[The following post is lightly adapted from a Facebook post that I wrote earlier this week. Its appearance here both reflects its popularity there and some of the limits of my own reaction to recent events. At the moment, I don’t have that much more to say. Though pretty formal and essayistic for a Facebook post, I fear it may be a bit informal for this blog. Many apologies if it seems out of place here — Ben Alpers]
Millions of Americans from all walks of life have been filled with fear and dread by the election of Donald Trump. But American historians have been, I think, among the most upset. I obviously can’t speak for my fellow American historians, but I think I can put into words part of my particular concern as an American historian.
With the arguable and partial exception of the period of Reconstruction (roughly and generously 1865-1877), between 1787 and 1964, the very basis of our nation’s unity was a bargain with white supremacy.
That began to change in a major way with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while we have not come close to banishing racism, the history of the last half century or so has been a struggle over how this country might continue on another, more racially egalitarian basis. And the hope has been alive that we might actually achieve a measure of racial justice in the United States.
So when a candidate gets elected to the presidency running on a white supremacist platform and begins appointing white supremacists to major positions of power, the reason so many of us are so insistent on not compromising whatsoever with him or his administration is not that such a compromise is impossible, but rather that, judging from American history, it is all too possible.
It is entirely possible that the experiment of the last fifty years could be brought to an end, and that the United States might, once again, return entirely to being a Herrenvolk democracy. For centuries, non-white-supremacist Americans of European descent compromised with, and built our nation on a partnership with, white supremacists. Just yesterday, Robin Marie reminded us on the blog that, as late as the 1950s, many white, liberal intellectuals chose to remain silent on issues of race and the American past. Today, the President Elect designated as his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Senator whose record on racial issues is so bad that he was turned down for a federal judgeship by a Republican Senate Judiciary Committee during the Reagan years because of his racism. We cannot afford to take any more steps backward, toward once again becoming the country we were before the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
Though all the signs are terrible, none of us actually knows how bad a Trump Presidency could get when it comes to the civil rights of Americans of color, LGBTQ communities, women, and members of religious minorities (among others). But though none of us can tell the future, Americans – including the historians among us – are faced with a kind of political Pascal’s Wager: If we assume the worst, fight tooth-and-nail against the Trump administration, and we’re wrong, the cost is much, much lower than if we “wait and see,” if we don’t assume the worst, and it turns out we should have.