Here's What Historians Say in Private About Trump's Election

tags: election 2016, Trump, Historians Against Trump, AHA2017

Rick Shenkman is the founder and publisher of the History News Network. The New York Times bestselling author of 7 books, he is an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians. His latest book is Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). Click here for the book website.

Earlier this month, over a period of four days, 4,500 historians confronted the biting cold weather in Denver at this time of year for the chance to present or listen to papers on abstruse subjects at sessions lasting ninety minutes.  It was the 2017 annual convention of the American Historical Association.  Many sessions, as you might imagine, were sparsely attended.  It’s hard even for historians to get excited by the opportunity to sit through the reading of three or four papers on subjects such as “Imperial Brazilian Newspapers, the Hemeroteca Digital Brasileira, and Historical Research, Part 1: Context, Content, and Research in a Digital Archive.”  The proceedings are often to anybody but specialists exotic enough to qualify as a tad dull.  Despite the importuning of renegades that scholars bring an extemporaneous touch to the proceedings by simply talking about the subjects of their papers, the speakers generally read their papers word for word in a droning voice.  Change comes hard at events such as these.

But this was no ordinary conference as it was occurring after the most extraordinary election anyone alive can remember.  Dewey vs. Truman?  A snoozer compared with Trump vs. Clinton.  Nixon vs. Humphrey?  Well, the violence that accompanied Humphrey’s selection in Chicago was sui generis, but the general election paled in comparison.  Not once had Nixon broken character to reveal the ugly impulses that lay just beneath the surface.  Trump, in contrast, daily provided a window into his wretched soul, starting with his attack on the weakest members of society, undocumented immigrants. He even went after the disabled.  It made for good TV in the same way a video of a cop shooting a kid in a park does, but it was perhaps more honest than we as a people have a right to demand of our leaders  –  or wish to.  

Being historians, people couldn’t help drawing comparisons with earlier elections, though, despite qualms that the whole attempt was misguided.  As each scholar who ventured an analogy was careful to note, there are distinct limitations to these kinds of historical comparisons.  The public may love them for the clarity they seemingly offer.  But to scholars they arouse suspicion.  What good, after all, is there in drawing an analogy between, say, Trump and Mussolini (a popular one, to be sure) or Trump and Berlusconi (another favorite)?  Surely, the differences between these figures are as striking as the similarities.  And what in the end do we gain by the game?  While ordinary Americans may find it reassuring to put a label on Trump the label doesn’t really help us come to grips either with the man or the phenomenon of his extraordinary rise and victory.  History by analogy, whatever its merits  –  and sometimes the effort can be illuminating  –  is ultimately a kind of a parlor game.  

Only one historian I encountered during the convention who ventured to draw a parallel between Trump and a past figure  –  it was between Trump and the early 20th century Mississippi senator and governor, James K. Vardaman  –  attempted a rigorous analysis.  Jacqueline Jones, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin made the case that Trump and Vardaman share a similarly fascist approach, particularly in their willingness to rile up white working class voters with attacks on defenseless minorities.  At one panel Jones went into considerable detail in defense of her analogy.  By the end many in the audience seemed compelled to admit it was apposite.  And yet even her presentation, compelling as it was, drew rebukes from several scholars (like the public intellectual Stanley Fish), who insisted that historians erred in weighing in on debates about Trump’s candidacy.  Whether the analogies worked or didn’t, Fish insisted (as he had in a celebrated op ed in the New York Times written during the campaign) that historians had no business in their capacity as scholars to declare that a candidate was beyond the pale.  (He was responding to the establishment last summer of Historians Against Trump, a group that drew the support of nearly a thousand professors.  Just as psychiatrists had erred in 1964 when they declared that Barry Goldwater was unfit to be president, so did historians acting as historians who claimed that by virtue of their expertise their views carried special significance.  It was, Fish hinted, an example of professional malpractice.

But whatever historians said in public they were entitled to a private opinion that undoubtedly was shaped by their understanding of the past.  And what was it they said in private?  While historians seldom fall into the trap of predicting the future  –  when asked they’ll say they can’t agree on the past, let alone foresee the future, a ruse I myself have used when cornered  –  many shared their concern that a country under the influence of Donald Trump  was frightening.  This was hardly revelatory.  Historians as a group lean decidedly left.  But what was surprising was the genuine fear that seemed to underlie their prognoses.  This came home to me one night after the last session of the evening when a group of American historians gathered at Peaks Lounge in the Hyatt Regency on the twenty-seventh floor.  As they sipped their drinks one historian joked that what we may very well be witnessing is the collapse of the Republic.  This drew immediate nods of approval.  Was it a joke?  Or was it what people truly worried might be happening?  That was the thing. You couldn’t tell.  And that was a first as far as anybody could remember.  Never before in any election they’d watched had anybody seriously worried the outcome signalled the end of the United States as we have known it.  This wasn’t the crackpot ranting of an ignoramus.  It was what serious people were thinking, even if they weren’t quite willing to say so in public.  This is what I found most alarming at the convention.  And it was more frightening than any of the historical analogies I’d heard during all the months of the 2016 campaign.   

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