In today’s hyper-polarized America, one is used to encountering political argumentation that causes either outrage or eyerolling. Mostly, this is the work of partisan operatives, and easily discounted. Occasionally, though, one comes across opinions that are ostensibly above the fray and written by specialists who supposedly know what they are talking about. But the effect is the same as the work of a paid lobbyist dismissing the risk of smoking cigarettes.
In the august Outlook section of The Washington Post there appeared an opinion piece about our current political crisis that is one of the worst examples of credential-flaunting and academic pontificating I have read in many a moon. Beyond that, it is historically inaccurate.
The author is Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Her thesis is that despite the massive and daily wrongdoing of the Trump administration, there should be no major prosecutions of the perpetrators. She also deprecates the idea of creating non-prosecutorial “truth commissions” such as were practiced in post-apartheid South Africa or Chile after the fall of Augusto Pinochet. After meandering through much equivocation and waffling, she leaves us with this recommendation: so as to better heal the nation, leave it to historians like her to determine what happened.
One of the lamentable tendencies of academic specialists is they become what the Germans call Fachidioten, or specialized idiots: people who may know something about their own narrow specialty, but whose ignorance of other fields, even in the same general branch of study, prevents them from grasping their subject in a fuller context. They also overrate the applicability of their own field to unrelated tasks: to a carpenter, everything looks like a nail.
While Lepore may be a specialist in American history, she may not be as familiar with the abundant historical examples of parliamentary systems that had to reconstruct themselves after traumatic injuries to their just and orderly governance.
During the 1930s, representative governments across Europe fell like nine-pins to fascism, either through internal power grabs or outright foreign occupation – the latter often aided by pro-fascist defeatists and quislings. After the Allied victory, the only clear path to regaining political health and decency was to call the malefactors to account within each country.
Lepore does allude to these events by citing the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal and goes on to say that it gave rise to truth commissions. But this is false: the commissions she mentions did not arise until four decades afterward, and the Nuremberg trials were expressly prosecutorial, issuing sentences that included the death penalty, a sanction which was duly carried out.
She then issues the banal pronouncement that Trump is not Hitler, nor was the United States defeated in war, concluding that the Trump regime’s misdeeds do not meet the standard for criminal treatment. With such an impossibly high bar – the Hitler standard, if you can believe it – she is effectively saying that Trump and his accomplices should have impunity.
Let’s examine the evidence. The Bob Woodward tapes give irrefutable evidence that Trump was not a mere incompetent blunderer concerning the coronavirus. He fully understood the danger of coronavirus from an early date, but willfully lied about it to the public. This behavior went well beyond incompetence and into allowing mass death for political expediency.
Further evidence: Jared Kushner’s own little coronavirus task force met in April, shortly after Woodward had taped the president’s comments. The members deep-sixed a proposed national testing plan because the panel perceived that coronavirus was hitting Democratic areas harder.
The Trump administration’s subsequent actions inexorably followed: dismissing early intelligence reports, delaying life-saving measures, censoring or suppressing guidance manuals, firing scientists trying to do their job, touting patently phony or dangerous “cures,” deriding masks, and doing their worst to foment division and hatred at a time when social trust was needed. Now Trump is ranting that media coverage of the pandemic should be outlawed.
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The Trump regime committed several other serious crimes, such as sabotaging the postal service to hobble mail-in voting, and extorting campaign assistance from a foreign government by threatening to withhold duly appropriated taxpayer funds.
To ignore these outrages is arguably even more inexcusable than America’s sorry record of exonerating presidential malfeasance post-Watergate -- the serious, impeachable crimes of Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair and George W. Bush’s lies to justify the invasion of Iraq. Yet Lepore’s version of justice would let some Ivy League pedagogue take a sabbatical to write a book about it.
Why? Because Trump, “even if he loses will probably have been the choice of 2 in 5 American voters.” So what? U.S. opinion surveys in postwar occupied Germany found a majority of respondents said that Nazism was a good idea but badly applied. Should popularity be the criterion for whether a perpetrator is prosecuted?
We also should ask whether America benefitted from dropping the prosecutions of most Confederate leaders. Prosecutors had prepared treason charges against Robert E. Lee, but they mysteriously disappeared after the mercurial and arguably unstable president, Andrew Johnson, weighed in. The most egregious case was Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, against whom there was overwhelming evidence of mass war crimes. He never faced justice.
One must consider whether Forrest’s non-prosecution was justified in the name of reconciliation, given that he later went on to employ convict labor on his plantation and helped found the Ku Klux Klan. Did leniency towards major Confederate leaders yield any benefits? The failure of reconstruction and a century of Jim Crow strongly suggest the opposite.
Even now, more than 150 years on, the deification in some quarters of figures like Lee is an enormous public controversy played out in cities like Charlottesville and Richmond. And we have a president who forbids the Pentagon from dropping the names of military bases honoring traitorous insurrectionists against the United States.
If Jill Lapore thinks that a few dusty academics will settle history for all time, slake the thirst for justice, and heal the wounds of Americans who lost a loved one due to malfeasance at the top, she is sorely mistaken. One only has to contrast the German and French “official” histories of World War to sense the disparities of historical interpretation. We should not repeat the futile ambition of a 19th century historian, who endeavored to write “history as it really was” and put all arguments to rest.
A correspondent who is familiar with the Harvard milieu opined to me that Lepore has extracurricular ambitions and is eager to succeed to the position of a Doris Kearns Goodwin or Jon Meacham, thereby becoming a whisperer to those in power. If that is true, we could be in for a rocky future, as Goodwin’s own “team of rivals” notion did not play out particularly well in the administration of Barack Obama, who was taken by the idea. He filled his cabinet with Very Serious People whose advice was: bail out Wall Street, hold the CEOs harmless, stand pat on Iraq, and defer to generals like David Petraeus. (The latter, of course, became a senior appointee in Obama’s administration, and promptly disgraced himself).
Unfortunately, we are now near the peak of one of America’s periodic frenzies of anti-intellectualism, and baiting professors has always been a hobby of the Right – not least from Republican politicians with Ivy League degrees. More’s the pity, then, that Jill Lepore should appear to lend some credence to them.
Controversies have raged in historical accounts ever since Hannibal crossed the Alps. But it is only collective political decisions, born of awakened political consciousness by people who mean to govern themselves, that “settle” anything – and then only as long as they are determined to do so. That is what is called democracy.