Why I Signed the Historians Against Trump Letter

Every time I write a post about Donald Trump, I tell myself it’s going to be the last one. This is not, and has never been, a blog about politics.

But it is a blog about Christianity, history, education, and how they intersect, so as the Republican National Convention begins, I’m going to write one more Trump post: explaining why I — an evangelical Christian who is also a history professor — signed an “open letter to the American people” from a group called Historians Against Trump.

Trump-Pence logoWhen I’ve tried to articulate my reasons for opposing Trump, I haven’t (knowingly) staked it on my training as a historian or my status as a professor. Instead, this blog’s first, increasingly central topic is most important here. While a recent poll finds that nearly 80% of evangelicals now plan to vote for Trump, I think it’s imperative that those of us among the remaining 20% “tell it like it is” about the dys-evangelical aspects of that candidacy.

But as much as my faith shapes how I understand history and education, those two topics also intersect with my religiously-motivated concerns about the Trump campaign. So I did sign the open letter as a historian and professor, not just as a Christian. And that opens me to some pointed criticism from law professor and New York Times contributor Stanley Fish, issued over the weekend in a New York Times op-ed:

…don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. 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.

While this disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.

Nor is it their job, although they seem to think it is: “It is all of our jobs to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign.” (I’m not sure that I understand what that grandiose sentence means.) No, it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

First, let me be clear that I did not sign that letter as a Democrat. Fish criticizes signatories for “dressing up their obviously partisan views as ‘the lessons of history,'” but like most history professors in my acquaintance, I’m not much of a political partisan. When I applied for tenure, one of the recurring comments that came back in the alumni survey was that “I appreciate that I never knew who Prof. Gehrz voted for.” That will not be true of this presidential election, but #NeverTrump is a bipartisan cause. Here again today, I’ll be as likely to cite avowedly conservative criticisms of the presumptive Republican nominee as those coming from left and center.

But for this and the many other overheated instances of hyperbole in Fish’s critique, he does have an important question to ask: What is the role of a historian or professor in a democratic republic like the United States? (They overlap in my work, but “historian” and “professor” are not synonymous. Fish glosses over the fact that numerous public historians, independent historians, and, most notably, social studies teachers have signed the letter.) He believes that while historians’ “disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”

I don’t “equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue.” I don’t believe “that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority.” (Though those are real dangers. As I’ve written before, “Precisely because so much of what he says is so abhorrent, [Trump] becomes a mirror in which we start to see ourselves as righteous.”) But while I’m troubled that so many likely Trump voters seem willing to follow “Brexit” supporters in simply rejecting “expert” opinion out of hand, I don’t think that argument from authority is inherently powerful. Indeed, I’ve been pondering this summer why it is that I seem to spend more and more time writing as a generalist, rather than focusing on the narrower fields on which I might claim some degree of expertise.

Fish, Save the World On Your Own Time
Fish’s argument here goes back at least as far as this 2008 book

Fish’s op-ed also revives a recurring theme of his old Times blog: that too many defenses of the humanities, and the liberal arts more generally, rashly grant the argument that such study ought to be politically or economically useful to have value. (See this June 2013 post, for example.) I’m sympathetic to that argument. If all I’m doing this election season is signing open letters against presidential candidates, I’m not being faithful to my callings as historian and professor.

Indeed, I’m not sure I would have signed any such letter directed against any other presidential candidate. There have been three presidential elections contested since I finished my PhD and took my position at Bethel. I won’t say I found both major party candidates in each election equally palatable, but I could have conceivably voted for each. None was so objectionable that I’d have risked conveying the mistaken idea that I believe history exists primarily to “teach lessons for the present,” or that my goal as a professor is chiefly to persuade students, alumni, fellow church members, relatives, etc. to vote one way or the other.

That I am willing to run those risks this year should underscore my conviction that Donald Trump is a uniquely unqualified and dangerous candidate for what remains the most powerful position available to any human being. And I arrive at that troubling conclusion in part — not whole — because of my position as a historian and professor.

