Teaching History In Trump's America

On Thursday November 10, I lectured my introductory history class about the election in a historical context. Many of my students were clearly upset about the election results, while others were clearly happy (I teach in a red state). Most were clearly surprised. Students on both sides of the aisle wanted to hear my thoughts about how to understand the election from a historical perspective. Given how many of my fellow teachers are struggling to figure out how to teach about this election, I decided to share some of what I said that day. The following has been adapted from my lecture notes. I hope it helps other teachers.

First, I want to speak to all of you. As my students, let me say, you are respected by me. No matter your political views, I respect you. I love political debate, though today is not a day we will have one. One of my close friends from graduate school and I disagree on almost every political issue. We have epic and at times emotionally charged debates. We always respect each other as individuals though, and so we force each other to make our arguments stronger.

I have assigned readings from historians that I disagree with politically and historically because I believe in historical and political discourse. At times I lecture from various points of view in my class, and not always from my own.

I love political debate, but today is not the best day to have one with someone who disagrees with you. Emotions are high on all sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, this lecture will be a bit more personal than you have ever had from me before.

My foremost priority, as a teacher, is that I care about each of you feeling safe enough to engage with history in this classroom. I would never abide personal attacks when we do debate things later this semester.

I want to discuss for a moment the concept of empathy as a historical tool. Empathy, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” is crucial as a historian. To understand the feelings of another sometimes requires getting in the head of people we don’t agree with, sometimes horrible people. Remember how earlier this semester we learned about slave holders by looking at escaped slave advertisements? It was upsetting, but by doing it we learn as historians and we learn to understand other people.

Empathy also is a useful tool as a strategist and tactician. Sun Tzu is the obvious example from our class. We started this semester with a quote that was over two thousand years old: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Understanding your enemy is important, but also know your friends.

Empathy is also important as an adult member of any community that is welcoming. To empathize and respect others is key as a human. If I can teach you to understand someone else’s mindset, assumptions, and world view, I have done my job as your teacher.

I want to address this campaign from a historical perspective. This campaign vilified a lot of people. It was a divisive campaign. The media provided a lot of oversimplified answers to what was going on in the country. That is why most commentators, myself included, never saw the result coming. I am a big enough person to recognize and admit when I was wrong, just as all good scholars do. I did not see this result coming, though I perhaps should have. Indeed, the party in control of the White House has changed eleven times since the turn of the 20th century.

We don’t know exactly what happened yet. It will take months and years before we will really understand this election. It is one for the history books. In fact, I would argue, only in seeing how the Trump coalition acts and if it holds together will we understand what it includes and why people voted the way they did. When a talking head says they know that Clinton lost or Trump won for some singular reason, take it with a grain of salt. There were many influences.

Let me tell you what I do see as a historian. This is my early analysis, which will evolve.

You know by now that I am not some teleological historian who believes America constantly gets better. For starters, Americans don’t agree on what is better so that makes little sense as a historical model. Some of us in this room may disagree on where this country should go. That is how democracy works. But regardless of where it moves, I don’t see a grand destiny where we are surely heading ultimately or even aiming for. I know where I want the country to go, but I understand that contingency, democracy, and history means it might go elsewhere.

As a historian, I see a struggle between competing forces and interests. Elections make those struggles clear. Elections are supposed to keep those struggles civil, nonviolent, and away from the personal. They don’t always do that.

What I see is a swing in power. What we saw with this election was a change. But I do not see a change that is permanent. Unless Trump launches nuclear weapons at someone and we all very briefly witness why Mutual Assured Destruction is a concept (this was a concept we discussed in class a few weeks ago), I would hope that we have an election again in four years. And at that point we may see change again.

That is how we know democracy works: we have another election. That is democracy’s goal. On an abstract level, the only way to know we have democracy is that we have a peaceful transition of power. Every four years we learn if we still have a democracy. Then we have to wait four more years to see if it survives. So far, so good.

For most of you, this is your first election in which you could participate. I want to discuss that.

Some of you may be happy about the results, and I want to speak directly to you for a moment. First, congratulations. Republicans have the reigns of governance. I encourage you to be gracious in victory, because “Winning was easy... Governing’s harder.”

American democracy is premised on the losers being gracious and the winners being respectful of the losers. We accept the results when we are not happy, and when we are happy, we are not vindictive towards the opposition. At the end of the day, both candidates gave speeches that appealed to uniting rather than dividing. Listen to them, as I hope they are sincere. Help unite your own community.

To do that requires empathy. It requires you to think of others before yourself, to understand why your neighbors are upset. Not only is this being a good neighbor—not only does being sympathetic make you a better person—but it makes you better able to unite a nation around shared interests.

Don’t be a troll on your liberal friend’s Facebook. Be a friend instead, or you won’t have them as a friend for long. Help bridge the divides locally. Professionally, in my own research, I study divided communities. I have learned that healing them is far harder than dividing them and takes greater character. It is the harder part of conflict. Dividing was easy, uniting is harder.

A lot of people are scared. The rhetoric of this election reached levels that I have not seen in my lifetime. It attacked groups of people like none I have ever seen.

This is why I ask you to be empathetic. Understand why aspects of the Trump campaign upset some people. For example, his support of religious tests is scary to those who are not Christians. As the descendants of Jews who came to this country for religious freedom, I found this personally upsetting. Similarly, his appeals to white supremacists with dog whistles makes many people of color understandably very nervous. His appeals to deport all undocumented immigrants is scary for U.S. citizens who have family that could be deported or those who worry that Trump’s win will give those who dislike Latinos license to harass them.

These issues may not be the parts of the election you cared about—or maybe they were. Maybe you really cared about abortion, the Supreme Court, or gun control. These political attacks on specific groups may be parts that didn’t matter to you, or perhaps they were even issues you disagreed with Trump on but that you were willing to overlook for those other issues that mattered to you. Fine. I will respect that.

