Historians under Trump

We are witnessing — more than that, experiencing — events that seem certain to be remembered as a turning point in the history of the United States, part of a series that is changing the political horizons of much of the world. Our knowledge is partial and the future unwritten. But the collapse of a familiar (and flawed) order, the destabilization of expectations, and the unmooring of norms are all palpable. And for those of us not minded to celebrate the return of avowed white supremacism and brash thuggery — accompanied by the lewdest sexism, a craven acquiescence to fascism, and an almost comically archaic nepotism — to mainstream politics, from the highest office to the most local interactions, things are headed in a dire direction. Or, rather, the dire state they are in stands revealed.

What is a historian’s job in these circumstances? This is a student’s question, and a good one. Only too many answers, not all compatible, suggest themselves. Should we claim the mantle of (semi-)public intellectuals and write thoughtful blog pieces or impassioned op-eds? Address ourselves as experts to those in power, or channel voices of discontent? Hie ourselves to our subfields and keep our scholarly flags flying? Seek solace in classroom rants or among like-minded colleagues? Stage teach-ins, panels, conferences? Look for explanations, sift analogies, frame predictions, design strategies? Perhaps all of these are defensible answers. Perhaps none of them is enough.

I don’t have a well worked out answer. One of the most frustrating things about what’s going on is precisely how intractable, illegible, and disordered the present can be in comparison with the helpfully distant and otherworldly past. But I can make a few observations.

First: like the imperialist nostalgia of Brexit, the racist nostalgia evoked by the Trump campaign shows that sheer ignorance of history, even recent history, is deep, widespread, and above all powerful. It does political work. Pointing out instances of ignorance (exposing false claims, critiquing sources, supplying context) is important, and for obvious reasons historians are best placed to do it. But it is not enough. Contempt for authorized “experts” and “intellectuals” in any guise is still more widespread; and this contempt inhibits historians, especially academic historians, from dealing with ignorance of history.

Blame for this contempt has customarily been laid by the media at the door of academics, for their (a) narrow degree of specialization and (b) impenetrable writing. While both (a) and (b) are certainly real phenomena, as explanations for popular contempt of history they are purest bullshit. There is no shortage of well-written and broadly themed histories by academics — and others — on any number of relevant issues. It is hard to see how the mere existence of narrowly focused journal articles that, ex hypothesi, “nobody reads“, stops people from picking these up.

Behind all this there is an ever more apparent contempt for “truth”, in the sense of historical facticity, as a criterion of assent. This is at the core of the white supremacist/neo-Nazi “identity politics” that Trump captured and continues to exploit. (The un-killable “Irish slaves” meme, exhaustively debunked and no less exhaustively chronicled by Liam Hogan, is a case in point.) Indeed it is at the core of Trump’s political existence. But here Trump merely distills trends long in the making.

Some commentators blame “postmodern” academic critiques of things like historical facticity for this situation. But that is every bit as improbable as blaming unread journal articles for people’s failure to read paperback histories, and for the same reasons. The image of the academic peddled in popular media — an image appropriated, routinely and perversely, by academic administrators often defending neoliberal agendas in the very same media — is far more effective than any actual academic work in shaping perceptions of history and allied disciplines as “irrelevant”.

Which is to say that the struggle off campus is also, in multiple respects, a struggle on campus. We are not simply tasked with justifying particular claims, but with defending the very kinds of work and knowledge that make those claims possible and significant, as well as the values on which that work is based and under the aegis of which that knowledge is pursued. And we must do so not only before sympathetic, indifferent, or hostile publics in and outside the classroom but also — for different and yet strangely convergent reasons — before those who run our institutions and decide their, and our, fate.

The relevance of the skills we share with the other humanities has never been more obvious; neither has their absence from the mainstream of political discourse and media coverage. The same can be said for what we, as historians, know about the past, and how we come to know it. And yet preaching these claims over and over, most often to the choir, is not enough. Under Trump, our biggest problem, or our biggest job, is not selling our discipline to students as a path to job security; nor is it brandishing our credentials as badges of authority. Our biggest job, I think, is finding ways to defend the value, establish the power, demonstrate the necessity — through every available platform and in every possible context, from the classroom outward — of historical thinking itself.

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6 thoughts on “Historians under Trump

  1. I would not have thought an historian could rely on his professional expertise in judging current events any more than a plumber or a taxi driver. If one were to do so, it would be more profitable to examine information that was publicly available at the time of the last presidential election and assess its value against the outcomes predicted. In this role, the historian would have something to contribute as he would be dealing with history. But as a layman an historian’s comments on election results should be given no more weight that those of night watchman or a neurosurgeon. Experts are laymen outside their own fields of expertise.

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    • I think this depends on how one understands the relationship between the present and the past, as well as on what one thinks “doing history” is. It’s one thing to say that historians don’t study the present, quite another to say that the past is irrelevant to understanding the present. I don’t think it at all far-fetched to imagine that a historian of, say, American public health policy might contribute more to a discussion of the fate of Obamacare under Trump than would a night watchman — or a neurosurgeon — with no interest in the subject. To assert the contrary would seem bizarre.

      I’d have to agree that historians “as such”, without further specification, have no special purchase on any specific area of present contention. But then historians as such, without further specification, don’t exist. There are only historians who work on this or that field or theme or set of questions, and many such fields and themes and questions have legacies that extend into the present in specifiable ways.

      Be that as it may, I don’t think that judging or explaining events (past or otherwise) is the only thing historians do, or even necessarily the most important thing that we do — at least with respect to teaching, in or beyond the classroom. A lot of recent discussions stress the skills and techniques ancillary to such judgments: source criticism, analysis, interpretation, and so forth, which are plainly applicable to “documents” and claims of all sorts, present as well as past. I would also stress the habits of mind associated with contextualization and historical empathy, which are, similarly, forms of “historical” thinking not tied to any particular subject matter or time frame.

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      • No sale. Of course, an historian with a special interest in healthcare history might well have relevant expertise to draw on in this area, just as a night watchmen might expertly comment on the same subject if he had something to reveal from his rounds in a hospital observing the workings of public health care. But you were speaking generally of historians as historians in general whose expertise of would have no greater relevance than that of night watchment in general.

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      • I don’t think that analogy works. To become a historian in the present day means, inescapably, to become an expert in something more specific than “history in general.” That may be American public health, or British labour history, or conservative thought, or the French Atlantic empire, or gender in Ottoman Egypt, or emotion in Tokugawa Japan, or any one of a million other things. What a historian specializes in is in that sense accidental. But that a historian specializes is essential. It is not so with your examples.

        Of course not all specializations will relate equally directly to the present (if I’ve suggested this, I’d gladly know where). But in practice most are indeed organized around analytical categories — politics, economics, society, the state, gender, race, and so on — that persist in if they are not drawn from present experience and contemporary thinking, including the thinking of experts in other disciplines. This too, I would say, is not accidental but essential to history. It is what enables historians of any subject whatever to address living audiences and indeed to conduct and make sense of their own work. History, that is, systematically puts the past in dialogue with the present. Again, I don’t see how the analogy addresses that.

        But if you want to stick with “historians in general”, then I would go back to what I said both in the post and in my response above: apart from their particular areas of specialization, historians as such do employ a range of skills and techniques and cultivate a series of mental habits, labelled “historical thinking” here and in a much wider literature, that are also of distinctive value in engaging with the present.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this frightening election. As a history-buff, I’ve often thought it would help if our decision makers were REQUIRED to study history. It might keep them from making stupid mistakes. Muriel Kauffmann

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