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What People Are Saying about "Historians Against Trump"

HNN Editor On Monday July 11, 2016, "Historians Against Trump," a group organized in the last few months, published an Open Letter warning America about the dangers of Donald Trump's candidacy. Some 600 historians signed the letter in the first week including Vicki Ruiz, Ellen Carol DuBois, Geoff Eley, Glenda E. Gilmore, Maurice Isserman, Valerie Ann Johnson, Kevin Mattson, Thomas McAffee, Deborah Dash Moore, and Claire Potter. The Open Letter immediately sparked a vibrant national debate. Excerpts below. 

Related Links

Historians on Donald Trump (Facebook page established by Ken Burns and David McCullough)

●  News story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in the NYT

Professors are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.

On Monday a group calling itself Historians Against Trump published an “Open Letter to the American People.” The purpose of the letter, the historians tell us, is to warn against “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenges it poses to civil society.” They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”

Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

I would say that the hubris of these statements was extraordinary were it not so commonplace for professors (not all but many) to regularly equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue. The claim is not simply that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority, but that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers: “As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity.”

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

David Schlitt, a member of the Historians Against Trump Organizing Committee

At a moment when thinkers across the political spectrum invoke the specter of fascism in describing Donald Trump’s candidacy, Mr. Fish’s bad-faith reading of our letter comes across as astonishingly out of touch.

Contrary to what Mr. Fish writes, we do not believe that as historians we possess a special political wisdom. But no less than other workers, we have a pretty good sense of when our profession is under attack. Anti-intellectual demagogues have not historically been kind to the academy or the free exchange of ideas.

Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University and author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter

Contra Fish, experts often have good reason to suppose that they have greater insight into political issues than ordinary voters do. And, at least in many cases, the latter would do well to pay more heed to expert opinion, not less.

The idea that expertise is not a qualification for delivering wisdom would be immediately dismissed as laughable in almost any context other than politics. If you need to address a medical problem, a doctor’s opinion should count for more than that of a random sample of the general public. If your faucet is leaking, a plumber’s view on the subject is going to be a lot more valuable than mine.

Similarly, political controversies often involve complex policy issues on which experts on public policy have greater insight than laypeople. Not because they are generally smarter or more virtuous than the rest of us, but because that’s their field of expertise. This is especially likely to be a true in a world of widespread voter ignorance where most voters are “rationally ignorant” about policy issues, and often don’t even know very basic facts about government and public policy.

Historians are pretty obviously among the the experts who are likely to have useful insights on Trump’s candidacy. There are many historical precedents for Trump’s xenophobic program of massive restrictions on trade and immigration, targeting civilians, and weakening protections for freedom of speech.

Renate Bridenthal, emerita professor of history at Brooklyn College, CUNY

Stanley Fish’s harangue against Historians Against Trump’s open letter, which I signed, charges us with hubris and denies our qualifications for warning against potential dangers we see in the coming election.

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.

Ron Radosh, independent historian, and co-author of a forthcoming book about Warren Harding

Their “Open Letter to the American People,” published on their website, is one of the most arrogant, pretentious piece of claptrap they could possibly have written. Why have they written this letter? This is their reason:

“Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I am not going to vote for him this election, but their argument does not stand up. First, what if there was a large group of conservative historians in the academy who decided to write an open letter about the election, claiming “the lessons of history” as their reason for arguing we should vote Republican? The HAT would no doubt loudly condemn them for using the fact that they are professional historians with Ph.D.s as the reason they should be listened to.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Now let’s return from that moment of tu quoquery to think about whether Fish’s criticism of his fellow academics is valid. His objection is not in individual academics opining against Trump but a collective of academics weighing in as disciplinary experts. And to be fair, most academic disciplines would agree with Fish — and Max Weber — that there is a distinction between acting as an expert and acting as a citizen. So experts must think very carefully before weighing in on political debates as scholars.

That does not mean, however, that such a move is impossible. As Stuart Kaufman and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson argued a decade ago, there is such a thing as “Weberian activism,” in which scholars can point out that their collective body of knowledge prescribes against the political whims of the day ....

Jonathan Good at Reinhardt University

Of course, people have the right to oppose Trump, as vociferously as they want. Like Radosh and Fish, though, I am chary of historians pretending that their profession gives them special insight into current politics – or rather, I am amazed that these wise, Olympian understandings always seem to be “liberal” in nature when, like all political positions, they are often no more valuable or true than their opposites. And I especially dislike it when these groups manage to get the American Historical Association or other ostensibly nonpartisan, professional organizations to endorse their political opinions. We saw this ten years ago at the annual meeting of the AHA in Atlanta.

John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College

First, I think specialization is overrated. (I think it’s fair to say that we both know this, based on our teaching loads and the subjects we asked to cover at small liberal arts colleges). I think sometimes those of us who teach the survey or are trained broadly are better equipped to speak to the public than research professors who spend their careers mining one specific field. These scholars may be in a position to tell OTHER SCHOLARS about this or that sub-specialty, but they spend little time thinking about anything else. Let’s remember that we probably know more about fields outside our specialty than most Americans [and thus have a duty to engage the public based on what we know].

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I signed this document because I believe that historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates. The emphasis in the letter on evidence-based arguments, the respect for the dignity of all humanity, the importance of context, the uses of the past in political discourse, the commitment to a civil society (rooted, presumably, in the kind of empathy that historical thinking brings), and the very fact that making America great AGAIN is ultimately a statement about the past. Trump runs roughshod over all these things. For what it’s worth…

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents "an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve." But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

 Chris Gehrz, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota

When I’ve tried to articulate my reasons for opposing Trump, I haven’t (knowingly) staked it on my training as a historian or my status as a professor. Instead, this blog’s first, increasingly central topic is most important here. While a recent poll finds that nearly 80% of evangelicals now plan to vote for Trump, I think it’s imperative that those of us among the remaining 20% “tell it like it is” about the dys-evangelical aspects of that candidacy.

But as much as my faith shapes how I understand history and education, those two topics also intersect with my religiously-motivated concerns about the Trump campaign. So I did sign the open letter as a historian and professor, not just as a Christian. 

Erik Loomis, assistant professor of history, University of Rhode Island, in a blog post, "Law Professor with Unearned Platform Cranky that Historians Have Opinions. News at 11."

Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”?

Today, Fish is outraged that historians are expressing concerns about Donald Trump. I guess this is a breach of decorum as crushing to the nation’s standards as Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressing concerns about Donald Trump. What will the nation do?