Chris Bouton: Welcome to this week’s slack chat, where Erin and I will discuss the firing of James Comey and how two historians of the 19th century, attempt to understand what’s happening.
What I tried to write yesterday was that I was struck by the historical comparisons being invoked by the media, specifically the firing of William Sessions and the Saturday Night Massacre, but a total lack of engaging with how the Comey firing was similar or different.
I tried to point out what I thought were the key differences between those two events and Comey’s firing, as well as point out how little we know about what happened through the lens of the Saturday Night Massacre.
Erin Bartram: And this kind of surface analysis has been everywhere
I think we see its parallel in the initial acceptance of the justification of Comey’s firing
That we were just not supposed to remember that Sessions and Trump loved Comey’s July press conference
Or with the press’ willingness to accept that the AHCA doesn’t eliminate protections for pre-existing conditions because the TEXT doesn’t explicitly say it’s removing those protections
Chris: Well and more recently, Trump had hugged Comey and expressed his support.
Erin: It’s an imperfect metaphor, but it’s like textualism has become the only approach to analysis because the other schools of analysis would require members of the media to say “HOLY %@#( EVERYTHING IS FALLING APART”
Chris: Right and I think it’s really easy on Twitter, cable news, and elsewhere to fall in to that spiral of the impending death of the republic.
There was a lot of hyperbole about the FCC supposedly investigating Stephen Colbert for his lewd Trump jokes, and the cry went out on Twitter, “Media Censorship.” “1st Amendment under attack.” What happened was, someone filed a complaint, the FCC looked into it, and moved on.
Because there wasn’t anything actually going on.
I’m not suggesting that historians or other people interested in protecting free speech or this country’s democratic institutions shouldn’t speak up. We need to do a better job of distinguishing the signal from the noise.
Erin: There’s been a lot of “let’s calm down, Obama did this too,” which is a good corrective, but I think the panic comes from what reporters don’t want to say – that they think this president is fine using the mechanisms of government to punish people he doesn’t like. That, to me, is the actual story.
And I think that in tying this Comey situation to Nixon, people are trying to use history to make themselves feel better.
It can come across as alarmist, but given how little analysis there’s been of the significant differences, it strikes me as a way to say “see, this happened before, and the system worked and the republic endured and everything can be fine”
So I think one sobering comparison should be how hard it was to investigate and uncover what happened with Watergate versus how easy it seems to be right now to see the details of the coverup. The president just says what he’s doing. Everyone can see it. What’s different now is that Congress is not holding him accountable. The ease of “seeing” the crimes functions in relationship with the likelihood of the crimes being punished.
Chris: And the point that I tried to make is that if there is one part of the Comey-Saturday Night Massacre comparison worth considering is the notion of a cover-up. Nixon’s refusal to hand over the tapes made it look like he was hiding something (and he was). Trump’s firing of Comey makes it look like he’s trying to sandbag the Russia investigation, especially in light of Trump’s claims that he fired Comey because of how he treated the Clinton email investigation.
If that was the case, then Trump should have fired Comey in January when no one likely would’ve cared. When it comes just after Comey testified before Congress and asked for more money and personnel to investigate Russia? Yeah, it looks like a cover-up.
Or at least, looks like there’s a lot more to the story than Comey acted inappropriately. We know he acted inappropriately. The former chief ethics lawyer from the Bush White House filed a complaint against Comey before the election.
Erin: Perhaps the most useful thing for me, as a historian and as a teacher of US history, is the way this has been illustrative of the gulf between norms and laws
Recently my students and I were talking about the 1980s push for an amendment allowing school prayer, which led to a discussion of how the founding generation saw the importance of religion, inasmuch as it provides a good moral foundation, in a democracy.
That with great power – the franchise – comes great responsibility.
Students often brush that aside, because they don’t see the vote as something powerful, but I wonder if it’s starting to seem different.
Chris: I think Trump has helped highlight how much of the democratic institutions rely on behavioral norms, rather than legal prohibitions
Trump had the right to fire Comey, he’s not being a dictator as someone on Twitter put it. He has the legal authority to do so. If we want to make it so that the F.B.I. is insulated from the political machinations of one party or another, then change the law.
