The weight of history is compelling more than a dozen historians to crank out home videos warning viewers about Donald Trump and what a menace he would be as president.
One such video, by historian David McCullough, has more than 273,000 views since it posted Wednesday morning on the Historians on Donald Trump page on Facebook.
The page is a collaboration between McCullough and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who said in a commencement speech last month that Trump has “dictatorial tendencies” and is “glaringly unqualified” to be president.
“I have maintained a scrupulous neutrality in all of my work, but there comes a time for everybody when they have to say something,” Burns said in a phone conversation with The Daily Beast.
McCullough expressed the same feelings when he and Burns spoke soon after Burns had gone public, and they settled on a community web page as an appropriate forum to speak out. With the help of a publicist, they reached out to dozens of historians, inviting them to contribute a video from their smartphone.
No one said no, but not everyone has responded.
McCullough is the dean of U.S. historians, the most honored and widely read. Other acclaimed authors who have made videos include Robert Caro, who has spent a lifetime chronicling Lyndon Johnson; Ron Chernow, whose book on Alexander Hamilton was source material for the hit musical Hamilton; Evan Thomas, whose most recent book is Being Nixon: A Man Divided; and Vicki Lynn Ruiz, a past president of the American Historical Association and now a distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.
So far Ruiz is the only woman in this assemblage of mostly elder statesmen. In her video, she speaks to the consequences of Trump’s exclusionary rhetoric.
In his comments to The Daily Beast, Burns hit the media as hard as he does Trump. The media, Burns said, has been “hyping” Trump’s candidacy and is responsible for a lot of the attention he has gotten. The historian cited a “huge tension between reporting the news and the rush for big ratings.”
Watching this election unfold, Burns concluded it was “time to say something before it’s too late.” After speaking with McCullough, he knew his anxieties were widespread. “All historians are palpably nervous about what’s going on,” he said.
“I just finished a children’s book on Grover Cleveland. I know all of them [the former presidents], and they are deeply flawed—but none of them have the glaring flaws of Donald Trump. Those of us who spend our lives studying American history are upset about the rise of Trump. There’s been nobody like him. I wish there were a Murrow [Edward R.] or a Cronkite [Walter] to expose him,” Burns said, voicing nostalgia for the giants of the journalistic past who took on Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts, and brought the truth about the Vietnam War into American living rooms.
Today’s media, for whatever reason, has failed, said Burns. “Every time he burped, there was live coverage.”
Polls show a majority of voters think Trump gets too much media attention, and a survey of media coverage during the so-called invisible primary, before any voting took place, found that Trump received many multiple times over more coverage than his competitors, making him arguably the first media-generated presidential candidate, according to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“The media has completely failed to demand and get a full accounting of his taxes and the donations he makes or doesn’t make,” said Burns. He ticked off where he thinks the media haven’t done their job: exposing the failures in Trump’s business career and the way he conducts business, doesn’t pay his bills, and sues.
“The very people he’s appealing to are the churned-out waste of his failed business career,” Burns said, and he was just getting warmed up.
“What part of him follows the life and teachings of Jesus Christ? He has publicly lusted after his own daughter. I’m the father of four daughters, and I’m disgusted by him. This is someone who wants to be president? What’s wrong with this picture?”
To be president, you must be 35 years of age and a natural-born citizen. By that measure, Trump is qualified. What Burns and his fellow historians are saying is that he lacks other more essential qualifications in terms of knowledge of history and temperament to lead a nation.
“He is reptilian in his self-interest,” said Burns. “And that’s a terrifying thing in a country where we have learned how to extend equal rights to all kinds of groups. He’s a retrograde force.”
Whether these diverse avatars of wisdom that help shape our understanding of history can sway the larger forces undergirding this election is as unknowable as it is necessary that they chose this moment to speak out. They’re showing leadership. We’ll know soon if there is followership.