Trump Doesn't Understand History Any More Than He Understands Epidemics

US President Donald Trump speaks during the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives in Washington, DC, September 17, 2020. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump Doesn't Understand History Any More Than He Understands Epidemics

Academic history is not about praise or blame or making people feel good about their national identity. It is about explanation. Why did something happen when it did? 

Trump has a long history of proclaiming that he understands things better than the people who are experts in those things. When Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, testified to Congress that mask-wearing is even more effective against Covid-19 than a vaccine is likely to be. The next day Trump contradicted him.

Redfield is an eminent virologist with a doctorate of medicine from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Trump cheated on his SAT's, paying someone to take them for him.

Masks are estimated to reduce transmission by 80%. Vaccines may only be 60% to 70% effective. I think we may conclude that Dr. Redfield has the better of this argument.

Having crashed the US economy and having polished off tens of thousands of Americans with his irrational policies based on magical thinking, Trump is now coming for American history.

Trump wants history to be taught as a celebration of the United States and its achievements, and wants it taught in such a way as to erase the achievements of popular movements, including unions and civil rights organizations. He singled out for condemnation Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Given that well over half of Americans can't stand the sight of Donald Trump, his condemnation of Zinn's work will certainly shoot it into the ranks of best-sellerdom. Couldn't someone please tell Trump how pernicious my own books are and have him publicly denounce them? I'm sure he hates Napoleon's Egypt, for instance, or The New Arabs, or Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires.

"Trump wants history to be taught as a celebration of the United States and its achievements, and wants it taught in such a way as to erase the achievements of popular movements, including unions and civil rights organizations."

Professional historians are not interested in history as a celebration of anything. They are perfectly happy to praise a remarkable achievement where there has been one, mind you. But academic history is not about praise or blame or making people feel good about their national identity. Historians construct narratives of the past, and if people want to feel good about those narratives, there is nothing wrong with that. But it isn't what the historians are going for.

What excites historians is explanation. Why did something happen when it did? Thousands of books have been written about the French Revolution, trying to explain why it unfolded as it did. Once you get hooked on a question like that, and if you are dissatisfied with the prevailing theories, you can't rest until you get to the bottom of it. Historians are the kind of people who can't understand how anyone could get bored, or want to commit suicide. The archives are there, the documents are available, but so many historical puzzles haven't begun to be solved, and trying to solve them is fun and can give meaning to life. There are only about 12,000 members of the American Historical Association, mostly college professors. A decade ago there were 57,200 high school history teachers. We have 330 million Americans, so I conclude that not very many Americans pursue history as a profession. I personally think we'd all be much better off if there were more.

Historians attend to change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

We can illustrate these principles briefly with reference to Thomas Jefferson and slavery. Jefferson's slave-owning had a context in the history of European slavery and in the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves. His own ambivalence about the institution derived from Enlightenment ideals about human equality. He admitted that he ought to have freed his slaves. So why did he decline to manumit his slaves? Well, his Virginia estates were terrible farmland, and he tried to grow tobacco on them, which depletes the soil. They were so bad that he could barely stay in business. He instead setting up a manufactury for nails on his land, which he admitted only prospered because of the labor of his Black slave boys, who were beaten by the overseer. He was convinced that if he let his slaves go, he would go bankrupt. This is no excuse. He was untrue to his own ideals. So what if he couldn't be a British-style gentleman? But in order to understand his moral failure, we have to understand his economic and social context. Contingency comes in here. What if Jefferson had been more entrepreneurial, and more principled, like ex-slave owner Ben Franklin? Or more principled, like George Washington, who did free his slaves? To be fair, only relatively late in life did Franklin take an anti-slavery stand. Or what if Jefferson had been rich and felt he could afford to pay farm hands instead of exploiting the labor of people he tried to own like property? Complexity means not analyzing Jefferson only with regard to his contributions to religious freedom or to the Declaration of Independence or indirectly (he was in France) to the Constitution. It means seeing him as a part of the "gentleman" class. One of his grievances against the British is that they did not view colonists like himself as equal gentlemen to those in Britain. Remaining a landed gentleman was so important to him that he betrayed his belief, expressed in the 1780s, that slaves should be freed. It means seeing him as a slave-owner who raped his slave Sally Hemings. I say raped because a slave cannot refuse sexual advances and the power dynamics of master-slave sex are always predatory. Note that Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Complexity also implies a willingness to bring in a wide array of evidence. In this case, DNA studies prove that Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemings.

And all of these tools allow us to pivot away from Jefferson. What if we instead wrote the biography of Sally Hemings, and told the history through her eyes and that of her six children by Jefferson? What if we traced her ancestry back to, say, Senegalese Muslims? I'm not saying we can, though DNA studies could help with the Senegal part. Would that make American history look different?

