Some humble musings from a professional historian: Did Trump “radicalize” me?

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“Trump made you a blogger.”

My friend and fellow professional historian, Christian McWhirter, said that to me a few months back, and I am reminded of it today because of a New Republic article that has been making the rounds on the internet. It claims that Trump’s ignorance of basic US history has “radicalized” historians. It is an interesting and short piece, so I encourage everyone to read it.

I am not sure exactly what they mean by “radicalized,” but the context suggests it means that historians have become more publicly vocal about their views on current politics. And more active in the resistance to Trump. Of course many of us spoke out before he was elected, and the fact that he won has many of us wondering if people even listen to historians, or perhaps even that our railing against him only actually made people love him more. (Probably so).

I have discussed this here before, but one of my biggest goals as a college educator was to never let my political leanings become clear to students. Most of us have had the experience of sitting in a college class, as a professor has used his captive audience as a chance to spew out political diatribes. I recall, for example, taking a course on Gilded Age America, but having to endure a professor that spent well over 50% of our class time holding forth on modern politics and all the problems he had with a current governor. I didn’t always disagree with him, but I got increasingly angry because I wanted to study the Gilded Age, not his political opinions about current events.

As a result of such experiences, when I began teaching college in the late 90s I dedicated myself to never letting my politics shape my lectures in an obvious way. Not only because it would be more fair to my students, but also because it would make my lectures more objective. I am a firm believer that one of the most important things that studying history does is create open-mindedness, forcing students to look at things from different perspectives than their own. I felt (and still feel) that having clear political leanings in my lectures only hinders that goal, as students will only become defensive (and thus close-minded) about their beliefs if they feel the professor is trying to indoctrinate them with a particular party’s political agenda.

Thus my goal has always been to remain as objective as possible, with the goal that students would actually have a hard time figuring out my personal political sympathies. When asked by students if I am a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve always refused to answer. If I can create a classroom environment in which a student’s preconceived political leanings are challenged, whether they are a Republican or Democrat, I feel I have done my job. I think I have a history of being successful in that regard.

Further, when I started this “blog,” I never intended it to include long musings like this. I did not have time for it and felt no one would be interested anyway. My sole purpose was to simply post links to history related stories and blogs that I found interesting, share a comment or two, and encourage other folks to check them out. And I most certainly did not want to fill it with political diatribes. I still prefer it to be that way, and try to stick to that format.

Thus both here and in classes, I never intended to comment extensively on current political events. But yes, Trump changed that.

During the election, I felt he presented such a grave danger to our country that I had to publicly speak out, using my position in the classroom to demonstrate the danger of his ideas and his utter lack of preparation and qualifications for the job. Trump began to make regular appearances in my lectures, whenever a particular historical topic seemed to shed light on his shortcomings (which turned out to be numerous). I was uncomfortable with this, and still am, but it increasingly feels like a duty.

I have gotten some small blow-back from students, and have heard one or two grumbling about my Trump attacks. To counter such sentiments, I have increasingly argued that much of his policies are not mainstream Republican ones (especially foreign and trade polices), pointing out this is one of the big reasons that the Republican leadership tried so hard to derail his candidacy. You don’t have to be a Democrat to be concerned about this buffoon (just ask John McCain or Lindsey Graham).

And this carried over to my blog. If you have spent anytime here, you know that my friend Christian is right. Trump did indeed turn me into a more traditional blogger, as I find it near impossible not to unleash diatribes like this one whenever sharing a story involving him.

Part of me despises Trump for causing these changes to my classroom and this blog, but on the other hand, is this not exactly the role that historians should play? Again, I think that our most important work is to help encourage and develop the open-mindedness that is so sorely lacking in our world. How can an historian do that if they stay quiet when they hear Trump making asinine, untruthful, and historically ignorant comments?

Trump wants “truth” to be as he defines it, and anything that challenges that is “fake.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of close-minded?

Thus if I were to just keep quiet about Trump in my classrooms and here on this blog, would it not in the end work against my own personal dedication to encourage and promote open-mindedness? I think so.

Sadly, however, I have to wonder how much good my efforts actually do, considering that Trump’s true believers listen intently to Fox News every night. There they are told that anyone that disagrees with Trump is a leftist radical, a “snowflake,” or a pompous self-important liberal. No, actually, that is not the case, and I am proof of it.

Disgraced political hack Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter and his podcast last night to explain to his followers how wrong American historians are about Trump’s recent comments on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. Despite the fact that we make the study of both those things our professional career, knowing the history and the sources far more than he likely ever will,  he labeled us “morons.”

I am more than certain that his and Trump’s folks believe that to be true, despite our academic pedigree, or most likely because of it.  So why listen to a well educated professor? Bill O’Reilly says the president is right, so they have to be wrong.

Thus when I open my mouth in class to criticize Trump, even from a historical perspective, I am sure that my most ardent Trump supporting students only dismiss it as the inaccurate rantings of a liberal professor. The enemy.

In the past I would never have been someone you or anyone else would ever see as a radical (or a liberal). And in fact I would have run from such a label.

So does that mean that Trump has turned me into a “radical?” Sadly, in the era of Trump and Fox News, adherence to basic facts, objectivity, and open-mindedness have come to be seen as just that.  In a world of closed minds, objectivity is now radical.

So be it.  I’m a radical.

And as radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed during the presidency of slaveholder Andrew Jackson, “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.”

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