This is not to say that I would have argued the open letter in exactly the same way as its drafters. But I don’t have to agree with every jot and tittle to believe that it is important that I add what little weight my name carries to a collective statement of objections shaped by shared commitment to the discipline of history. In the remainder of this post, I thought I’d touch on how I understand the connections between my calling as a history professor and my opposition to Trump.

There’s a lot being argued in this letter. I could pick up on its opening claim that historians “recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society” — not by overreaching with claims about how history repeats, but by pointing out how current events do sometimes “rhyme” with past parallels. (Tracy McKenzie, writing as a lifelong Republican and a U.S. historian, has done a nice job on this front all summer.) I could write about the importance of voluntary associations, even those as informal as this one — not because it claims (as Fish seems to think) to speak for all historians, but because it acts as one of the intermediaries that’s indispensable to healthy civil society.

But to keep this from going too far over 2000 words, let me borrow just two of the basic themes of the letter and restate them in my own words:

Trump supporter wearing "Make America Great Again" cap
Licensed by Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard.

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 major congressional 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.”

Franklin, Race and HistoryWriting on “The Historian and Public Policy,” the late great historian John Hope Franklin concluded:

As a nation views its history and the various positions that it has taken, it is not difficult to conclude that its postures have been mixed and exist on several levels of morality. At times, in the case of the United States, at least, its public policy has been humane, healthy, and worthy; at other times, it has been bereft of many or any praiseworthy objectives. It is the function of the historian to keep before the people, with as much clarity as possible, the different lines of action that have been taken, the several, often complicated reasons for such action, and to point to the conflicts and inconsistencies, the contradictions and illogicalities, and to the defects and deficiencies when they exist. (Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, pp. 319-20)

So much as I’d prefer to proceed as if historians need have nothing to do with the politics of the present, the Trump candidacy invites the historian to act as what Franklin called “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” Historians have a professional obligation to point out the discrepancies between memory, which “confirms and reinforces itself,” and history, which “contributes to the disenchantment of the world” (in the words of another late great historian, Tony Judt).

Now, I think the best way we can do that is by helping the public understand the many particular reasons why it’s dishonest to appeal to a misleadingly nostalgic view of the past in order to manipulate the passions and anxieties of voters. But Trump’s campaign is so recklessly dishonest and manipulative in its use of the past (either recent and distant) that I think this might be a rare case when historians ought to stand together in making a general statement of principled opposition.

Sept. 2015 photo of Trump signing a pledge to support the GOP nominee
You can tell that I’m writing too much about Trump because I’m having to reuse Creative Commons-licensed photographs of Trump’s campaign (like this one by Michael Vadon)

The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.

Like John Fea, another evangelical historian who signed the letter, I’m convinced that history cultivates values that are indispensable to the functioning of American society and politics. (John just published his own post on the letter: a Facebook conversation he had with another historian who was more sympathetic to Fish’s critique.) John started to elucidate this argument in a 2011 blog post that he later developed into a chapter in his book, Why Study History?

Fea, Why Study HistoryMy thirteen-year career as a history professor, and some of my own reading and study at the intersection of theology, history, and civil society, has led me to the conclusion that the study of the past, and the process of historical thinking, has the potential to produce citizens who not only understand how to think about the way the past informs the present, but also see the past as an encounter with a “foreign country” that can result in the cultivation of certain social virtues such as humility, reconciliation, intellectual and cultural hospitality, empathy, and solidarity.

In the past five years — in the past five weeks! — the importance of those values for the people of a diverse Union (“Out of many, one”) has become even more clear. In a democratic republic being pulled apart by centrifugal forces, we desperately need citizens with the capacity to recognize their own limitations and see the world as others see it. (It’s why I’ve tried consistently to encourage empathy for Trump voters, even as I’ve criticized Trump and his campaign. And why I’ll welcome comments pointing out the blind spots that no doubt weaken my arguments in this post.)

