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Trump’s Ignorance Is Radicalizing U.S. Historians

They're in great demand by the media. But will many Americans even believe what they’re saying, or accuse them of partisan bias?

RHONA WISE / Getty Images

Amy Greenberg didn’t want to weigh in on Donald Trump. Ever since the president’s election, which she found stunning and demoralizing, the Penn State professor and historian of antebellum America has tried to keep her head down. She gives her lectures. She does her research. She works on her forthcoming biography of former first lady Sarah Childress Polk. But then, on Monday, Trump said, “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” He followed that up with a tweet claiming President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the war started, “saw it coming” and would “never have let it happen!”

Greenberg couldn’t hold back. Prompted by an inquiry from CNN, she fired off a statement slamming Trump for “profound historical ignorance.” “Ask any fifth grader, ‘Why did the Civil War happen?’ That child can give you an answer,” Greenberg wrote on Tuesday. (Earlier in the morning, she’d queried her own fifth-grade daughter, just to make sure.) “How dare Donald Trump state that, ‘People don’t ask that question—but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?’ Historians have been asking this since 1861.” Nor, she added, was there any evidence that slave-holding Jackson saw the conflict coming.

Such public criticism is new for Greenberg. “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before,” she told me on Tuesday. “I’m a historian.” But now, precisely because she’s a historian, she says she’s “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.” “If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay, that student would not pass that exam,” she said. “That student would fail.”

Trump is hardly the first president to be wrong about America’s past. Bush flubbed certain facts, and Obama too. But Trump isn’t making minor mistakes. In barely more than 100 days, he’s taken historical ignorance to new depths in the White House. Now historians, a generally sober and restrained people, are rising up to defend historical facts in an age of “alternative” ones.

“I think historians, who tend to be kind of an insular group, need to take on much more of a public role and speak out about the past,” said Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who made headlines for predicting Trump’s election last fall, and who recently published a book making the case he’ll be impeached. “I think historians need to be fierce defenders of the truth.”

Those who do stand up for truth are discovering they’re in great demand by the media. “In the short term,” Greenberg said, “Donald Trump is very good for historians.” The question is whether many Americans—especially those who support Trump, and get their news from sites like Breitbart—will even believe what they’re saying. After all, the countless cautionary history lessons given to the public last year weren’t enough to keep Trump out of the White House.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump famously said in February about the abolitionist who died in 1895. Speaking about Abraham Lincoln the following month, he said, “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”

These musings suggest that Trump is only just now, as president, learning about these key figures in U.S. history—and assuming, wrongly, that everyone is as ignorant about them as he is. Douglass has been rightly getting his due for more than a century, and a majority of Americans know Lincoln was a Republican.

“The job of a historian is not only to knock down what President Trump says but create a climate for a sound debate,” Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and CNN contributor, told me. “There will be moments, if this continues, where there will be more historians and political scientists who feel an obligation to respond.... I do think more people who know what is true will feel the desire to get out there and engage that debate.”

If so, they won’t have a problem finding a platform, as the media has relied heavily on historians to help explain and contextualize Trump’s presidency. His becoming president was a very dramatic development in American life,” Zelizer added. “It’s increased a thirst for understanding what is going on.” Greenberg, who wrote a book on the U.S.-Mexican War, told me, “People want to know what I think as a historian about what Donald Trump will do with regard to foreign relations. I never got questions like that when Barack Obama or George W. Bush was president.” When Zelizer gives press interviews, he said, I do think the questions are more earnest.... I think people feel the stakes are little bit higher.”

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”

Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.”

Greenberg said her statement to CNN may be her only public remarks on Trump, at least for now. She’s still shaken up by his victory, in part because it shattered everything she knew historically about what it takes to win the White House—especially the moral character she thought the public required of a presidential candidate. “I drew on my historical knowledge to provide a narrative to non-historians and prove to myself that he couldn’t be elected,” she told me. “When they called Pennsylvania for Trump, my world was just cracked open.”

Greenberg says that instead of thinking about Trump, she plans to go back to an earlier period of U.S. history, one with political norms that she recognizes. “I want to return to this safe time in the nineteenth century, when things make sense,” she said.