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A petition signed by over 600 historians denouncing the candidacy of Donald Trump as a threat to American democratic values has generated considerable debate within academic circles with op-ed pieces in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education questioning the validity of historians as a group to abandon any pretense of objectivity and take such a partisan stance.

historians against trump

Historians Against Trump: The Case for Professional Engagement in Troubled Times—Ron Briley

Of course, once we move beyond the academy, there seems to be little attention paid to the statement made by Historians Against Trump. Discussions of whether Melania Trump, or one of her speechwriters, may have cribbed from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention have fostered considerable more debate.

And this is the problem for scholars and public intellectuals in American life. It is not simply that there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in the United States as was noted by historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s. The lack of attention paid to scholars such as historians is also the fault of academics who have retreated from public and political life into the safe confines of tenure and the “ivory tower.”

Although looking at the careers of such antiwar historians as Staughton Lynd and Howard Zinn during the Vietnam War era demonstrate there was a price to be paid for public dissent. But looking back on their antiwar activism from a perspective of fifty years there is much to be celebrated in their denunciation of an unjust war in Southeast Asia. The question fifty years hence may be who had the courage to speak up and point out the disturbing parallels between the Trump candidacy and America’s intolerant xenophobic past as well as the rise of European fascism.

The key point is to analyze why so many white working class Americans are angry and drawn toward the vague promise of Trump that he will restore American to some past greatness.

Historians Against Trump are branded by critics as elitists who refuse to respect the populist support enjoyed by the business mogul. According to these critics, historians are branding the people who embrace Trump as uneducated, racist, and reactionary, while in reality there are many well educated and moderate conservatives who are backing Trump.

Of course, this is rather an elitist argument in its own right. The key point is to analyze why so many white working class Americans are angry and drawn toward the vague promise of Trump that he will restore America to some past greatness. Since the 1980s, the American economy has been hemorrhaging jobs, while the nation’s economic inequality has grown, and the children of the working class fight the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump tends to blame this state of affairs on political correctness with immigrants, Muslims, and minorities receiving favorable treatment rather than addressing an unfair system which benefits business insiders such as Trump and saved the bankers who brought the Great Recession of 2008.

There is considerable economic and social discontent that both the candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders as a democratic socialist were able to tap. People are suspicious of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and establishment politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Thus, a group such as Historians Against Trump does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Hillary Clinton as the election does not have to be perceived from a binary perspective.

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Yet, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Stanley Fish insisted that it is not the job of historians to analyze the issues of race, war, crony capitalism, along with class and gender discrimination plaguing Americans. Instead, Fish asserted that historians should remain in their “ivory towers” and tend to their knitting of training graduate students who will embrace the values of professional detachment.

Fish writes, “It’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.” Rather than retreat into professionalism, another perspective is that historians have an obligation to share their research and conclusions not simply with other scholars but with the general public in order to fashion a better world.

This does not mean that there needs to be some type of historical orthodoxy to which all scholars must subscribe, but there are areas with a degree of consensus even though all historians may not agree. For example, in the scientific community there is a consensus regarding man-made global warming, but climate change deniers are able to recruit some scientists to challenge the conventional wisdom.

In regard to American historiography, there is a general agreement that the cause of the Civil War was primarily slavery, although many Americans and some scholars continue to maintain that the conflict was primarily due to state rights. In the classroom, some students may challenge the slavery interpretation of the war, and it is the duty of the teacher to be respectful of those who express dissenting opinions, but it is also incumbent upon history instructors to introduce the evidence that leads the larger historical community to reach a different conclusion.

A failure to do this would introduce the concept of historical relativism and that ideas are equally worthy of respect even if there is little in the way of logic or evidence to support them. In a similar fashion, it would not be unreasonable to suggest the dangers of intolerance and xenophobia often embraced by Trump as a threat to the traditions of democracy.

In the final analysis, Historians Against Trump do not claim to speak for all historians, but simply the ones, and it is a significant and growing number, who have signed the petition. There is always room for conversation and debate regarding historical causation, but at some point one has to enter the fray and take a stand, not hide behind the invisibility cloak of professionalization.

It is not unreasonable to ask where you were when they came for the Jews in Nazi Germany or when America waged a war of aggression in Vietnam. In a period of growing intolerance in America, do we retreat to the sidelines of professionalism and sit out the crisis? Or do we employ our understanding of the American past to shed some light on the present while we try to forge a better nation and world for our children?

ron briley

Ron Briley