But those issues mattered to those who are upset right now. I ask you to respect that, just as I will respect your viewpoints in this class. For the next few weeks, separate your politics from the personal. It is how we grow. It is how we build a community. Be empathetic. Build bridges.

Now I want to speak to those who are upset.

For those of you who are upset, you have reason to be upset. You have a reason to feel attacked. This campaign vilified a lot of people. It took the politics of the personal to a new level. It is not unreasonable to feel like your world has been turned upside down.

Every campaign does this to the losers at some level. I have voted in more than one previous election. My guy has won before, and my guy has lost before. I’ve felt upset before. But this election saw groups vilified at a level that is far more striking than any I have witnessed, and that most of your parents have ever witnessed. The increase in partisanship was frightening. The attacks on whole groups of Americans reminds me of elections from the past that I have studied but that were from before I was born. What that portends for the future, I do not fully know.

I think, perhaps, we saw part of a revolution. I don’t use the term in the sense of armed uprising, though historically, some of our revolutions included violence (for example Reconstruction, North Carolina in 1898, the Civil Rights movement, etc.). I mean revolution in the sense of a political revolution that caused an overturn of the status quo.

Or put another way, we saw a counter-revolution. We saw a victory for a counter-revolution against the successes of the environmental movement, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, the LGBTQ movement, “P.C. culture,” and the human rights movement. Trump’s victory seems to have been brought about by a diverse coalition that included the religious liberty movement, gun rights activists, white supremacist movements, white nationalists, and even anti-tax advocates, who were driven in part by eight years of success by those whom they disagreed with.

For those who are upset, you may see America moving backwards. That happens in history. Each step forward is met with a step back. We are constantly moving as a nation. How you understand in which direction each step moves depends on your perspective, your position, and what issues you value. Some of you see progress, some of you see regression, some of you may be unsure.

Though we are usually caught off guard, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves moving backwards sometime. For myself, the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the growth of the ideology of proslavery provide just three examples of America moving backwards that we have discussed in this class. I suspect most, if not all, of you agree with me that these three examples were backwards movements.

But each of these was a counterrevolution against a revolution. And each of them brought about new revolutions—counter-counter-revolutions, if you will. “Redemption” and Klan violence in the 1870s was a counter-revolution against emancipation and the granting of rights to blacks, and led to the rise of Jim Crow. But the Civil Rights movement revolted against the new normal of Jim Crow segregation.

In many ways, the rise of Trump’s appeals to white supremacists can be seen as an expected backlash against the election of the first Black president, or as Van Jones put it on CNN a “whitelash.” Just as Redemption was hardly surprising for a culture that had grown up on slavery, parts of our culture that had seen over two hundred years of white presidents were shocked by a black man taking the highest office.

In the coming days and months and years, some of you may fear that this country will be less safe for you. I hope you are wrong, but based on my study of history, I fear you are right. Look at the book The True American, which all of you first years read in the college read programs. It discusses how after 9/11, hate crimes increased. Events like this can cause an increase in hate crimes. And after every election, the side that wins feels emboldened, and often tries to claim a mandate.

Trump put together a coalition. Part of that was white supremacists, part of it was cultural conservatives worried about the Supreme Court, part of it was just people who felt left behind who wanted to see the system changed and would support any outsider. Part of that coalition was people opposed to same-sex marriage. Part of that coalition cared about their personal tax levels.

I do not doubt, based on historical study and recent news reports, that this election will embolden and empower all those groups, including the white supremacists and other hate groups. I know it is not just a fear of the government takeover that upset many of you.

That said, I do not mean to “whitesplain” or “mansplain,” the fears of others.

I speak from a place of immense privilege. I am a white, heterosexual male whose family has been in the U.S. since the 1600s. I have a decently paying job that provides health insurance. Unless the government starts rounding up intellectuals of Jewish descent who criticize them, I am pretty unlikely to feel much of the wrath of Van Jones’s whitelash or any government policies. I will, in fact, weather any major domestic issue, or economic crisis, more easily than some of Trump’s biggest supporters.

But many women, LGBTQI, Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, immigrants (of all statuses), disabled people, or any other group Trump’s coalition attacks, now or in the future, face far greater uncertainty than I do. I am scared about the prospect of a Trump presidency, in part because of his comments on nuclear weapons and my background as a historian; I cannot imagine what some of you must feel.

I want to recognize these very real fears you are feeling because I also want to tell you all something. Regardless of your political views, your personal identity is yours. And I am an ally to you. I empathize with you.

I make this promise publicly to my friends, family, students, and my community: I will never use my privilege against you and will always try to use it to help each of you maintain and achieve the same rights and privileges we all entitled to. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are just the starting points. I wish to see all of you become the best human being you can be.

To that end, if you need to talk, I will listen. If you need advice, I will advise. If you need to cry, come see me, and I will cry with you. If you need to go somewhere and you feel unsafe, I will go with you. If you need a safe harbor, my door will always be open to you, even after the semester ends. And if someone threatens you for who you are, I will step in front of you. I will not stand by idly.

I make this promise as a member of this community because all of you matter. You are my community. All of you deserve to live the life you want to. None of you deserve to be harassed. None of you are alone.

Postscript: This was the hardest class I have ever taught. It was also, perhaps, the most important. Students from both political parties reached out to me afterwards to thank me for being willing to address the election in class. Some students were thankful that their concerns had been recognized, while others thanked me for helping them understand why their friends were upset. I am left thinking that teaching our students to be more empathetic may be how we can actually Make America Great Again.

Adam H. Domby is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. He can be followed on twitter here.