Assessing Historians against Trump


Yes, it’s time for Trump yet again! Back in July 2016, Historians against Trump (HAT) produced “An Open Letter to the American People” in which they enunciated their objections to Donald Trump and articulated the special role historians ought to play in opposing Trump’s candidacy.

This open letter elicited a sharp response in the New York Times Sunday Review from Stanley Fish, the legal scholar and prominent literary theorist best known, perhaps, for developing reader-response theory:

As indicated by the History News Network, scholars have assumed different positions on this dispute between HAT and Fish:

What is the proper role of historians in relation to a Trump candidacy?

One Thing after Another does not wish to recapitulate HAT’s entire argument in detail, but to generalize, it seems to revolve around the following points. First, Donald Trump’s candidacy presents an “exceptional challenge . . . to civil society.” Second, historians are especially well positioned to recognize this challenge, partly because of their knowledge of the past and partly because of skills they have developed in assessing documentary evidence. Third, the “lessons of history” compel historians to speak out against Trump. Fourth, historians have a special role to play in educating the public so that it is better capable of protecting civil society and resisting the appeals of people like Trump.

Fish contests the view that historians are especially qualified to assess Trump or somehow inoculate society against political charlatanism. As he puts it,

while 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.

Fish is adamant that history does not produce objective truths in general, and historians acting as historians should not confuse their political opinions with facts.

The dispute over HAT, then, is not really about Donald Trump (Fish claims his disagreement with HAT is not inspired by support for Trump). Rather, it concerns a) what role historians should play in public political discourse and b) on what basis they should play that role. At the risk of sounding a bit wishy-washy, One Thing after Another thinks HAT has overreached while Fish’s view of history’s jurisdiction is too narrow.

Fish and others have charged that HAT has assigned a privileged position to the discipline of history. HAT, of course, does not explicitly claim that historians are better than anybody else, and there is some justice in David Schlitt’s claim that Fish has engaged in a “bad-faith reading” of HAT’s letter.

The introduction to HAT’s letter, however, does seem to imply that historians possess special insights derived from the unique nature of their discipline that allow them to understand the challenges presented by Trump better than anybody else. They “recognize . . . ominous precedents,” they “understand” the consequences of the ugly side of politics (e.g. “the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating”), and, most important of all, they know the “lessons of history.”

One Thing after Another will leave to one side the question of whether HAT thinks the discipline of history should assume a particularly distinguished role in opposing Trump. First, while they sail close to the wind on this issue, they don’t explicitly come out and say that history is primus inter pares among disciplines in this particular case. And, second, if they did, such a position would be unsupportable. Many other fields have important contributions to make on this question (take economics, for example):

What interests One Thing after Another more is HAT’s claims about “precedents” and the “lessons of history.” “As historians,” HAT claims, “we recognize . . . the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.”  What exactly are these precedents, and what do they signify? We are none the wiser upon finishing the letter. For a missive written by a collection of historians on behalf of historians, this piece is curiously bare of references to the past (there are some links buried in the text, but nothing particularly sophisticated).  If HAT intends to take a leading role in educating the public, it needs to do better than that. The only clue HAT provides explain its reference to precedents is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally in 1941. The problem is that Donald Trump is not Charles Lindbergh, and the United States in 2016 is not the United States in 1941.

HAT cannot loosely refer to precedents without explaining them—otherwise, how can we scrutinize the group’s argument? Use of the word “precedent” suggests an analogy is being made, but HAT must actually produce the analogy so we can measure its soundness. We cannot take analogies for granted; as this blog has repeated many times before, historical analogy is a very tricky art. To name one particularly pertinent example, over the last year, historians and others have referred to a wide variety of historical figures in an attempt to locate someone who resembles Trump. Is he like Andrew Jackson? William Jennings Bryan? Huey Long? Joe McCarthy? Nelson Rockefeller? George Wallace? Pat Buchanan? Is he a Mussolini in the making? Or is he sui generis? So long as we cannot fix on a particular person, it is hard to claim that we have established a definitive precedent, let alone “lessons of history.”

An intimation of what HAT means, perhaps, comes from Renate Bridenthal who signed the letter and defended it in the New York Times:

She writes:

As a historian of Germany, I found our letter much too mild. Historians are responsible for the collective memory of peoples, and just like individuals with memories of past trauma, we are obliged to shout “stop!” when we see familiar signs of coming disaster.

The suggestion is that, at worst, Trump is like the Fascists and Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s. The degree to which this analogy works is debatable, and we have discussed this point on One Thing after Another some months ago:

More important, does a knowledge of 1930s Germany give one a good sense of what Trump will do or how his policies will play out? Not only is Trump different from Hitler in many ways, but the United States in 2016 is quite different from Germany in the 1930s. In this context, One Thing after Another recalls George Orwell’s observations in The Road to Wigan Pier about what British fascism could possibly look like should it take hold of that country:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of [Oswald] Mosley [the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s] and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people.

Orwell argued that Fascism would not be about jackboots and uniforms as it had been in Italy or Germany; in Britain, it would come dressed in tweed. In other words, events in Italy and Germany were of limited utility in determining what would happen in Britain (where Fascism did not succeed). Precedent and analogy can only serve our purposes if the two things being compared are clearly similar. That is, of course, unless one uses the word “precedent” in a most general way (e.g. thoughtlessness, lying, xenophobia, and disrespect for the law will lead to stupid, unethical, bad, and criminal policy). If that’s how HAT means to use the word “precedent,” then we are not discussing some special or precise insight that only people with doctorates in History possess. Rather, we are discussing something that any person with a modicum of sense might figure out on his or her own.

As for the “lessons of history” (an expression that no academic historian has ever uttered in One Thing after Another’s hearing), there are serious problems with this concept. Fish has a point when he takes HAT to task for using these words which make history sound objective, definitive, static, and monolithic. As even undergraduates will tell you, history is a representation of the past grounded in an interpretation of primary source documents. Interpretations vary according to the way different historians understand the world which is why the field is characterized by debate. Not only that, as the concerns of historians evolve over time, the questions they bring to the documents also shift. For these reasons, history is contested and constantly changing. Under these circumstances, how does one produce “lessons of history,” especially when historians respect every event as unique?

Although HAT get some things wrong, that doesn’t mean that Fish gets everything right. Fish has a narrow view of the historian’s proper sphere. He writes that 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. . . . 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 to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

This blog is all in favor of preventing the discipline from overreaching itself, and One Thing after Another would feel uncomfortable if historians sought to become political leaders, guides, seers, and gurus. While they should do something less than these tasks, they should do something more than answer discipline-specific questions. Historians have much to contribute as the nation and the state confront important questions. For sure, the discipline will not provide definitive answers (or lessons), but it can hone our judgments and allow us to approach problems in a careful and methodical manner. This blog is reminded of The Economist’s special report on the Arab world (“The War Within,” May 14, 2016). This extended and interesting rumination on the instability and divisions that plague that part of the world—in which we are so interested today—is well illuminated by its understanding of history. That being the case, it seems to this blog that there is a public space beyond the boundaries of the discipline that historians ought to fill, but they ought to be judicious in filling it.


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