In other words, I think Trump is revealing the weaknesses in our democratic institutions that someone like him can exploit for his own personal gains.
So what we need to do next is shore those up.
Erin: I wonder how seeing all of this exposed so clearly might change the way we study and teach history
It certainly should disabuse us all of the notion that anything is inevitable, or that the US is somehow exceptional or unique.
Chris: Historical events are only inevitable in hindsight.
Erin: As many historians have pointed out every time someone on cable news says “It’s unthinkable that this could happen” or “we are entering uncharted territory”
It’s not, and no we aren’t. Stop thinking of America as exceptional, and start thinking about the rest of the world.
Chris: We talked about this last week and I think it’s worth revisiting here–if we think of the study of history as a process or way of thinking, then that lets us move beyond notions of American exceptionalism.
The story of Trump’s election is not solely an American one. It’s also part of a broader story of right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere favoring restricted immigration, nationalism, and the othering of outsiders.
Trump is not sui generis.
Erin: I have joked before that being a historian is like being able to see the matrix but not being able to convince everyone else it’s even there.
I think with the Nixon comparisons, we have a lot of people thinking they’re seeing the matrix, but there’s so much more to it.
Chris: I’ve always hated the cliche that history repeats itself. It doesn’t.
Erin: Somehow it repeats itself but we also study it so as not to repeat it?
Chris: I’ve much preferred the quotation that “history rhymes” (Sorry I can’t remember who coined that phrase).
Erin: yes, I like that one too.
Chris: I think it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, but that may not be correct. But it seems like something Twain would write.
Erin: Or something he’d take credit for.
Chris: The idea that history rhymes points to the similarities between historical events, while also recognizing that they are in fact different.
Erin: When I talk to my students about writing in history, I often talk about their examples as telephone poles.
Chris: The firing of Comey is maybe a near rhyme to the Saturday Night Massacre
Erin: That it’s quite easy to find three telephone poles for your essay. It’s being able to talk about what changed in between the poles – that’s where the history happens. We’ve set up the Saturday Night Massacre and Comey’s firing as two telephone poles, but thinking about the wires that connect them seems important.
In that way, I think this is an extension of our conversation last week. If we think of history as a bunch of facts and dates, then we jump right to the Sessions firing and the Saturday Night Massacre. If we think about history as a process of critical thinking, then we go a step further and examine the links between them and where they are similar or dissimilar.
One other thing that I think is important, at least in terms of where historians can be helpful, is balancing alarmism with historical realism.
In particular, the idea that the republic will endure because it will.
At the moment, we’re talking about how much weight our institutions can bear.
And there seems to be the assumption that they can stretch, but won’t break. At some point, they’ll stop things.
And I don’t mean to say anything happening will end in a war.
But as 19th century historians, we study a period when institutions were unable to solve a major problem, and even more than that, were sort of set up to facilitate the problem itself.
Chris: We don’t know how much our institutions can bear. Uncertainty is a tough issue to confront especially in our profession.
Erin: But one thing we do know is that institutions don’t exist outside of the people who make them up, and they don’t operate on their own.
Chris: Yes, institutions reflect the priorities of the people who create and maintain them.
Erin: I’d like to give a shoutout here to something that’s been helpful for me in this moment, a podcast produced by NHPR.
One of my good friends is on NHPR’s community advisory board and pointed me to it, and I’ve found it very helpful, even though I “should know all this”
Chris: Building off a podcast like this, perhaps all this concern about our democratic institutions will prompt some type of reform, I’ve certainly been impressed by the uptick in civic engagement since the election.
I think we need to remember that history moves in ways that are not predictable/obvious to those experiencing it at the time. If I’ve learned anything from studying the past is the need to remain humble in the face of the present.
I joked with my students the other day that it can feel like we’re living in the opening paragraph of a new textbook chapter.
Chris: And we may very well be.
Erin: But that it’s good to remind ourselves that we don’t know, and that not everyone even feels that way, or agrees on what the chapter should be called, just like the people we’re studying in the past.
The humility that comes from studying history can be helpful to us in our present.