Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Era of Trump

AHA Session 141
Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Kenneth Osgood, Colorado School of Mines
Jeffrey Engel, Southern Methodist University
Nicole R. Hemmer, University of Virginia
Timothy Naftali, New America Foundation
Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin
Julian Zelizer, Princeton University and CNN

Session Abstract

American historians, trained to take the long view but living in the moment, have been trying to make sense of the phenomenon called Donald Trump. In the midst of the 2016 campaign, a “historians against Trump” online petition quickly gathered over a thousand signatures, while a “historians on Trump” Facebook page, created by David McCullough and Ken Byrnes and featuring short video commentaries, garnered more than 65,000 followers. Many observers saw alarming parallels to some of the ugliest moments in U.S. history, as well as the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The interest in using history to illuminate the present – and in some cases to shape rapidly unfolding events -- only increased after Trump’s inauguration, as witnessed by the explosion of historical commentary on news and opinion pages, broadcast news discussions, and social media feeds.

Some see the role of such history to be primarily analytical, to complicate public understanding of the past and present, while others lean toward advocacy, to sound alarms about looming dangers. Still others within the historical community question whether academic historians should even insert themselves into partisan politics--doesn’t doing so contravene the spirit of objective inquiry historians prize? Among those who value public engagement, professional questions emerge: How do we differentiate historical research from political assertions? How do we assess our own political biases as historians? How do we show the public the utility of historical insights? How do we make our expertise and insights accessible and convincing in a deeply polarized political environment?

This roundtable discussion will explore these and other questions from the perspectives of historians who have been deeply engaged in the public conversations about American politics in the Trump era. Participants include Jeffrey Engel (Southern Methodist University), director of the Center for Presidential History; Nicole Hemmer (University of Virginia), a columnist for US News & World Report; Timothy Naftali (New York University), a CNN Presidential Historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Library; Jeremi Suri (University of Texas), prolific columnist and radio/TV commentator; and Julian Zelizer (Princeton), a CNN analyst who writes for The Atlantic and has published over 700 op-eds.

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