Historians in the Age of Trump

Scholars debate what his election means, whether efforts to band together as a discipline to oppose him were wrong and what the future may hold for their field.

January 9, 2017
 

DENVER -- Historians are often asked to make sense of the present using their knowledge of the past. So it’s no surprise that Donald Trump was discussed at numerous sessions here last week and over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Beyond informal mentions across a variety of panels, Trump-related plenaries bookended the conference. In between was a lively debate about the role of historians in political debates.

First up was a plenary titled “The First 100 Days: Priorities for a New President.” Some speakers who agreed to be on the panel long before Trump won the election said they were struggling with just what to say about a leader opposed by many inside and outside academe, and one whose policy positions frequently change. Yet each scholar drew on their expertise to try to recommend priorities for Trump’s key first 100 days in office. The overall message was caution and communication.

Trump’s First 100 Days

Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, said that while Trump’s campaign flew in the face of political and party norms, it was conventional in one sense: “making big, bold promises to bring back jobs and economic prosperity,” and fast.

A president’s first days have taken on “fabled status” in modern American presidential politics, she said, yet the kind of reforms achieved in the first administration recognized for its first 100 days -- that of Franklin Roosevelt at a time of national crisis and unusual congressional support -- make for an impossible standard to meet now. Even presidents generally perceived as popular, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, didn't achieve much economic growth in their early months in office.

“What history tells us is that meaningful economic and job growth is not a product of the first 100 days,” O’Mara said. “It’s a long game -- longer than 100 days, or four years, or eight years. … If Trump really wants to create jobs and lasting economic transformation, he needs to be ready to play it long and wait for the results.”

Rather than quick fixes, real economic growth comes from public investments in people, ideas and “audacious technologies for which there isn’t yet a market,” O’Mara said, along with internationalism and immigration and income security. Cold War-era investments in research and development and higher education under President Eisenhower, for example, led to the high-tech revolution.

Kenneth Pomeranz, University Professor in History and College Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, seemed to address Trump’s provocations of China in relation to Taiwan and trade. While “quiet” support for Taiwan may make sense, Pomeranz said, loud support is likely to backfire, since “the People’s Republic never got the memo about the inevitable collapse of the state.” Moreover, he said, China’s rapidly aging population and its environmental problems may make it easier to work with than to fight with on key issues going forward.

“The bargaining table should not be cluttered with yesterday’s issues,” he said. “This is, at this moment, the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and there’s no need to make it more complicated than it already is by fighting yesterday’s wars.”

Nathan Citino, associate professor history at Rice University, said attention is needed in the Middle East, as well -- most of all in Syria -- but he expressed concern that Trump’s first 100 days would be hampered by lingering concerns about the legitimacy of the election. At the very least, he said, “At the beginning of 2017, we all share the same historical moment. Whether [in] North America or the Middle East, our politics reflect how ethnic, racial, religious and other kinds of identity-based conflicts can flourish in circumstances of great economic inequality.”

Robert Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, didn’t hold back about his own doubts about Trump’s legitimacy, including those related to Russia's reported interference in the election. Primarily, he advised Trump to carry out the oath of office and protect the Constitution.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University, employed a few Star Wars metaphors, saying it was hard not to see the recent election in shades of good and evil. Yet, he said, communication will be key going forward. That means communication between Trump and scientists, activists and others who may oppose his policy proposals, and even civil disobedience from citizens who fear the reversal of many Obama-era policies.

“If the charge tonight is to believe in the Force, that force has to be one of communication and dialogue, and a historically informed understanding of our responsibility to the nation we have built,” Muhammad said. “Another way to think about this is, as long we keep talking, we’re not killing each other.”

Speaking specifically to historians, he said now is a time for “active engagement,” as “sometimes the way forward demands our looking back.” Muhammad said the conference “reminds us that we are keepers of the past, storytellers of humanity and stewards of our civic culture. We are community leaders. We have an obligation to face the facts before us with humility, drawing on the wisdom of the ages and triumphs and tragedies.”

Historical Expertise and Political Authority

But should historians be involved in political debates at all, and if so, to what degree? Those questions drove a panel called “Historical Expertise and Political Authority,” inspired largely by one academic’s negative response to a group of historians’ public opposition to Trump.

“As far as I’m concerned, Historians Against Trump has just as much authority as, and perhaps less than, Plumbers Against Trump,” said Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University and Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “I am interested in what historians have to say in the way of analysis because they are trained to do certain kinds of analysis. I am not interested in what historians have to say when they advise me, and indeed almost want to shame me, into voting for one candidate rather than another.”

This summer, more than 900 historians signed a public statement opposing Trump’s candidacy for president. “We have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built,” reads the statement, in part. “Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact. … We are here to say, ‘No more.’ Join us in standing up to Trump -- for our history, for our future and for each other.”

Fish, an outspoken proponent of a limited, professionally focused definition of academic freedom, promptly responded to the statement and its signers’ “hubris” with an opinion piece in The New York Times. “Professors are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession,” Fish wrote. “By dressing up their obviously partisan views as ‘the lessons of history,’ the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses, and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.”

Fish said he’d have “no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor, but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.”

He held firm to that stance at the conference, again arguing that academic expertise is not a qualification “for delivering political wisdom,” and naming the campus divestment debates concerning fossil fuels and Israel as other examples of nonacademic issues. Professors and others who wish to influence politics should enter the political arena, not call out from their professional perches, Fish said.

