- Early American Studies in the Age of Trump
As 2017 drew to a close, CNN impaneled a group of experts to respond to a pressing question (State of the Union). Did Barack Obama overstep the bounds of political decorum—and historical accuracy—when he made a historical analogy that compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler? Earlier that week, Obama had warned an assembled group that they needed to guard against complacency if they wanted to avoid finding themselves, as Germans had in 1933, overtaken by a horror they had been too complacent to fight when they had the chance. Was Obama, the moderator wanted to know, being inflammatory by invoking the terrors of the past to motivate voters in the present? At least one of the respondents didn't feel that pulling from history was the problem, but took the former president to task for using the wrong history in his argument. Nazi Germany was not an apt analogy for our current moment, the pundit declared, but Watergate surely was. Even with this quibble about the choice of example, everyone [End Page 953] on the panel seemed to agree on one thing: we need the past as a gauge to explain the present. We can only know where we are by looking at where we've been.
For scholars in early American culture who have long endured allegations that our scholarship had little applicability to the problems of "real life," this current hunger for historical knowledge can seem a bit disorienting. Beyond the questions of what the study of early US culture can tell us about our current moment, there is much in our present that puts pressure on how we can study the past. Throughout academia, but especially within the field of early American studies, every post-2016 conversation is newly fraught with questions about how we can do our work and why it matters.
Even as scholars find ourselves in a bewilderingly postfactual era, pundits have blamed academics for causing this mess in the first place. Late 2016 and early 2017 were awash in think pieces that suggested that it was the intellectual turn away from the notion of universal truth that allowed an inveterate conman to snag the highest elected office in the land. "Derrida and his fellow deconstructionists have uncoupled words from meaning," chided a March 2016 article, and it was the spread of such a destabilizing approach to truth that allowed Trump to "get away with saying one thing and then its opposite" (Kelly; see also Heer and Williams).
While it stretches credibility to blame Jacques Derrida for an election effectively decided by a handful of voters in midwestern states, Trumpism's sustained attack on authority—in academia, in journalism, in government itself—has forced us all to reassess, if not realign, our own relationship to truth, and our own methodologies for excavating it. Consider, as just one example among many, the confrontation between Trump—who loves to invoke the word history when touting his own accomplishments—and the historians who pointed out that he was, quite simply, making stuff up. Back in 2015, the New York Times reported on a plaque Trump had erected at one of his golf courses in Virginia, claiming that particular green as an important site of American history. The plaque read: "Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as 'The River of Blood.' It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!—Donald John Trump."
When the Times reporter cited historians who insisted that there had actually been no Civil War battles at...