When did America stop being great? Another darn good question.

“We have been overlooked, with all these special-interest groups getting their way.”

Source: We asked Trump voters, “When did America stop being great?” Their answers were amazing.

A fascinating counterpoint to this earlier video produced by The Atlantic that I mentioned last week. I think these things matter to us as historians because, as John Fea and lots of other historians have pointed out, the election is being framed as a referendum on the current state of the nation as opposed to a forgotten/decaying/dying America of the past.

As historians, one thing we can do is interrogate claims people are making about the past, but the question has been raised: should we do this for current events, particularly for this election? I mentioned earlier that I was looking to have my students in the U.S. surveys this fall read public writing by historians and think about the role historians play in the public sphere; Stanley Fish’s recent condemnation of Historians Against Trump, and Ken Burns’ Historians On Trump videos seem to have made this assignment even more important. I think I will assign the Fish article as part of the larger assignment.

But I wanted to reshare a story from an earlier post about how much my students wanted context, and how history helped them think about a fundamental question in American history:

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?”

We didn’t spend time answering that last question, because that wasn’t the point. The point was that something my students had viewed as black and white now seemed more complex. We should watch videos like the one above in historical context, with the help of historians, because they don’t just tell us about today, they also tell us about how we imagine the past that led to today.

And yes, that’ll probably make black and white arguments more complex and thorny. That’s what history does.

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