Donald Trump has struck a nerve. Why even I had a hard time not thinking of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee when last week reviewing a book about nineteenth-century Protestantism in the U.S.
Trump is the nearest reason I can fathom for the pronounced attention Eric Mataxas has received from two prominent evangelical historians. Because Metaxas endorsed Trump, because evangelicals seem to be moving their support increasingly to Trump, and because evangelical historians identify with evangelicalism but evangelicals not as much, some professors may feel the need to create distance between their public persona and the larger evangelical feng shui.
Now it turns out that one of those historians has joined other historians in signing a letter opposing Trump’s candidacy. That same historian, John Fea (don’t mean to pick on you today, big fella), wonders about the intellectual chops of Metaxas when he writes that Metaxas’ book is “an intellectual mess” that demonstrates the ongoing validity of Mark Noll’s lament about the scandal of the evangelical mind.
What about the intellectual coherence of the historians who oppose Trump? They start this way:
Today, we are faced with a moral test. As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.
Do these historians really want to invoke morality when it is evangelicals and the social conservatives who regularly complain about America’s moral decline? Invoke morality selectively? Like when it’s about professional duties but not about what happens sex happens. And is the work of historical understanding really a moral enterprise? Did we somehow go back to the days of the academic Protestant establishment when Jews and people of color were scarce on university and college campuses? Those were times when professors sometimes talked about morality.
But let morality go. What about the intellectual prowess that historians bring to assess Trump? What part of the past do these historians draw upon to show the dangers of populism (or even fascism)? I read the letter and I don’t see any — ANY!!! — historical references. Believe it or not, it’s all about Trump:
Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.
The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve. No less than his sham “Trump University,” Donald Trump’s contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation mocks the ideals of the academy, whether in the sciences or the liberal arts. Academia is far from the only profession endangered by Trumpism. Donald Trump bullies and suppresses the press, and seeks to weaken First Amendment protections as President. Trump singles out journalists for attack and mocks physical disabilities. Both the judiciary and individualjudges face public threats from Trump. Non-white, non-male professionals and civil servants are irredeemably compromised in Donald Trump’s eyes.Judges are disqualified from service because of their ethnicity; women Presidential candidates succeed only because of their gender; the President of the United States is under suspicion as illegitimate and alien because of his skin color and heritage.
Those are all fair points. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. or tenured job in history to notice those defects in Trump’s candidacy. So what gives? Why is Trump so much inside so many’s heads?
To John Fea’s credit, he tries to explain why he signed:
I signed this document because I believe that historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates. The emphasis in the letter on evidence-based arguments, the respect for the dignity of all humanity, the importance of context, the uses of the past in political discourse, the commitment to a civil society (rooted, presumably, in the kind of empathy that historical thinking brings), and the very fact that making America great AGAIN is ultimately a statement about the past. Trump runs roughshod over all these things.
But all the letter says about context and evidence is to say that historians affirm that stuff and they do so in a not so self-deprecating way:
We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.
Like I say, Trump changes everything (and I’m still not voting for him).