Jacqueline Jones, Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin, signed the statement (which was not affiliated with AHA) and defended it against Fish’s criticisms. (Note: This sentence has been updated from a previous version to reflect that Jones signed the statement but did not help write it.)

Regarding Trump’s evocation of a “great” past that never was for many Americans, for example, Jones said, “historians have an obligation to be involved in these national conversations, not because they always have the correct answer or all agree with each other, but because their participation invariably enriches the conversation.”

Being a historian doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s duties as an American citizen, she added. “Fish seems to be saying, go back into the archives and don’t come out to make pronouncement on politics. Well, contrary to Fish’s claim, nowhere in the statement does it say that historians are uniquely qualified to speak on this subject or that we dismiss everybody else speaking about Trump; nowhere does it say historians claim moral and political superiority to nonhistorians.”

Jumping on Jones’s passing reference to Trump as a demagogue, Fish responded by saying, “The minute I hear someone at an academic conference casually throw out the phrase ‘like most demagogues,’ I know I am no longer at an academic conference.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, echoed some of Fish’s points and raised concerns about what he descried as academics’ close-mindedness about the election. The fact that talks are framed as “what went wrong,” rather than why Trump appealed to many, is intellectually “frustrating,” he said.

Steven Conn, W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Ohio, said the debate spoke, in some respect, to the tension between the university and society. “Are we a monastery or, to run back to Wisconsin 100 years ago, are we a laboratory for democracy?”

Either way, he said, expertise is under cultural attack -- perhaps because “we’re telling people what they don’t want to hear.”

How Did We Get Here?

The AHA added a last-minute plenary to its schedule, “Election 2016: How Did We Get Here and What Does It Mean?” in light of Trump’s win. Speakers attempted to put the victory into historical context, but some said it defied such efforts.

Historically speaking, the election “is a pivotal moment because everything changes,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard. “Everyone can look for historical precedents and see lots of different examples and pull things out of the historical record. The difference is that all of those ‘what if’ moments are actually real right now. That’s something we’re grappling with.”

Rigueur added that while historians have long noted the “fragility” of political coalitions, namely the two-party system, “we also now have to think about what happens when those things disintegrate.” Young people in particular are, by many accounts, engaged in politics -- just not two-party politics, she said. And nonvoters of all ages and their motivations -- whether protest, disillusionment or disenfranchisement -- must be better understood.

David Greenberg, professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said the recent election “shocked” the traditional Republican party perhaps more than the Democratic one, and ravaged longstanding political norms. “Trump is a candidate who defies Republican orthodoxy on a number of fundamental issues, from taxes to trade to foreign policy, and is not only not punished, as all the pundits expect, but is rewarded for that.”

Greenberg added, “This showed the fragility of our democracy and the weakness of a whole range of norms and institutions that many of us -- not all of us -- expected to be the bulwark against demagoguery, fascism and other things that may be upon us.”

Vicki Ruiz, distinguished professor of history and Chicano studies at the University of California, Irvine, and past president of the AHA, however, traced Trump’s rise to two familiar phenomena: nativism and gender discrimination. She said Trump’s narrative about immigrants taking U.S. jobs, for example, proved somehow convincing to voters, despite evidence to the contrary. And, as a woman, Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, was subjected to an onslaught of gender bias.

“What our president-elect has said, and his surrogates, is really nothing new,” Ruiz said of his racial rhetoric. “It’s like he’s reading European-American settlers in Texas in the 1830s. … It’s the same sort of ugliness.”

Tyler Stovall, distinguished professor of history and dean of humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and incoming president of the AHA, added to Ruiz’s assessment by linking Trump’s victory to simultaneous working-class populist and racist protests. The combination is not at all unusual in American history, he said, but is particularly salient now.

Such trends are also apparent in Europe, perhaps best evidenced by the United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the European Union. “What you see is the decline, really the abandonment, of the center left in Western politics. This is a group that really rose to prominence after [World War II] and the creation of the welfare state, but it has not been able to maintain its integrity and basic organization in the face of the neocapitalist resurgence,” Stovall said.

Still, Stovall cautioned that it’s probably premature to guess what Trump’s rise means for history. Quoting the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai commenting on the lessons of the French Revolution more than 150 years after it took place, he said, “It’s too early to tell.”

David Bell, Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton, who moderated the session, said he wanted to be optimistic, but that his study of European history pushed him toward pessimism. “I’ve spent a lot of time reading 18th-century republicanism, and those republicans knew that republics decline because they sustain their virtue and they end. But I hope that won’t be the case.”

At several sessions during the conference, historians said they worried about the current political climate and its implications for history education. Some cited the rise of “fake news”; others mentioned politically fueled academic watchdog sites, including Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, and their potential to chill academic freedom or otherwise intimidate scholars.

In response to concerns about watch lists that seek to name and shame academics, the AHA Council passed the following resolution affirming the right to nonviolent political action, which it announced at its annual business meeting: “The AHA upholds the rights of students, faculty and other historians to speak freely and to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse perspectives on historical or contemporary issues. We condemn all efforts to intimidate those expressing their views. Specifically, we condemn in the strongest terms the creation, maintenance and dissemination of blacklists and watch lists -- through media (social and otherwise) -- which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation.”

Asked whether “fake news” was a new phenomenon, Greenberg said that the internet and social media echo chambers have compounded the problem, but that Americans have always had differing perceptions of reality. Case in point? The Civil War. “Political disagreement is really about which facts we give weight to and give priority,” he said.

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