can Anyone Be Truly ‘Independent’ in Today’s Polarized Politics“:

In colonial America, “independence” meant something relatively simple: freedom from economic dependence, or the ownership of land and wealth. By the 18th century, though, the word had acquired a more explicit political meaning: Men needed to be “independent” in order to think clearly about the common good and thus to rule themselves. For the founders, this came with many limitations of race, gender and class. As a political vision, though, it communicated a higher purpose: Officeholders would have to reject the temptations of partisanship and personal interest lest, as George Washington warned in his farewell speech, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” use the white-hot animosities of party politics to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

As the 20th century dawned, and Americans embraced the promise of apolitical government expertise, administrative agencies and bureaus proliferated — among them the tiny Bureau of Investigation. Founded in 1908, the bureau started out plagued by the very problems Civil Service law was designed to eliminate: incompetence, corruption and crony appointments. Then, in 1924, a bustling young director named J. Edgar Hoover set about whipping the bureau into shape. Hoover is often seen today as a tyrant and a violator of civil liberties, but when he came to office, he was considered a reformer and an enemy of “politics,” a man who could be relied upon to tell the truth when everyone else seemed to be lying for partisan ends.

He was no political naïf, however. Despite his fealty to the idea of nonpartisan professionalism, Hoover fought to keep his agents out of the Civil Service, sure that its rules and regulations would limit his autonomy as director. This sleight of hand gave Hoover’s F.B.I. its peculiar character, at once a respected investigative body and a personal fief. It also helped to insulate Hoover from the fate visited upon James Comey. As the Times journalist Tom Wicker noted two years before Hoover’s death in 1972, the F.B.I. director achieved “virtually unlimited power and independence.” No president, Republican or Democrat, ever dared to fire him.

This is one example of how bureaucratic independence can go awry. In the mid-1970s, alarmed by abuses of power during Hoover’s nearly 48-year directorship, Congress decided that future F.B.I. directors should be subject to a 10-year limit. The policy effectively split the difference between autonomy and accountability: The president still had the right to fire an F.B.I. director, but the law established a standard period of service longer than any president’s two terms. One of several things Trump’s showdown with Comey calls into question is whether this arrangement is still enough to ensure a reasonable level of F.B.I. independence — especially under a president disinclined to observe political norms.

Read the entire piece here.

“March on Harrisburg” Calls for a New Era in Pennsylvania Politics

Harrisburg_capitol_building

I am happy to publish this piece by John Craig Hammond,  If you care about the fate of democracy in Pennsylvania please give it a read. –JF

Google “corrupt” and “state legislature,” and guess what name pops up over and over again? Pennsylvania – of course.

This is not “new” news. Our commonwealth enjoys (if that is the proper term) a century-long history of corruption that continues unabated to the present. The impact on public confidence is predictable: a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll shows that only 35 percent of Pennsylvania voters think we are “headed in the right direction.”

It is news, however, that Pennsylvanians are at last so fed up with dysfunction, ineptitude and lack of responsiveness in Harrisburg that they are banding together to bring about fundamental change. A grassroots group that I’ve joined, March on Harrisburg, is living up to its name literally and figuratively, as thousands of citizens call, write, meet and actually journey to the statehouse with the goal of launching a new era in Pennsylvania politics.

We believe that just three key measures will go a long way to establish open and responsive government:

End gerrymandering. Pennsylvania’s current system allows the party in power to draw up the voting district map in its own favor; in essence, politicians get to pick their voters. Thus, Pennsylvania is one of the three most gerrymandered states in the nation, with some of the least competitive elections. In the 2016 elections for state house and state senate, for example, about one-half of incumbents ran unopposed thanks to the “safe” districts that they gerrymandered for themselves.

March on Harrisburg seeks to end gerrymandering by establishing an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission. You can help by calling your state legislators to demand that SB 22 and HB 722, currently in committee, be brought to the floor for a vote.

End gift-giving. Even as you read this, legislators, along with their staff and their family members, are accepting gifts from special interests – and it is perfectly legal. Pennsylvania ethics and reporting laws are so murky and ineffective that gift-giving is, in practice, an open invitation to corruption.

March on Harrisburg seeks to ban such gifts. Please contact your elected officials with two requests: to pledge personally to stop taking gifts and to propose legislation forbidding gift-giving.

Institute automatic voter registration. Politicians tend to favor our state’s antiquated voter registration mechanism because it narrows the electorate and reduces the number of pesky voters who otherwise might go around expecting good, responsive government.

