When I was three years old, and ignorant of any history other than my own brief existence on Earth, World War II was in full force. The only thing I knew at the time was that my dad was going to be in it. On that last visit home before he shipped out, my grandmother took some pictures with her Kodak box camera. I still have them.
Shortly after this picture (above) was taken, I pooped my pants. Dad, looking formidable in his uniform, looked down at me and said, “Did you poop your pants?” I said “No,” and ran off into the yard. He chased me saying he was going to catch me and find out. I was laughing and running, and he was playing out his last act of being my dad before going off to war.
He caught me and swept me up in his arms, way up over his head and twirled me around. The earth was spinning, I was laughing, my dad was laughing, and when he brought me down it was with a big hug and a kiss.
Before I was five years old, that war had ended and much of the world was in shambles and it would be many years before I was old enough to know what was transpiring when I was that little boy. I was ignorant of the larger forces going on around me and completely ignorant of anything historical. It was Cicero who said, some 2,000 years ago, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”
The world recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Seventy-five years ago, I knew nothing of such an assault on humanity. But there are persons still alive who were in those camps when my father went off to war and when I was running around my yard as a happy kid. Their experience of historical forces was so vastly different from mine. Anyone who is alive now and does not know of these things and their impact on history, is still a child.
While my dad was chasing me around the yard, Ann Frank was still in hiding, writing her diary and bearing witness to what Nazis were doing to her and her world. Ann Frank’s world was the one I was born into, but I didn’t know it then. When I think of what has happened on this planet in the 79 years that I have been alive, I have a hard time making sense of it, even though it is my vocation as a historian to try to find ways to deal with such global scales of human experience.
The Full Truth
Each generation of people, from all the places and cultures that we come from, are somewhere along a spectrum of historical awareness that ranges from complete ignorance to complete absorption in the forces that affect us. None of us are born knowing history. We must be taught it. And for all the history we learn, there are competing forces of propaganda that offer alternatives to history’s truths. There are political and ideological forces in every culture that prefer to build power and influence with alternatives to truth. Truth seems malleable to the point of being completely reshaped by other narratives for other purposes.
There are still Holocaust deniers—people who argue that the truths we can see with our own eyes are not real. The camps were not real. The documents of the exterminations kept by the Nazis were not real. The Nuremberg Trials were a hoax. The survivors with their tattooed forearms are not telling the truth. The testimony, the diaries, the building of museums, the preservation of artifacts, and the remaining documents and photographs of those lost are not what they purport to be, according to the deniers. Such a monstrous denial of history and truth is almost unfathomable. Yet such things exist in the world.
I give this example because it stands in such stark relief from other examples I might use. I could talk about our own Civil War, and how the truths of that war still are denied by those who prefer an alternative narrative, that of a noble Lost Cause, where southern culture was destroyed not by a war over slavery, but by a war of Northern Aggression. I am not in the least trying to compare the Trump Administration to the Holocaust. I use it here to begin a discussion of bearing witness, of being aware enough of what is going on around me to know that the story must be truthfully told so that lies and propaganda cannot replace what is happening to the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. To bear witness is to speak or write about what you have seen so that the truth is known and not forgotten.
We don’t always know the full truth, because we only see parts of it. And seldom is there ever one big truth, but more often a series of truths, not The Truth, but A Truth. We will learn things about the Trump Administration decades from now that we don’t fully comprehend at this moment. Our historical awareness unfolds over time. But this is not to say that Trump’s presidency will develop a better image with the passage of time. It is my belief that the damage he is doing to government and to political discourse will only get worse as we uncover things not known right now.
The small way that I have chosen to bear witness to the Trump presidency is to keep a running diary and to write a regular series of analytical essays that record events as they unfold. I started this process during the presidential campaign in 2015 and I have been doing it for almost five years now. Many of my friends on Facebook have been the first to see my commentaries.
After Trump’s first year in office, I self-published the journal entries and the analytic pieces as Trump Tsunami: A Historian’s Diary of the Trump Campaign and His First Year in Office. My second book, American Demagogue: Critical Essays on the Trump Presidency, was published one year ago. Both are available on Amazon Books and as Kindle editions. I am writing a third volume now, but do not know if I will publish it before the November elections or wait and see the outcome. I do not know yet what its title will be. Things are still unfolding.
Worlds Within Worlds
What gives me the right to do this? What allows me to assume I am telling the truth about Trump, a man I have never met? Is it arrogant to assume that what I say about him is the truth, or a truth, or a series of truths? Some have responded to my postings on Facebook by saying I am nothing but a terribly biased Democrat who hates Trump and that I make stuff up because of my bias. When I say Trump makes stuff up, my social media critics turn it around and say, No, you make stuff up. Facebook, and all social media, thrive on the quick kill, the label that brands you as a biased partisan. Once the label is applied, you are toast. These days, you can be branded as an extreme partisan if you have a subscription to The Washington Post, which I do. In such an atmosphere, truth is indeed elusive.
