Historians Aren’t To Blame for Donald Trump

I think we can debate whether historians, much like climate scientists, have an inherently liberal bias or it’s more accurate to say that they’re being pushed in that direction by the increasing rejection by conservatives of the values and standards of scientific research and academic publishing. Both can be true, I suppose, but there’s little doubt that science-minded, reality-based educators are feeling like they must have failed in their vocation somehow for the electorate to choose a man like Donald Trump as their president.

[Yale University historian David] Blight said, “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” [American University professor Allan] Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.”

The presumption here is clear enough. An educated public could not conceivably vote for Donald Trump. But, of course, this is really about what people value the most. A veritable shit-ton of people went to the polls last November with something else in mind than whether Donald Trump is a good person or treats women well or has an enlightened position on religious or ethnic diversity or tells the truth or defrauds people out of their money or spews ridiculous and embarrassing and racist conspiracy theories or has even an rudimentary grasp of basic history, science or foreign affairs.

Some people voted for Trump precisely because his ignorant insult routine appealed to them or because he had all the right enemies. But a lot of people voted for him despite being somewhat concerned about his education, preparedness, character, and veracity. They were willing to roll the dice on Trump because different considerations were driving them.

In this sense, the historians didn’t necessarily have much of a role and shouldn’t consider themselves failures. If people know that a candidate only recently learned that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and doesn’t know why the Civil War happened or who Frederick Douglass was, and they support him anyway, that says something about how well they’ve been served by the reality-based elite that’s been governing them.

By all means, the historians should step up to correct the record when the president does violence to basic facts that shouldn’t be controversial, but Trump’s election is about a much broader failure. Fascism and demagoguery grow in certain kinds of shit. Without it, they lack potency and appeal.

In order for Trump to stand a chance, the field had to be spread with some very fertile manure. Look at the hollowed out towns that no longer have vibrant small businesses and entrepreneurial opportunities, where the highest aspiration is land a job as a wage-slave to some monopolistic enterprise.

Maybe if we had anti-trust enforcement over the last forty years, an ignorant buffoon wouldn’t look as good as another representative of the status quo, no matter how well prepared she might have been.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.