Automatic voter registration is easy to implement, and there is no excuse for failing to do so in Pennsylvania. March on Harrisburg believes that if you are legally entitled to vote, you should be automatically registered to vote. We hope you will contact your legislators to express that view.

With these three important measures, Pennsylvania citizens can begin the process of reclaiming the state house. The fight will not be easy. But it can and must be done.

Please contact your state representative and senator, and let them know that you support March on Harrisburg and that you expect them to do the same. Democracy depends on you.

John Craig Hammond, Ph.D

Franklin Park, PA

Is the Democratic Party Divided Over Abortion Rights?

Casey

The late Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey was reportedly denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic Convention because he wanted to give a pro-life speech

What should the Democratic Party do with its pro-life members?  Over at The Atlantic, Clare Foran reports that the politics of abortion threaten to divide the party.

Here is a taste:

Ahead of an event on Thursday where Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who remains the left’s most popular figure, was slated to appear with Representative Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chair, and Heath Mello, an Omaha, Nebraska Democratic mayoral candidate, NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary, harshly criticized the DNC for what it called the party’s “embrace” of “an anti-choice candidate.”

The statement followed a report in The Wall Street Journal that Mello once supported legislation “requiring women to look at ultrasound image of their fetus before receiving an abortion.” The liberal website Daily Kos withdrew its endorsement of Mello over the report.

On Thursday, Mello told The Huffington Post, however, that he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” if elected. Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and board member of Our Revolution, a group that emerged out of the embers of the Sanders campaign, said in an interview that The Wall Street Journal and NARAL had “mischaracterized” Mello’s legislative record.

“Heath is a strong progressive Democrat, and he is pro-life, and you can be both things,” Kleeb said, adding: “What Heath did actually was stop a bill to make ultrasounds mandatory by getting Republicans in our legislature to agree to make them voluntary.”

Mello’s vow did not satisfy NARAL, however. “It’s not enough to issue a statement for political expediency when your record is full of anti-choice votes,” Ilyse Hogue, the organization’s president, said in a follow-up statement. “The Democratic Party’s support of any candidate who does not support the basic rights and freedoms of women is disappointing and politically stupid.”

Read the entire piece here.

I did not think the pro-life faction of the Democratic Party was that strong. Or at least I have not heard the divisions in the Party framed this way recently.  I assumed that pro-life Democrats lost all power in the Party sometimes shortly after the election of Bill Clinton.

If you want some perspective on how the Democrats became a pro-choice party I recommend Daniel K. Williams’s book  Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (Oxford 2016).  Before you go out and buy the book you may want to hear Williams talk about the history of the pro-life movement in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

As I have argued, particularly in a piece I published a couple of years ago in USA Today, the modern Democratic Party should really be the party of life.

Steinfels: “You Don’t Win over People By Calling Them Racists”

steinfelspeterCatholic writer Peter Steinfels reflects on the #ageoftrump in a recent piece at Commonweal, the magazine where his byline has appeared for over fifty years.  He has little patience for Donald Trump, the GOP, the  Democratic Party, and identity politics.

Here is a taste:

And that raises the much-bruited issue of identity politics. Clearly, the Democrats’ fixation on sheer diversity, a demographic checklist of age groups, income groups, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, has proved a failure. But what is the problem—simply the emphasis on identities or the failure to connect with some identities (e.g., traditionalist, rural, working-class) in a convincing way? Perhaps the problem, to a disturbing degree, is the loss of identities, of identities, that is, with any genuine life-shaping character, any authentic culture, rather than identities based on skin color or admiration for a reality TV star and winner at casino economics? 

I would have thought that religion might provide that kind of identity, until I looked at the 81 percent white evangelical vote for Trump and the 60 percent white Catholic vote. My guess is that these churches and, by association, religion generally, will find themselves badly discredited by a Trump administration bearing gifts. The prolife and religious freedom movements, which I consider of major importance, may win a round or two in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, with the mark of Trump stamped on their foreheads, they have virtually doomed themselves in the cultural contests essential to their goals.

I have not said anything about “whitelash.” I never believed for an instant, as I am sure Barack Obama never believed, that we had entered a “post-racial” era. I also don’t believe that we are returning to Jim Crow or that black bodies exist in constant danger of being mowed down by white authorities on the streets. But I have neither space nor ability to address with due gravity and precision what 2016 reveals about where the nation stands in regard to this, its deepest and most threatening wound. My only observation, practical but superficial, is that you don’t win over people by calling them racists.  

Read the entire piece here.  The last paragraph reminds me a lot of Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.”

