Hoaxes

First there was this:

Now there is this:

Believe me.  These hoaxes are real.  Believe me.  🙂

The Founding Fathers and Foreign Meddling in American Elections

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Were the founders worried about foreign meddling in American elections?

Yes.

Check out Jeanne Abrams‘s piece at History News Service.  Abrams teaches at the University of Denver and her book First Ladies of the Republic was featured in a March 2018 Author’s Corner at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Here is a taste:

In 1787, the new United States Constitution was being debated in Philadelphia, and both Jefferson and Adams followed developments closely from afar. In an oft- quoted letter written by Adams to Jefferson on December 6, 1787, Adams referred to the “Project of the new Constitution,” and the various objections both men had to the evolving document. Adams famously declared “You are afraid of the one – I, of the few.” Jefferson detested the institution of monarchy and was concerned that the installation of a powerful executive would overturn the principles of the American Revolution and create a quasi-monarchy. Adams, on the other hand, feared the creation of an elite aristocracy in the form of senators. Because of his concern about such a possible oligarchy, Adams therefore maintained “I would have given more power to the President and less to the Senate,” and he advocated for a strong executive.

What is more surprising, and for the most part overlooked, about Adams’s letter is his discussion of the potential danger of foreign meddling in American elections, a subject that is especially timely today. “You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, and Influence,” Adams wrote. “So am I, – But, as often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs.” To counteract that danger, Adams maintained that the less frequently elections occurred, “the danger of foreign influence will be less.” Of course, Adams’s view did not prevail and regular elections and the peaceful transfer of power are still regarded as hallmarks of American democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump and Witch Hunts

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Donald Trump has said multiple times that the Robert Mueller investigation into his presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia is a “witch hunt.”  The use of this phrase invites historical analysis.  I took a crack at such analysis last May.

In the latest issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president and veteran early American historian Mary Beth Norton provides some historical analysis of her own.  Norton is the author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Here is a taste of her piece, “An Embarrassment of Witches: What’s the History behind Trump’s Tweets?“:

WITCH HUNT!”

That’s how President Donald Trump’s tweets tend to refer to the investigation led by Robert Mueller into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

Except for modern adherents of the Wiccan religion, people today do not believe in witchcraft—and Wiccans do not believe in the sort of witchcraft that became the subject of prosecutions in early modern Europe and America. The consensus among historians now is that witches did not exist in the past, and so by employing the term “witch hunt,” the president is implying that he is as innocent today as were the persecuted “witches” of centuries ago.

He is assuming, probably correctly, that Americans today understand his phrase in exactly that way. Anyone raised or resident in the United States has surely heard of the most famous “witch hunt” in American history, that which occurred in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692–93, named for the town in which the trials occurred: Salem. Indeed, many high school students today must read Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play, The Crucible, which effectively used the vehicle of the Salem trials to comment on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the 1950s, which had ensnared Miller and many of his acquaintances. Even though Miller changed many historical details to make his points—for example, turning the elderly John Proctor into a younger man and the child Abigail Williams into a femme fatale who seduces him—his image of the trials retains its hold on the American imagination.

Read the rest here.

“The most scrutinized father-son relationship in American history?”

Houston Navy Week

The folks at Salon are playing fast and loose with their headlines these days.  Joshua David Stein’s piece on Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. is titled “The most scrutinized father-son relationship in American history.

So I ask my historian friends, is this true?

How does Trump-Trump Jr. relationship compare with:

John Adams and John Quincy Adams?

George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush?

Ben Franklin and William Franklin?

Abraham Lincoln and Tad Lincoln?

Don Corleone and Michael Corleone? 🙂

Krauthammer: “Bungled collusion is still collusion”

Trump Jr.

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer started yesterday’s column with this line: “The Russia scandal has entered a new phase, and there is no going back.”

Here is a taste:

Yes, there were several meetings with Russian officials, some only belatedly disclosed. But that is circumstantial evidence at best. Meetings tell you nothing unless you know what happened in them. We didn’t. Some of these were casual encounters in large groups, like the famous July 2016 Kislyak-Sessions exchange of pleasantries at the Republican National Convention. Big deal.

I was puzzled. Lots of coverup, but where was the crime? Not even a third-rate burglary. For six months, smoke without fire. Yes, President Trump himself was acting very defensively, as if he were hiding something. But no one ever produced the something.

My view was: Collusion? I just don’t see it. But I’m open to empirical evidence. Show me.

