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In This Election Year We Historians Need to Insist on Truth-telling

In May 2020, historian Jill Lepore began a new podcast seeking to answer the question "Who killed truth?" In her These Truths: A History of the United States (2019), she writes that “the work of the historian” includes being “the teller of truth.” And indeed what other task can be more important for us? Are we not society’s experts on telling the truth about the past? And, as H. Stuart Hughes once argued, that includes the recent past. “Tell the truth” should be as central to our mission, as “First, do no harm” is to doctors and nurses. 

Truth is especially important in this year of a crucial presidential election. Competing versions of the truth are already battling each other. And President Trump’s actions and inactions regarding the coronavirus pandemic and post-George-Floyd murder are the main battlegrounds. 

In a New York Times op-ed of 13 June, conservative columnist Peter Wehner, a frequent critic of Trump, wrote that even before becoming president Trump’s goal “was to annihilate the distinction between truth and falsity . . . to overwhelm people with misinformation and disinformation.” 

Politicians are not especially known for truth telling. As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1967, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.” But Trump has brought disrespect for truth to a whole new level, one that easily has surpassed that of any previous president. Early in 2018 his fellow Republican, outgoing senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake stated

2017 was a year which saw the truth—objective, empirical, evidence-based truth—more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Later in 2018, Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump wrote of the“monumentally serious consequences of his [Trump’s] assault on truth.” At the beginning of June 2020, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President's Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Liesby several members of The Washington Post Fact Checker team, appeared on bookshelves. It declared, “Donald Trump, the most mendacious president in U.S. history . . . . [is] not known for one big lie—just a constant stream of exaggerated, invented, boastful, purposely outrageous, spiteful, inconsistent, dubious and false claims.” 

The book also insisted that Trump’s “pace of deception has quickened exponentially. He averaged about six [false or misleading] claims a day in 2017, nearly 16 a day in 2018 and more than 22 a day in 2019.” In 2020 the number continued to rise, reaching 19,128 by late May. Furthermore, Trump has reduced the capacity of many government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act based on science-based truths rather than political bias.

But rather than analyzing all Trump’s falsehoods and weakening of factual-based government operations, let’s just concentrate on his responses to our ongoing pandemic and the continuing protests following the 25-May-knee-on-the-neck killing of George Floyd. Following an examination of Trumpian truth-tramplings regarding those two 2020 events, we shall look further at the historian’s role in insisting on truth-telling. 

On 13 April 2020 Trump exploited the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing to play a four-minute video featuring TV clips and text which praised his coronavirus responses. On that same day, the Republican National Committee (RNC) began running ads in over a dozen battleground states praising Trump's coronavirus leadership. The main theme of both the four-minute video and the ads was summed up by a few quotes from one of the ads. “Our nation in crisis, but through the uncertainty and fear, our president is a steady hand. Bold action. Strong leadership. Uniting America,” and “From the beginning, President Trump was decisive. Stopping travel from foreign nations, gathering our best and brightest, slowing the spread of COVID-19. President Trump will relaunch our economy and fight for the American worker. Helping a nation in need delivering unprecedented bipartisan relief.” 

About the 13-April video CNN proclaimed, “TRUMP USES TASK FORCE BRIEFING TO TRY AND REWRITE HISTORY ON CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE.” Two of the networks reporters, Erin Burnett and John King, indicated some of the ways the video presented a false narrative. And CNN’s Jim Acosta declared that it looked like it was made in China or North Korea.

Thus, it appears that competing views of Trump’s coronavirus response, competing histories of it, are going to bombard citizens all the way up to the November presidential election. The same is likely to occur regarding the Trumpian response to protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd. Can voters’ get this history right? Can they distinguish between truthful history and fake history? The outcomes of the November Presidential and Congressional elections are likely to hinge on this capability.

Pew poll released May 28 does not provide great hope. Only 33 percent of Democrats and independents leaning that way and 23 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt “highly confident in their ability to check the accuracy of COVID-19 news and information.”

Regarding Trump’s coronavirus responses, The Atlantic’s “All the President’s Lies About the Coronavirus” (27 May, 2020) and its promise of updating as needed provides a good overview. So too does Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s up-to-date “Timeline of Trump’s Coronavirus Responses,” which includes such Trump gems as “We have it totally under control. . . . It’s going to be just fine” (22 January); “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus” (25 February); and “When we have a lot of cases, I don't look at that as a bad thing, I look at that as, in a certain respect, as being a good thing, . . . Because it means our testing is much better. I view it as a badge of honor, really, it's a badge of honor” (19 May, the day after U.S coronavirus deaths passed 90,000). 

The most notable presidential response to the protests after George Floyd’s death was Trump’s short walk from the White House to St. John’s Church, where he 

arranged a photo op of him holding up a Bible. To get to the church Trump used militarized security forces, rubber bullets, and tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters. After such tactics were criticized in the press, the Trump campaign claimed the press distorted the Trump response. 

In general Trump and his administration have attempted to link the protests to radical leftists, including a loose group of anti-fascist activists known as antifa. Trump’s most outrageous claim was that a 75-year-old man knocked to the ground by Buffalo police and hospitalized “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” Yet, as the New York Times indicated “Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests”

Of course, Trump and his supporters often damn media that are critical of him by calling them “fake news.” But this frequent and careless labeling, even against such conservative publications as the Wall Street Journal, is hardly credible. As historians, we often emphasize that in seeking truth we should rely on reliable sources. Can anyone seriously claim that Trump is such a source?

In a post on HNN last month, Christine Adams and Nina Kushner wrote that “to hold Trump and the GOP accountable . . . will require a shared understanding of what constitutes truth. . . . This idea of truth based on reason and evidence is what supports almost all research from life-saving medical breakthroughs (such as the coronavirus vaccine we are nervously awaiting) to the development of the iPhone.  But it is not the monopoly of research. Rational evidence-based inquiry is the hallmark of journalism, the work of intelligence agencies, and even the legal system, however imperfectly.” Yet, the two historians realized, “it is exactly this understanding of the truth that is at risk.”

Historians stress on truth telling goes way back. A half century ago, for example, David Hackett Fischer emphasized it in his book Historians’ Fallacies (1970): “Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well.”

Fischer’s book remains valuable because he reminds us of all the errors we as historians can, and have, made; and he is absolutely correct in emphasizing the centrality of truth telling to our profession. Seeking truth about past events must always remain our lodestar.

What former President Obama said in a July 2018 speech in South Africa is even more true today than it was two years ago. Still early in the Trump administration, Obama stated that “too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. . . . We see it in state-sponsored propaganda. . . . We see it in the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient.” 

Although Obama did not mention Trump, it was easy to discern that the former president believed his successor was encouraging truth trampling. And, unfortunately, Trump’s Republican Party was descending into the lying pit along with him. Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth cites a 2007 Associated Press–Yahoo poll which “found that 71 percent of Republicans said it was ‘extremely important’ for presidential candidates to be honest,” but in a 2018 Washington Post poll only 49 percent thought it was important, “22 points lower than in the poll a decade earlier.”

The party that once prided itself on emphasizing virtues such as honesty (see, e.g. William Bennett’s 1993 Book of Virtueswas apparently now having second thoughts about a value Bennett thought “was of pervasive human importance.” But Obama told his South African audience that “the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people.” In the spirit of that speech, where four times he repeated the phrase “history shows,” we can also add that historians need to continue insisting on the importance of truth-telling.