As I’m sure many Americans have, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking—and worrying—about the concept of truth. I should say at the outset that while I have some strongly held political views, I generally believe that on any given issue, there are a range of reasonable opinions. And because I don’t appreciate others’ proselytizing, I generally try to keep my politics out of the social media sphere.
That said, I feel compelled to comment on President Trump’s casual disregard for the truth. I want to make it clear at the outset that this is not a narrowly “political” opinion. Rather, my anxiety on this issue stems from larger, longer-term concerns about the civic health of the United States. To be sure, Trump is not to blame for most of these concerns, but the President (regardless of party, regardless of personality) has an obligation to nurture a healthy American civil society, allowing—even welcoming—dissent even as he promotes his own agenda.
Throughout the campaign, Trump displayed a penchant for making bold claims—fairly typical “red meat” for his political base. This is not unusual. But when those statements later became political liabilities, he did not (as many politicians do) attempt to “massage” them. He did not (with the exception of his infamous “locker room talk”) even attempt to explain them away. He and his team simply denied outright ever having made them. The TV spot produced by the Clinton campaign in the wake of the VP debate illustrated this perfectly.
Trump’s supporters might argue here that all politicians play fast and loose with the truth, and they would not be incorrect. Still, I think there’s a difference between run-of-the-mill “spin” and what Trump has done and continues to do.
Now that he has taken the oath of office, we’ve witnessed a trivial but protracted debate over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration vis a vis Obama. (In the grand scheme of things, who cares?!—except that, obviously, Trump does.) Most of the notable comments have come from Trump’s press team, with Kellyanne Conway purporting “alternative facts” on a Sunday morning talk show and Sean Spicer asserting in a press briefing that “we can disagree with the facts” (as if facts weren’t facts at all).
On top of the inauguration silliness, there have been reports of a forthcoming investigation into allegedly widespread voter fraud. To be sure, if millions of ballots were cast illegally, I—like most Americans—want to know about it. But so far, no one has produced any real evidence to that end, and the Trump team seems convinced that this problem was really only a problem in states where Trump lost.
This is not new, of course. Let us not forget that this is the same Trump who built his political career on “birtherism,” refusing to accept Barack Obama’s citizenship and demanding to see his birth certificate. And yet, once the document was released, Trump refused to accept it. When he was challenged on this issue during the 2016 campaign, he sought to blame Hillary Clinton for the whole charade.
It boggles the mind, and it has me wondering: Is Donald Trump the postmodern president?
As an undergraduate, and especially as a grad student, I dipped my toe into the waters of postmodernism, and I initially found them intellectually stimulating. For someone who hated history in high school, it was exciting to learn that everything—even the very nature of reality—was subject to debate. My experience in high school was essentially: “Here are a bunch of facts that someone else has deemed significant. Now memorize them!” So you can imagine how it felt to be told, in effect, “There are no wrong answers. All perspectives are valid; just take a side!”
In graduate school at the University of Alabama, I took a class with Professor George Williamson (now at Florida State University). We read the German historian Leopold von Ranke, who advocated for a fact-based (as opposed to a mythological) history—history wie es eigentlich gewesen (“how it actually happened”). We read Peter Novick, whose book That Noble Dream questioned the whole Rankean conception of history as an “objective” discipline. And we also read Gertrude Himmelfarb, the conservative historian who decried postmodernism thusly:
In history, [postmodernism] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.
Throughout the semester, we tacked through the heady winds of intellectual discourse, zigging and zagging from left to right and back again. Week after week, Dr. Williamson’s class left me thoroughly confused and convinced that I was stupid. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it. Nevertheless, long after the semester ended, I came to appreciate it more than any other class I took at Alabama. It was his class that provided me with a broad theoretical foundation for understanding history as a discipline, and in retrospect, it was his class that transformed me from merely a good student who happened to like history into a historian.
I must admit here that I am still influenced by certain aspects of postmodern thought: I remain skeptical of so-called “metanarratives,” and I do hold that truth—particularly historical truth—is a slippery and contested concept. The facts are always tentative and subject to change, and historians must (to the extent possible) be aware of their own biases. In that sense, I—like most historians, I suspect—share Novick’s view. However, I find much truth (and I choose that word deliberately) in Himmelfarb’s position. Postmodernism, intellectually engaging though it may be, is ultimately nihilistic and self-defeating. If there is no truth, even an imperfect one, then what’s the point? It reminds me of the famous line from Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”
As the renowned historian Eric Foner states in his 2002 book Who Owns History?, “There are commonly accepted professional standards that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods like the denial of the Holocaust. Historical truth does [exist], not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past.”
In short, even for historians who accept Novick’s contention that “pure objectivity” is unrealistic, a bright line still distinguishes between fact and fiction. Historians acknowledge that they are not writing history wie es eigentlich gewesen, but that is still a far cry from simply “making it up.” The entire historical enterprise is built on documentation of sources and the peer review process. In that, there is, in fact, a connection to the scientific method and, indeed, to the very ideals of the Enlightenment.
Not for nothing have I made a habit of posting the following quotation on the door to my office or classroom throughout my career: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Those words come from an 1820 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote describing the University of Virginia, my other alma mater. For all of Jefferson’s many accomplishments, his role in founding the University was one of only three that he wished to have placed on his tombstone, alongside his authorship of both the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Clearly, Jefferson wished to be remembered as a man of the Enlightenment.
The United States is a very much a product of the Enlightenment as well, but it is the Enlightenment values—of truth, of reason—that Donald Trump appears to question. To my mind, few things could be more corrosive to the health of our civic and political institutions or as damaging to our republic in the long-run. As Americans, we can (and should) disagree; that is our heritage. It is one of the things that makes America great. But we must disagree reasonably. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. Without reason, however—without the pursuit of truth—we are simply wandering in the dark.