Even more than other important outcomes, I hope that the young adults who study history with me find themselves cultivating five interrelated values: comfort with complexity, humility, curiosity, hospitality, and empathy. I don’t think Donald Trump is unusual among Oval Office aspirants in his utter lack of humility (here’s a conservative critique of him on that point), his disinterest in learning (see his recent comments on his reading habits), or his impatience with complication and nuance. But if I’m going to tell my students that historical study exists to a significant extent to help them be more hospitable and empathetic to those of a different culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., I can hardly stay silent about a candidate who has demonized immigrants and Muslims.

So I think the open letter’s authors are right to characterize the Trump candidacy as an attack not only on the “constructive, evidence-based argumentation” we try to practice in our profession, but on “our values, and the communities we serve.”

Thanks for reading. I promise that August will find me saying much less about Donald Trump and other politicians.

10 thoughts on “Why I Signed the Historians Against Trump Letter

  1. 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 president, vice president, and all four major congressional leaders.

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

    The figure is unsound, since these self-appointed Custodians of Truth cherry-pick which statements to evaluate in the first place. The sample is spoilt.

    Let alone the verdicts.


    Now comes a study from the George Mason University Center for Media and Public Affairs that demonstrates empirically that PolitiFact.org, one of the nation’s leading “fact checkers,” finds that Republicans are dishonest in their claims three times as often as Democrats. “PolitiFact.com has rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims during President Obama’s second term,” the Center said in a release, “despite controversies over Obama administration statements on Benghazi, the IRS and the AP.”

    “Republicans see a credibility gap in the Obama Administration,” said Dr. Robert S. Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “PolitiFact rates Republicans as the less credible party.”

    As the first person to empirically demonstrate the liberal, pro-Democrat bias in the Washington press corps, Lichter’s analysis is worth further study and comment.

    Historians may be better than average at evaluating evidence, but our problem remains, which evidence?

    1. Would you care to point to specific claims of Trump’s that you find to be truthful but have been rated otherwise by PolitiFact? I know that “fact-checking” is a more subjective activity than it may sound, but it’s hard to take your response seriously when PolitiFact currently is at least as harsh on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as it is on Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. (And when the source of the US News opinion piece you linked to is a center headed by a scholar tied to the American Enterprise Institute and Fox News Channel.)

      1. Chris, the real issue is not the number of lies but the severity of them. Solely on Benghazi and the extralegal email server, let alone Mrs. Clinton’s history from FileGate to the Rose Law Firm papers, since it’s a 2-person race, I’d much rather prosecute Clinton than defend Trump.

        But since you have brought the case, History vs. Trump, the defense has registered its objection to the one-sidedness of the controversy, presented impeaching evidence of overarching bias [“PolitiFact.com has rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims during President Obama’s second term”], and in the end would rather stipulate the charges, and try to plead down Trump’s BS to a misdemeanor.

      2. Since I need to cook supper for my kids, I’ll happily accept the plea and encourage you to go prosecute Secretary Clinton at your own blog, Tom. Enjoy the convention coverage.

      3. Pleading down a capital charge to a misdemeanor, I’ll take it. As for prosecuting Mrs. Clinton, I shall not need an organization for that: That’s what’s discomfiting about this whole thing. I would be suspect of a Historians For Trump as well, which arrogates a certain authority for a social science that is likely more social than science.

        In sum, it is respectfully submitted that it’s not how many of Trump’s fish they catch in their net, but how tight the mesh.

        from the comments of Drezner’s WaPo article:

        “The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being of course determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.” (E. H. Carr)

  2. It might help you out, Tom, if you would actually use facts instead of your opinion. You love to slam historians for disagreeing with you and accuse them of cherry picking facts. However, over the last few years I’ve noticed you have built your cases on cherry picked facts, ignore context, and then have a habit of using modern news articles to attempt to support your opinions.

    Basically, you love to defend your fellow conservatives and ignore their misdeeds.

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