The evidence is now shown. This is not hearsay, not fake news, not unsourced leaks. This is an email chain released by Donald Trump Jr. himself. A British go-between writes that there’s a Russian government effort to help Trump Sr. win the election, and as part of that effort he proposes a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” possessing damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the Kremlin is willing to share troves of incriminating documents from the Crown Prosecutor. (Error: Britain has a Crown Prosecutor. Russia has a Prosecutor General.)

Read the entire column at The Washington Post.

On Treason

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Satan and Benedict Arnold welcome Jefferson Davis (right) to hell (Wiki Commons)

I think it was Virginia Senator Tim Kaine who her first raised the “T” word in the wake of news that senior officials in the Trump presidential campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016.

“Treason” is not a word we use very much in political discourse.  The word harkens us back to an early age in American history.  For example, many will note that the patriots during the American Revolution committed treason against England.  Benedict Arnold committed treason in 1780 when he tried to hand West Point to the British.  Aaron Burr was tried for treason in 1807 after he tried to establish an independent republic from Spanish territory that he hoped to annex from Louisiana and Mexico (he was acquitted). John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia after he led a slave rebellion on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  He was executed.

Over at The Philadelphia Inquirer, historian Brian Carso, author of Whom Can We Trust Now?: The Meaning of Treason in the United States, provides some historical context for this whole Russia-gate mess.

Here is a taste:

When the Framers completed the Constitution in September 1787, a famous story tells of a woman who approached Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall and asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” To which Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Thus, Franklin defined the moral responsibility that is a birthright of every American citizen, which is “to keep it” — to preserve this republic, to put some thoughtful effort into maintaining this fragile experiment in democracy. We call it treason, when such efforts are betrayed.

For all its hyperbole and incendiary color, talk of treason is primarily a rhetorical shorthand that conjures deep-seated feelings of loyalty, national identity, and trust. Historically, when Americans speak of treason, they do so not to identify elements of law so much as to express concern for abstract notions of allegiance and political obligation that they recognize as a profound American tradition.

Prosecutors will have many diverse laws at their disposal to bring about justice should it be proved that individuals assisted the adversarial Russian regime’s interference in our democratic practice. The rest of us will gather about the water cooler, or the kitchen table, and talk about treason.

Read the entire piece here.

On Russia-Gate and “Context”

Trump Jr.

Ever since Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians came to light, everyone on cable news is talking about context.  Pundits and commentators believe that Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer must be understood in the context of:

Donald Trump’s connection to the people who set up the meeting.

General Michael Flynn’s meetings with Russians.

Donald Trump’s Putin-love.

Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russians.

Donald Trump’s decision to remove an anti-Russia stance on the Ukraine from the GOP platform.

Trump adviser Roger Stone’s connections to Russia.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s links to Russia.

Trump adviser Carter Page’s links to Russia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s failure to disclose meetings he had with Russians.

Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey over his role in the Russian investigation.

Trump telling Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office that Comey was a “nutjob” and that his firing has taken the “pressure” off of him.

And we could go on…

Does all of this information mean that Donald Trump is guilty of colluding with the Russians?  Not necessarily.  But any investigation into this case must begin with this context.  It cannot be ignored.

Historians talk about context all the time.  Contextual thinking is historical thinking. Any investigator–whether it be the FBI, the CIA, or an insurance investigator–must take context into consideration when conducting an investigation.

“Context” is one of the five “Cs” of historical thinking that I write about at length in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Context does not always lead us to definitive answers about “what happened.”  In this sense, history is a limited discipline.  But it is an essential discipline in the sense that it can help us get close–sometimes very close–to the answers we seek.

Is Trump guilty of collusion with the Russians?  We will only find out if investigators continue to apply other historical skills: research, investigation, and the dogged search for evidence.  But context is a start.

Why study history?  A better question might be “why not study history?”

This Headline Explains the Whole Trump Jr. Meeting with a Russian Contact

Trump Jr.

It is from David Graham of The Atlantic: “If There Was No Collusion, It Wasn’t for Lack of Trying.”

Here is a taste:

In other words, Trump Jr. admitted (while acknowledging a prior lie) that he was open to receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian lawyer; he was just frustrated that she didn’t seem to have it. If there was no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump inner circle, it was not because top Trump aides were against it.

Trump Jr.’s admission here is remarkable. Donald Trump’s tendency to speak unwisely remains one of his greatest weaknesses—his threat to release apparently fictive tapes resulted in a special-counsel investigation that has rocked his still-young presidency—and his children are a chip off the old block. (Eric Trump has admitted, contra claims of separation, that he continues to talk business with his father.)

