History and Lies

In preparing some notes for a law lecture in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln reflected on what it meant to him to be a lawyer. He wrote: “There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest…the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man lincoln-in-1847choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief; resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

Lincoln’s advice would have come as no surprise to his friends and professional colleagues at the bar, because honesty was at the heart of Lincoln’s character and was among the central reasons he enjoyed the admiration and respect of his peers. Lincoln might have just as easily delivered those words of advice to up-and-coming politicians or to his owns sons in his parental efforts to raise honest citizens and honest men. Lincoln lived by example, never consenting to be a knave in his personal, in his legal, or in his political life. Lincoln’s honesty is precisely why today, nearly 152 years after his death, we still admire and revere him. We call him Honest Abe for good reason.

In the few days since Donald Trump swore his presidential oath upon the very Bible that Honest Abe used to make that same promise, rampant dishonesty and, in fact, outright lies have proven that the new president has no intention of living by Lincoln’s example. Now it is entirely likely that Trump consented to be a knave way back in some formative stages of his arrested development, but the pathological nature of his lies since the inauguration, including a whopper about the fucking weather, has frayed even my jaded nerves. The nature of Trump’s lies, the efforts of his staff to support and perpetuate them, and the willingness of some “fake news” media outlets to broadcast them as facts, alternative facts, or opinions, has got me thinking about the historical record that the Trump administration is creating.

Anticipating your question, I will pause here to say that I am not naive. I know that most people are not Abraham Lincoln. I admit that some politicians stretch the truth, fib, or lie to further their political goals; and neither political party is without such said individuals. I understand that governments and governmental agencies are not always perfectly honest and that presidential administrations have always spun news to their best advantage. I also know that the honesty of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln may have inspired the presidential likes of Grover Cleveland, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, but I admit that the honesty thing fell with a dull thud upon the deaf ears of quite a few others. But at no time in our nation’s history has a president lied purely for the sake of his own self-aggrandizement, or made lying such a public spectacle, or seemed so openly determined to perpetuate established lies as a new kind of truth. The ease with which Trump lies about unimportant things like the weather and the size of his inauguration crowds is disturbing for what it portends for more deceptive dishonesty about critically important issues like foreign intelligence or nuclear weapons.

But I will leave the modern horror of the Trump lies for the real media and for the honest politicians already at work in the U.S. Congress to keep Trump in check. Today, I am interested in Trump as a future historical figure, and I have a lot of questions about how historians will tackle the historical record in their efforts to make sense of the Trump campaign and presidency. I have heard myself saying out loud a lot lately, “history will get Trump right, trust me.” But will it? Will future historians understand the rancor of the 2016 presidential election if, for example, they dismiss social media as an unreliable and tricky source? Will the differences between real and “fake” news make sense to them? Will they blindly trust governmental statistics from 2017-2020 about the health of the planet if the fact that Trump stifled the EPA’s work and message about climate change gets lost to history somehow? Will future historians know that Teen Vogue offered serious assessments about a Trump presidency and that Fox News was a mouthpiece of the conservative right? Will the political biases of today be so evident 152 years after Trump is dead?

Will historians use television media, which has become the dominant purveyor of political news, as a source? Given the problems of digital archiving of technology and the conflicting cacophony of voices, will they even be able to use it? What in the hell is a future historian supposed to do with Twitter? Will there even be a viable archive of Twitter? And if there is not, then what does that mean for interpretations of Trump, who wields Twitter like a political weapon? If social media archiving is possible, how will future historians interpret it? How will such digital sources impact historical interpretations about the breadth of opposition to Trump or influence assessments regarding degrees of acceptance of his policies against Muslim Americans, his plans to build a wall on the Mexican-American border, or his rejection of climate science? If there is a misleading picture of the Trump inauguration hanging on the wall of the White House, will it eventually become evidence of historical truth? And heaven help the truly subjective historian if a big chunk of the Washington Post becomes lost to history. Believe me, people, it could happen; and then what?

I am sounding a bit shrill, I realize, but these questions have tormented me during the past few days, and I wanted to share the love. As a historian, I balance historical evidence all the time, using what I know about the past to evaluate the validity and contexts of various voices and documentary evidence. I also know that sometimes I have to find creative ways to fill in for historical gaps in the record and that my biases play a role in how that happens. Regardless, I do accept the fact that good, future historians will apply the same professional skills that I do, will conduct the same critical analysis of the sources they utilize, and will understand how their own biases impact the questions they ask of their research and the way they write about the past. What worries me is that we now have a president who will openly and purposely distort the truth to match his own image of himself, the rest of us be damned. That, I think, is a brand new thing under the sun. I worry that distortions in the historical record today could significantly alter analysis of sources in the future and render an accurate examination of the Trump presidency extremely difficult or impossible.

For the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, I also worry that the honesty and integrity we admire in him is completely lost on some people, particularly on the one currently occupying the nation’s highest office. I worry that Trump will exercise his power in that position to damage or permanently erode the connection between honesty and leadership in our democratic society, or worse, that he will badger and browbeat us into submission. For now at least, I have a lot of fight in me to resist. I also have enough faith in the inspirational spirit of Abraham Lincoln to hope for some honest light at the end of the Trump dystopian tunnel. In the meantime though, we must all do our part to expect honesty from our leaders and to hold the feet of liars to the proverbial fire. Hopefully, no matter what happens, the historians of the future will get Trump right, and my belief in their success will not have been in vain.

resolve-to-be-honest
Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
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