I do not hate Trump. I am appalled by him. There is a difference. I see Trump as a massive and dangerous symptom of a political disease that has been festering and growing in this country for most of my adult life. Ideological extreme partisanship, now fueled by social media, is as bad for our political well-being as the forest fires in Australia were bad for the entire ecology.
My personal truth is that I never ever expected the United States of America to elect a man so totally unqualified, so mentally unstable, so crooked, and so dangerous to the well-being of our government and the national security of the United States. While we have had some presidents who have failed miserably in office, we never had one that had a long career before being elected as a fraud and a cheat. We elected a crime boss who has no common decency. I still have no good explanation for this. It was a colossal failure of our electoral process on so many fronts.
This is the truth that I see with my own eyes. This is the truth that I see when the president speaks, when he tweets, when his campaign people are sentenced to jail, and from the evidence of the Mueller Report, which I read, and the Articles of Impeachment from the House investigations, and the House Report, which I read. It is from my own analysis using my own brain, when I read the transcript of Trump’s “perfect phone call,” and saw in plain English that our president was shaking down a foreign head of state just like a crime boss would act. That truth was obvious enough to launch an impeachment.
I am not alone in how I feel about this president. Millions of Americans share my views, not, perhaps, in every detail, but in the broad strokes that see the president as a danger to the Republic and the Constitution. But I also know that millions of other Americans do not see Donald Trump as I do. They see a different man, a different presidency, and a different truth. To pretend that anyone who likes Donald Trump or who plans to vote for him in 2020 is a lunatic, or a “deplorable,” is to miss the whole point of what I am writing about.
There is this spectrum, that I mentioned earlier—it ranges from ignorance of the forces of history to a deep engagement with them. And let me make clear that when I use the word ignorance, it does not mean stupid—it means: not informed. Like the three-year-old kid who was ignorant of world affairs. That three-year-old grew up and learned things. He was not stupid; he just hadn’t learned anything yet.
There are worlds within worlds in the 330 million of us who are Americans. Not everyone pays attention to politics. Not everyone reads a newspaper or a news magazine; not everyone studies history, or law, or politics. This does not make them lesser Americans. It does not make them stupid. I can’t do math. I can’t sing. I can’t play basketball. I am not bilingual. I could go on with all the things I can’t do that so many millions of Americans can. We are all somewhere on the spectrum of knowledge and abilities in different ways.
The window through which I observe and bear witness to Donald Trump comes from my personal experience as a student of American history, as someone who was fortunate enough to be the official historian of the U.S. House of Representatives under three different Speakers and during three presidential administrations. I see government as a positive force, a necessary thing, and I look at the Constitution as a magnificent document that is there for each generation to make better. It is not some relic frozen in the year 1787.
Democracy is Messy
My truth is that I love government, warts and all. My truth is that I still get goose bumps when I see the Capitol Dome or the Washington Monument. My truth comes from James Madison, who said if men were angels no government would be necessary. Humans are not angels. We need to be checked. Government is not composed of angels either. It needs to be checked. I do not look for perfection. I am looking for decency, honesty, and respect for the law and of our traditions in a much larger amount than is currently in evidence.
There is great beauty and great danger in the fact that each American, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of knowledge and understanding of government, gets to cast one vote for president. Most Americans don’t even exercise the franchise. But those who do will vote for a variety of reasons, or for no reason at all other than party loyalty or to cast a vote to express anger and frustration. Democracy is messy this way.
Despite how I feel about Donald Trump, I do not presume to think that anything I think about him will be what others think about him when they vote. We could elect Donald Trump again because he is a master demagogue who knows how to manipulate masses of people. I may see him as a buffoon, but others may see a colorful entertainer. His popularity might be enough of a reason for some to vote for him.
Demagoguery is the dark side of democracy. Fear and anger will be his tools for re-election. He will continue to scapegoat immigrants. He won in 2016 by breaking all the rules, by smearing members of his own party before turning on “Lock Her Up” Hillary. He broke campaign laws and will break them again. He will do anything under the sun to win again. No high road exists for Donald Trump. If you look, you can see this truth already.
I will continue to observe Trump and his administration and write about it mostly for my own benefit. Writing analytically helps me sort things out. If what I write helps others to do the same, then that is a good thing. There has been so much written about Trump already by others with far greater knowledge and with access to much larger audiences.
My writing will not make much of a contribution to the whole corpus. But it does make a difference to me. My writing is what I do and who I am. I will bear witness as long as I can. But always with the hope that with this president, we are at the nadir, and everything after Trump will swing the pendulum back toward sanity and decency. But this may not be a truth, only a hope. Hope is a good thing, too. Childhood is a good thing, for children. Cicero still speaks to us about the dangers of remaining ignorant of history, and of being afraid to seek the truth.
— Dr. Smock served as the Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983-1995 and is the (recently retired) former director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University. He has published two books (links above): Trump Tsunami: A Historian’s Diary of the Trump Campaign and His First Year in Office and American Demagogue: Critical Essays on the Trump Presidency. He was kind enough to allow The Observer the opportunity to reprint his work.By Dr. Ray Smock