Three historians say Trump’s victory has given scholars an opportunity to discuss what counts as history and the role it plays in democracy

Historians in the News
tags: Trump



Jennifer Evans is professor of modern European history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada; Yuliya Komska is associate professor of German studies at Dartmouth College; and Michelle Moyd is associate professor of African history at Indiana University-Bloomington.

... Within months, in November 2016, Donald Trump’s shocking electoral victory sparked an outpouring of writing on the usefulness of historical analogies. Some were specific (to Weimar and Nazi Germany, Nixon-era US, South America), others general. They threw America into its own historians’ controversy.

Despite the representative museum assemblage on and off the National Mall in Washington, DC, the US lacks a shared public memory or narrative about the past. As in divided Germany of the mid-1980s, here lies a real opportunity for a broadened civic negotiation about what counts as US history, who gets to tell it, and what role it plays in bolstering democracy.

History is neither preordained truth, nor is it a prepackaged commodity. Its record must grow out of debate, not professional hierarchies or easy compromises. While the art of debate without acrimony seems out of reach in an age when opinion exchanges escalate to ad hominem attacks within seconds, controversy used to be the salt of social life during centuries past, restricted though it would have been by social class, gender, race, and religion. Newspapers specialized in polemics. Debating societies thrived. University students and professors were required to exchange positions in the format of disputatio. Why have we stopped now that the venues are open to all?

Tools are the first problem. As historian Mary Beard notes: “History’s for all not just ‘historians’; but you have to KNOW something.” Arguing without knowledge – without evidence – takes a sledgehammer to the very foundations of what facts are. Fostering evidence-based and well-reasoned debate is an antidote against the alarming increase in constituencies who believe that interpretations of the past can exist outside either evidence or reason.

Crowdsourcing initiatives have tackled this issue head on. One example is the #NewFascismSyllabus, which corrals the flood of information and new research in the service of open learning across borders and disciplines. Standing on the shoulders of other seminal initiatives, among them the #CharlestonSyllabus and the #FergusonSyllabus, the #NewFascismSyllabus crowdsources news articles from across the web and curates them by theme.

Using social media to harvest ideas, the editors facilitate a lively exchange about authoritarianism in our time. Title aside, the purpose is to exploit the notion of analogy to fuel conversation. These seek to do what today’s embattled high school does not: provide a common yet critical language for debating about the present situation.

Such projects challenge textbook and popular versions of US history that often dilute controversy for the sake of unity narratives. Their power lies both in their compilation – a democratic practice – and in the sharing of information, which break down the divide between ivory-tower academic disputes and rubber-meets-the-road activism. They aim to foster a sense of the past as eternally present, and in need of serious unpacking.

The US is in desperate need of more of this style of interaction, as communities and local governments reckon with acts of racist violence that hearken back to bygone eras. #CharlestonSyllabus makes clear that the US’s history of racist violence has never been far below the surface. ...





comments powered by Disqus