We are witnessing — more than that, experiencing — events that seem certain to be remembered as a turning point in the history of the United States, part of a series that is changing the political horizons of much of the world. Our knowledge is partial and the future unwritten. But the collapse of a familiar (and flawed) order, the destabilization of expectations, and the unmooring of norms are all palpable. And for those of us not minded to celebrate the return of avowed white supremacism and brash thuggery — accompanied by the lewdest sexism, a craven acquiescence to fascism, and an almost comically archaic nepotism — to mainstream politics, from the highest office to the most local interactions, things are headed in a dire direction. Or, rather, the dire state they are in stands revealed.
What is a historian’s job in these circumstances? This is a student’s question, and a good one. Only too many answers, not all compatible, suggest themselves. Should we claim the mantle of (semi-)public intellectuals and write thoughtful blog pieces or impassioned op-eds? Address ourselves as experts to those in power, or channel voices of discontent? Hie ourselves to our subfields and keep our scholarly flags flying? Seek solace in classroom rants or among like-minded colleagues? Stage teach-ins, panels, conferences? Look for explanations, sift analogies, frame predictions, design strategies? Perhaps all of these are defensible answers. Perhaps none of them is enough.
I don’t have a well worked out answer. One of the most frustrating things about what’s going on is precisely how intractable, illegible, and disordered the present can be in comparison with the helpfully distant and otherworldly past. But I can make a few observations.
First: like the imperialist nostalgia of Brexit, the racist nostalgia evoked by the Trump campaign shows that sheer ignorance of history, even recent history, is deep, widespread, and above all powerful. It does political work. Pointing out instances of ignorance (exposing false claims, critiquing sources, supplying context) is important, and for obvious reasons historians are best placed to do it. But it is not enough. Contempt for authorized “experts” and “intellectuals” in any guise is still more widespread; and this contempt inhibits historians, especially academic historians, from dealing with ignorance of history.
Blame for this contempt has customarily been laid by the media at the door of academics, for their (a) narrow degree of specialization and (b) impenetrable writing. While both (a) and (b) are certainly real phenomena, as explanations for popular contempt of history they are purest bullshit. There is no shortage of well-written and broadly themed histories by academics — and others — on any number of relevant issues. It is hard to see how the mere existence of narrowly focused journal articles that, ex hypothesi, “nobody reads“, stops people from picking these up.
Behind all this there is an ever more apparent contempt for “truth”, in the sense of historical facticity, as a criterion of assent. This is at the core of the white supremacist/neo-Nazi “identity politics” that Trump captured and continues to exploit. (The un-killable “Irish slaves” meme, exhaustively debunked and no less exhaustively chronicled by Liam Hogan, is a case in point.) Indeed it is at the core of Trump’s political existence. But here Trump merely distills trends long in the making.
Some commentators blame “postmodern” academic critiques of things like historical facticity for this situation. But that is every bit as improbable as blaming unread journal articles for people’s failure to read paperback histories, and for the same reasons. The image of the academic peddled in popular media — an image appropriated, routinely and perversely, by academic administrators often defending neoliberal agendas in the very same media — is far more effective than any actual academic work in shaping perceptions of history and allied disciplines as “irrelevant”.
Which is to say that the struggle off campus is also, in multiple respects, a struggle on campus. We are not simply tasked with justifying particular claims, but with defending the very kinds of work and knowledge that make those claims possible and significant, as well as the values on which that work is based and under the aegis of which that knowledge is pursued. And we must do so not only before sympathetic, indifferent, or hostile publics in and outside the classroom but also — for different and yet strangely convergent reasons — before those who run our institutions and decide their, and our, fate.
The relevance of the skills we share with the other humanities has never been more obvious; neither has their absence from the mainstream of political discourse and media coverage. The same can be said for what we, as historians, know about the past, and how we come to know it. And yet preaching these claims over and over, most often to the choir, is not enough. Under Trump, our biggest problem, or our biggest job, is not selling our discipline to students as a path to job security; nor is it brandishing our credentials as badges of authority. Our biggest job, I think, is finding ways to defend the value, establish the power, demonstrate the necessity — through every available platform and in every possible context, from the classroom outward — of historical thinking itself.