Commentary

Why I’m Not Joining ‘Historians Against Trump’

July 18, 2016

J. David Ake, AP Images
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.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to "snake oil."

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The "lessons of history" — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different ways, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Consider that Trump received just under half of Hispanics’ votes (admittedly, not many) in the Nevada Republican primary, and a quarter of them in Texas, outpolling the Cuban-American candidate, Marco Rubio, in both states. He also won a quarter of Florida’s Hispanic Republican vote, even though Rubio beat him there. Most remarkably, a poll by Fox News Latino in May found that 23 percent of Hispanics planned to vote for Trump in the general election.

And while a Washington Post-ABC News survey in June found that half of college-educated whites supported Hillary Clinton, 42 percent of them favored Trump. Yes, he polls especially well among whites who lack high-school and college degrees, but it’s simply false to imagine that everyone who backs Trump is uneducated, misguided, or evil.

There is no singular historically correct interpretation of Trump, and historians should be the last people to imagine that there is.
A similar set of assumptions undergirded a resolution put forth by Howard Zinn and other left-leaning members at the American Historical Association meeting in 1969, demanding immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops and aid from Vietnam. When some members complained about attaching the collective authority of the profession to a partisan political position, Zinn insisted that the association could not — must not — remain neutral.

"If you were at a meeting of historians in Germany in 1936, would you take the same position in the midst of the killing of Jews?" he argued.

"Our silence in the face of war, racism, and other social evils [allows] political leaders of the country to have their way and count on our inaction. Silence is political."

By equating the Vietnam War with the Holocaust, Zinn was assuming that no right-minded person could support it. But he was wrong, and his resolution went down in defeat. There were decent and knowledgeable Americans in 1969 who believed that immediate withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia would be a mistake for America and for Vietnam, just as there are decent and knowledgeable Americans in 2016 who believe Donald Trump should be president.

Nor was anyone asking historians, then or now, to be "silent," which is simply a red herring. I’ve been anything but silent in my columns denouncing Trump. But anyone who reads them understands that they reflect my point of view, not the profession’s. There is no singular historically correct interpretation of Trump, and historians should be the last people to imagine that there is.

Suppose that you’re teaching a class, and one of your students expresses support for Trump. In response, you quote the Historians Against Trump manifesto, which says that the Trump movement is "a campaign of violence … against historical analysis and fact."

The student herself will go silent when she is told that the very subject of historical analysis — that is, Donald Trump — violates the premises of such an analysis. It’s not just that her professor denounces Trump; the profession does. And she’ll very likely conclude that the profession is something of a sham: It talks a good game about listening to diverse voices, but it drowns out the ones it doesn’t want to hear.

"As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity," the statement declares. "Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests, and movements that shape world events."

But the statement ignores the diversity of viewpoints about Trump, thereby denying the humanity of the many citizens who support him. I think Trump is wrong for America, but I won’t pretend that my discipline has elucidated the one right way to look at him. That goes against everything history stands for.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (September 2016; Oxford University Press).