Actually, I would add to change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, comparison and contrast as a key tool for historians. Comparing Jefferson, above, to Washington and Franklin and Sally Hemings seems to me to add something to the story. My friend Raymond Grew, who promoted comparative history, just died, so I'm making this point in his memory.

Historians apply these ways of thinking to what they call primary sources. If you are studying a person who lived in the 19th century, and you can find that person's diary, you've hit the jackpot. The diary is a primary source. But it might not be the only one. Say the person was involved in a riot and wrote about it in the diary. But then you find a police report and the incident, and the person being studied, look completely different from the account in the diary. Then you have to weigh the two primary sources against one another. Maybe the policeman was lazy or prejudiced. Or maybe the writer of the diary did something shameful and covered it up when writing about it. Part of what historians do is weight primary sources against one another. But if you have an account of that person written in 1920 long after she or he was dead, by someone who did not know the person, that would be a secondary source. It can be important, but cannot in itself solve most questions.

History-writing doesn't stand still. In that regard, it is a little like science. If you want to know about the moon Titan that orbits around Saturn, you wouldn't want to read a book about it written in 1942. You'd want to know the latest findings. But history isn't exactly like science. There may be some insights in a book written in 1942 about the history of San Francisco that aren't preserved in the most recent good book on the subject. Still, historians believe that as time has gone on, they have made advances in historical understanding.

"The problem with the nineteenth century theory of history is that you get stuck studying government officials. Actually, Trump seems to want us stuck in that stage of history-writing, from a century and a half ago."

Academic history began in late nineteenth-century Germany and Austria when historians developed a theory that if you wanted to study the Austrian diplomat Metternich, you would be best off looking at the memos he wrote. And in the late nineteenth century, governments started letting historians see closed government files, i.e. those from decades before, where the persons involved were dead and the issues were no longer salient. Closed, inactive government (and other) files of documents are called "archives." Archives are to historians as a cow's udder is to her calves.

The problem with the nineteenth century theory of history is that you get stuck studying government officials. Actually, Trump seems to want us stuck in that stage of history-writing, from a century and a half ago. From the late 1950s in particular, historians expanded their repertoire from kings and prime ministers and foreign ministers. E. P. Thompson studied the working class movements of nineteenth-century Britain.

Then came Second Wave feminism and historians turned to women's history. Neither workers nor women had been big subjects in History departments, which had mostly been staffed by upper class men who graduated from Princeton and Harvard. Women did more doctorates and began to be hired. In 1972 the University of Michigan brought in carpenters and plumbers to put women's bathrooms in the building that housed the History Department. Elizabeth Crosby had become the first woman full professor at Michigan in 1936, but she did not have that many female colleagues even in later decades. Princeton let in the first women students in 1969. Both women and men wrote gender history, but women brought new insights to it. History is like that. If you were a sailor before being a historian, you might be especially good at naval history. You bring to it your experiences, which help illumine the past.

Then historians became influenced by sociology and anthropology. They started writing the history of a city over, say, three decades. Or they might write the history of a religious movement, but not in the old way of only looking at the leaders. They'd try to find the diaries of the rank and file. They might look at what mainstream denominations thought of as heresies. And then they began looking at movements of minorities, under the influence of the Civil Rights Movement. African-Americans and Latinos/Latinas did more Ph.D.s in History and began being hired, and they wrote American history very differently than had the previous generation of diplomatic historians studying Warren Harding. The history of slavery became a big subject. Whereas white historians portrayed Jefferson's form of slavery as benign, a new generation looked at it with gimlet eyes and found brutality and cupidity and concupiscence. The history of immigration from places other than Britain, France and Germany rose in the estimation of historians. Some regional history that had been relatively neglected, such as that of New Mexico where I was born, began attracting attention. It wasn't all about Northeast WASPS any more.

Historians are wide-ranging. They have also taken an interest in the rise of the New Right under Ronald Reagan and his successors. The history of the white suburbs has been addressed. It isn't all studies of Detroit auto workers, though they are important and are and should be studied.

In every case, historians weren't just expanding their topics for the sake of diversity. They were trying to explain why history unfolded as it did, and they had become dissatisfied with the notion that it was because high government officials made particular decisions. While that is important, it is also important to look at the social movements that pushed the leaders in that direction. It wasn't like Lyndon Johnson woke up one morning on 1964 and thought to himself, 'By God we need a Voting Rights Act.' He had a larger social context, which included Black young men sitting at a lunch counter in a department store where they were not allowed. The history of those young African-American men in places like Memphis is as important in its way as is a biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Trump and the people around him who wrote his speech, white nationalists like Stephen Miller, want to turn the clock back to a time when they imagine historians only wrote the history of white presidents and other elite actors, and when they did so with gushing praise. There never really was such a time. Professional historians have always been skeptical and the very tools of their profession are seditious, because history teaches us that things could have been different (contingency) and can still be different.

And that is what terrifies Trump and his white supremacist cronies.

© 2023 Juan Cole