Read the rest here.

Some Very Quick Thoughts on What Historians Might Write About Trump’s Election

trump-pressJohn Lewis may be correct.  The Russian hacking controversy and the last-minute Comey/FBI revelations about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails has deligitimized Donald Trump’s presidency. Yes, the Electoral College selected him last month.  Yes, he will assume office next week. Yes, Clinton was not a perfect candidate. She probably should have offered a more compelling message to the American people and finished the campaign in a stronger fashion.  And we may never know if Putin’s hacks and Comey’s announcement had any direct effect on voting in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

I am afraid that Lewis’s remarks about Trump’s legitimacy, while important, will get little traction outside of the Democratic Party.  But historians will write about all of this.  People will always wonder if Trump won fair and square.  There will always be a figurative asterisk next to Trump’s name in the history books.  Some historians will try to defend Trump, but in order to do so they will need to dredge all of this stuff up again and bring it to the attention of the American public.

And if Americans ever get around to doing away with the Electoral College, the Trump victory (and the Bush victory in 2000 and others) will be seen by many as a betrayal of democracy made possible by an antiquated and out of date electoral system.  Al Gore and Hillary Clinton will be portrayed as victims of such a system.

Of course this is all very preliminary.  Historians will also judge Trump on what happens in the next four years and beyond.  We do know, however, that Trump’s kryptonite is the idea that he is not a legitimate POTUS.

Peter Steinfels on the Russian Dossier and the Press

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Over at dotCommonweal Peter Steinfels has some good thoughts about the way the press has handled the entire Russian dossier affair.

A taste:

Donald Trump is who he is.  Despite all the wishful thinking, there is no inner “presidential” Trump about to emerge on January 20.  That’s the main lesson to take away from his press-conference exercise in free-association, misrepresentation, diversionary attacks, and calculated indignation.  But here are two further thoughts: 

The news media: Media condemnation’s of BuzzFeed’s online publication of 35 pages of unverified and in some cases salacious charges have come from every direction.  It is hard to imagine that if Breitbart had possessed such a dossier on Hillary Clinton, it would have waited until after the election to publish it.  But that’s the least of the matter. 

We now know that this dossier of unverified charges was floating around Washington for months.  Not only were intelligence agencies looking into them, which was their responsibility, but so were reporters from major news media.  It is in fact a tribute to the mainstream media that, not being able to verify the charges, no one published any of this material.  Neither political nor profit-making motives outweighed professional standards.   Trump himself adverted to this in his opening remarks, although the point was soon lost in his routine anti-media bluster and whining. 

The press is going to play an important role during this administration.

Rachel Maddow on Why Historical Thinking Matters

Watch this video:

Granted, Maddow is not talking specifically about historical thinking here, but almost everything she says can be analyzed using skills that we learn from studying history.

Some comments:

  • The person in this video is Rachel Maddow.  Her politics lean left.  We should keep this in mind as we interpret the video. This is what historians refer to as “sourcing.” Maddow is a political commentator and is motivated here by her anti-Trump views. This should not taint the validity of her argument or her work as an interpreter of this intelligence report, but it is something we should be aware of even if we conclude in the end that it has no effect on whether the case she is making in the video is right.
  • Having said that, let’s turn to the content.  Maddow compares Trump’s statement about the report with the report itself.  In other words, Maddow is turning to the primary source. She is not allowing Trump’s statement (which is a secondary source in this case) to be the final word on what the primary source says. Nice work.  This is something akin to what history educator Sam Wineburg calls “opening up the textbook.”
  • Maddow notes a contradiction between the primary source and the secondary source. She thus evaluates the accuracy of the secondary source (Trump’s statement) based on what the primary source says.
  • If she is handling these sources fairly, and looking at them with a sensitivity to context (which is hard to do in a TV segment like this), then we can conclude one of two things.  1). Trump needs to improve his historical thinking skills because he is unable to interpret what is in the intelligence report. We know this because he is unable to write an accurate statement summarizing what the report says.  2). Trump has blatantly lied to the American people.  He, in his statement, is not telling the truth about what is in the intelligence report.
  • Whether Trump is a bad interpreter, or whether he is flat out lying, he should make historians cringe.  Historians tell stories about the past, but they also teach students how to take primary sources and interpret them accurately.  This is a skill that a K-16 student should get in any history class.  It is why we teach history in schools. Historians also do their best, through an analysis of primary documents, to tell the truth about the past.  Trump fails on both accounts.