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.


Historians Against Trump


Charles Lindbergh addresses an “America First” rally in Fort Wayne, IN on October 3, 1941

A group of historians has released an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump. I just signed it.

Here is the letter:

Today, we are faced with a moral test. As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.

Historians Against Trump does not align itself with any political party or candidate. Many among us do not identify as activists and have never before taken part in such a campaign. We are history professors, school teachers, public historians and museum professionals, independent scholars and graduate students. We are united by the belief that the candidacy of Donald J. Trump poses a threat to American democracy.

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence. Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.

The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve. No less than his sham “Trump University,” Donald Trump’s contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation mocks the ideals of the academy, whether in the sciences or the liberal arts. Academia is far from the only profession endangered by Trumpism. Donald Trump bullies and suppresses the press, and seeks to weaken First Amendment protections as President. Trump singles out journalists for attack and mocks physical disabilities. Both the judiciary and individualjudges face public threats from Trump. Non-white, non-male professionals and civil servants are irredeemably compromised in Donald Trump’s eyes.Judges are disqualified from service because of their ethnicity; women Presidential candidates succeed only because of their gender; the President of the United States is under suspicion as illegitimate and alien because of his skin color and heritage.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making. In another era, civil society institutions such as the academy, the free press and the judiciary were counted on to safeguard constitutional democracy. That this is no longer the case cannot be blamed solely on Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy has profited from the fears of people living precariously and a political culture of spectacle and cynicism, both of which long predate his emergence as a candidate. The impulses and ideologies that animate the Trump campaign will not disappear once he is defeated in November.

It is all of our job to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign, building an inclusive civil society in its place. Along with Historians Against Trump, groups like Writers On Trump and Citizen Therapists are organizing in defense of the ideals in which their professions are grounded. Historians Against Trump will be marching alongside these and many other groups as part of the peaceful protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. We will continue our work into the fall, publishing essays and articles that place Trumpism into historical perspective.

We have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built. This means equipping the public with historical skills and narratives that are “factual, accurate, comprehensible, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.” When Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination on July 21st, a Grand Old Party born out of the struggle for abolition and justice will have succumbed to snake oil. We are here to say, “No more.” Join us in standing up to Trump—for our history, for our future, and for each other.

Historians Against Trump

July 11, 2016

Here is an Inside Higher Ed piece on the letter.

Historians Against Slavery Conference

What is Historians Against Slavery?  It is “a group of scholars who bring historical context and scholarship to the modern-day antislavery movement in order to inform activism and develop collaborations to sustain and enhance such efforts.”  The organization was founded in 2011 by noted historian of abolitionism James Brewer Stewart.  The current co-directors are Stacey Robertson at Central Washington University and Matthew Mason at Brigham Young University.  

It is a group that you should now about.

Those connected with Historians Against Slavery are meeting this weekend at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.  It looks like a great conference.  The conference theme is “Using History to Make Slavery History.”  Presenters and moderators include Ed Baptist, Paul Finkelman, Randall Miller, David Blight, among other U.S. and international scholars.

You can follow the conference on Twitter #has15.  Here are a few tweets that caught my attention:



Debating Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution: A Call for Civility

Not all reputable historians are bashing Sean Wilentz for his New York Times op-ed arguing that the slavery and race were not at the heart of the United States Constitution.  Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College has a slight different angle on this controversy.

Here is a taste of his post at the blog of his U.S. Constitution course at Dickinson:

Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing.  His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one.  The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter.  They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain.  Freedom was always national. That matters.  However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders.  Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence.   That’s what’s so depressing.  They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one.  There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions.  Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.

Several things are worth noting about his post:

First, it is interesting that Pinsker distinguishes between “scholars” and “scholar activists.”  He seems to suggest (and Matt can tell me if I am wrong) that it is easy for historian-activists to be so interested in using the past for political purposes that they lose their scholarly detachment. (If Matt is not will to say this, I will!)  Earlier in the post he calls out those “scholar-activists” who have been less than civil in their criticism of Wilentz:

What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise.  The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance.  One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell.  He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”

In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles:  @thetattooedprof) found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and “sad.”

Second, and related to the first point, is Pinsker’s suggestion that the “scholars-activists” and Wilentz are talking past each other.  I made a similar case in my post on the controversy: “Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution while Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.”

Finally, check out Pinsker’s Storify of the various tweets on this topic.  He makes some stinging critiques of a few other historians who have joined the fray.