HT: John Haas

Some Helpful Stuff on Trump’s Carrier Deal

trump-at-carrier

Kudos to Donald Trump.  He negotiated and saved about 1000 jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana this week.  Indeed, there will be 1000 people who will have a better Christmas because Trump did this.

But we historians have a nasty habit of understanding events like this in larger contexts. We tend to look for a bigger picture.  We think about the implications of political decisions and about cause and effect.  We take the long view.

One piece that has provided a start point for helping me understand the implications of Trump’s job saving efforts as Carrier is Matt Yglesias’s piece at Vox.

Here is a taste:

Now, the overall scale of this move relative to the size of the American economy is pathetic. In Indiana alone, there were 672,000 manufacturing jobs at the 1999 peak, falling to 425,000 in the summer of 2009 and bouncing back to 513,000 as of this fall. Which is just to say that broad Obama-era policies aimed at overall economic recovery have “brought back” almost 90 times as many jobs as are at stake in the Carrier deal. Getting all the way back to the Clinton-era peak would require Trump to pull off about 160 Carrier-scale moves in Indiana alone, to say nothing of the millions of manufacturing jobs in other states.

But the very small-scale nature of the Carrier situation is part of what makes it such appealing public relations. It’s true that something abstract like a 0.25 percentage point cut in the federal funds rate or a temporary partial suspension of the payroll tax would do a lot more to create jobs than jawboning a single company about a single factory. But Trump’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the problems of one American community indicates an obsessive focus on boosting the fortunes of working-class Midwesterners — even as his administration’s big-picture policy focus remains on deregulating Wall Street, enacting an enormous tax cut for rich people, and slashing spending on assistance to the poor.

And this:

Trump has done a good job over the years of making his Twitter feed livelier and more exciting than Obama’s feed. But it’s still the case that allowing him to set the media agenda via Twitter is an enormous win for him. Very few people will be affected by the Carrier move — many fewer, for example, than the million or so people impacted by Obama’s leave for contractors initiative — whereas huge numbers of people will be affected by things Trump doesn’t like to tweet about, including rolling back Dodd-Frank and slashing taxes for millionaires.

Touring the country looking for factories to cheerlead or small interventions to help particular communities is a perfectly legitimate thing for a president to do. But a PR stunt is a PR stunt, not a major economic policy initiative.

If Trump actually does try to make this kind of stunt the centerpiece of his economic agenda, that will be a disaster. But the much more likely scenario is one in which he continues with his stated policy agenda of tax cuts and deregulation while using a handful of PR stunts to maintain an image as an champion of the working class. The big question is will he get away with it?

Read the entire piece here.

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?

What To Do About Trump

Trump thunbs up

Damon Linker offers an interesting suggestion at The Week.  

Linker suggests that the GOP should do everything possible to deny Trump the nomination in Cleveland even it if means (and it probably will) that they will lose the 2016 election.

I will let Linker take it from here:

But wouldn’t this backfire? If the party denied Trump the nomination at the Republican convention, wouldn’t it fuel a “stabbed in the back” narrative that would inspire an even darker political movement four years from now? This was Jeet Heer’s argument in a recent smart piece in The New Republic. The Trump voters are a problem for American democracy, Heer asserted, one that can only be solved by allowing them to get their nominee and then ensuring that he’s roundly defeated at the ballot box in November.

It’s a powerful argument, but I’m unpersuaded that a general-election defeat will “solve” the problem of the Trump voters. These voters are activated now. Trump has given them a style and the rudiments of a policy agenda that they clearly prefer to the offerings from either the Republicans or the Democrats. The only way to keep those voters from flocking to Trump four years from now, or rallying around some even-worse populist copycat, is for the GOP to woo them by adjusting its platform and agenda.

That’s what both parties did after the original Populists upended American politics in the 1890s. It could happen again. It needs to happen again. And whether and how it happens will do far more to determine the future shape of the Republican Party than whether it dumps Trump this July.

In the short term, the party would most likely be wrecked. But that could well be less destructive, in the longer term, for both the party and the country, than trying to ride the Trump tiger. Exiling the Trump voters in 2016 would save the GOP from making a fatal compromise with competence and put it in a relatively strong position to run more compelling and capable post-Trump populists in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections. America would be much better for it.

At the end of the transformation, the Republican Party would look and sound quite a bit different than it has since Ronald Reagan took it over 36 years ago. But Republicans should consider that vastly preferable to allowing Trump to remake the party in his own Know Nothing image. We all should.

Very interesting, especially the nod to William Jennings Bryan.  Read the entire piece here.