The Trump administration’s daily assault on truth is testing our civil structures in ways they haven’t been tested in decades. Perhaps the central challenge for democratic institutions that are usually predicated on civil disagreement, open dialogue, truthful inquiry, and multiple viewpoints is this: How do you remain faithful to these ideals of truth seeking as an exercise in openness to multiple perspectives without giving cover to the anti-democratic and truth-destructive values of a demagogue like Donald Trump? Long after Trump is gone, we’ll be thinking through issues around reasoned discourse and collusion.
This challenge has already stymied the court system, the free press, city and local governments, and public debate. The academy, though, has sought as best it can to avoid this dilemma altogether. A good many academics to whom I have spoken in recent months have told me their best hope is to keep to themselves, work in their limited fields, be good teachers and scholars, and count on something larger than themselves to change things in government. More often than not, university leaders tell me that it is best for the academy to stay as neutral as possible, and to count on the Trump moment to be fleeting. That may no longer be a tenable approach.
On Monday morning, two prominent historians, professors William Hitchcock and Melvyn Leffler, resigned from the University of Virginia’s prestigious Miller Center to protest that institution’s decision to offer a yearlong paid academic fellowship to a senior member of the Trump administration. (Disclosure: I am a friend of Leffler’s.)
Earlier this month, the well-regarded institute for the study of political history, which focuses particularly on presidential oral histories, announced that former White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short would be given a fellowship at the school. As was the case when Harvard’s Kennedy School offered Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski prestigious visiting fellowships, the reaction on campus was swift and largely negative.
A petition signed by UVA alums and faculty seeking revocation of Short’s offer has now garnered more than 2,500 signatures. On Friday, Miller Center director and CEO William Antholis was compelled by the backlash to defend the hire in a letter. (Disclosure: I am friends with Antholis.) In that letter, Antholis noted that Short’s contributions to the center’s research would help scholars understand “how the presidency, Congress, and political polarization are combining to create policy and legislative gridlock.”
Even before Monday’s resignations, that position had been challenged by prominent historians and political scientists at UVA. Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the Miller Center who has written extensively about conservative politics, recently argued in an essay for Vox that welcoming Short to UVA invites a defender of “illiberalism” into an institution that depends on renouncing those values.
For their part, Hitchcock and Leffler, who are no bomb throwers, stepped down as two of the center’s most prominent historians. In their joint resignation letter to Antholis, they argued that the appointment “runs counter to the Center’s fundamental values of non-partisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility.” It would be reasonable, they contend, for the Miller Center to offer to host Short in any other capacity. But offering a fellowship is different. They argue that Short has used his position in the administration to launch attacks on the free press, the nation’s law enforcement forces, and the right to vote, actions which should be disqualifying from any academic post. The two historians conclude that “by associating himself with an administration that shows no respect for truth, [Short] has contributed to the erosion of civil discourse and democratic norms that are essential to democratic governance and that are central to the mission of the Miller Center.”
Hitchcock and Leffler will stay on as tenured faculty at UVA’s history department. But their departure from the Miller Center will be keenly felt. Leffler is the former dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at UVA and former president of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. He has been a fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute and the United States Institute of Peace, and is the author of multiple award-winning books about foreign policy. Hitchcock is a New York Times best-selling historian. His book The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In their letter of resignation, both scholars point to the upcoming anniversary of the Nazi march on Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump’s ongoing refusal to denounce “the alt-right and its street thugs, in the wake of the violence.” (Short has claimed that Trump “was clear and outspoken” in his condemnation of the Nazi violence.) “By not speaking out at the time, by not emphasizing the threats to human decency posed by the public display of Nazi symbols and racist diatribes in our own neighborhood, Mr. Short was complicit in the erosion of our civic discourse and showed an appalling indifference to the civility of our own city and university,” the pair writes. Short has recently been more outspoken in his condemnation of the white supremacists.
There are other, more recent concerns about Short as well, particularly among faculty who feel that their very communities are threatened by the policies of an administration the new Miller Center fellow has sought to defend. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at UVA, told me in an email that the issue of truthfulness is only a part of the equation:
Marc Short has endorsed the immoral policy of putting children in concentration camps—basically torture. He also—by associating naturalized immigrants who sponsor relatives for immigration (the ugly neologism “chain migration”) with terrorism—pushed to undo the anti-racist foundation of the 1965 Immigration Act. … [H]ow can Bill [Antholis] expect faculty of color—or any faculty with a conscience—to participate in Miller Center events? I know I can’t be in the same room as Short. He doesn’t want my family in this country.
(Disclosure: I am friends with Vaidhyanathan.)
Short decried the uproar as an attack on free speech, telling the Washington Post that “there is an irony at Thomas Jefferson’s university that professors are seeking to silence debate instead of fostering civil conversation.” During a lengthy interview, Antholis offered that the Miller Center is undertaking a unique study of polarization in the executive, which requires a deep understanding of the Trump administration. He also says that he had engaged in an extensive vetting of Short precisely because he understood that this would be controversial. He added that Short has been described to him as “the grown-up in the room” and “a normal Republican working in an abnormal environment.”
There remains a deeper problem, though: Whether he behaved as an “adult” or a gentleman, Marc Short has assisted in the purposeful White House effort to destroy truth. Examples abound. Short has parroted White House falsehoods in defense of family separation, including the source-free claim that “80 percent of those that are coming here illegally never show up for court and are never deported” and the false claim, recently rejected in the federal courts, that the Trump separation policy was merely a lawful effort to “enforce the law” already on the books. Short has repeated the widely debunked claim that there is a “crisis at the border.” He has defended the president’s firing of James Comey and disputed reports from the New York Times that Trump had sought to fire special counsel Robert Mueller while at the same time refusing to rule out the president firing Mueller in the future. He repeated chief of staff John Kelly’s incredible claim that he had no idea of the extent of Rob Porter’s alleged abuse of his former wives until the night before Porter departed the White House. And in an impressive act of whataboutism, Short once attempted to blame Chuck Todd and NBC for Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual abuse as a defense of White House cover-ups of Porter. Short also shared the White House claim that Trump’s views on such matters were shaped “by a lot of false accusations against him in the past.” In November, Short cited Trump’s decision not to campaign for Roy Moore as evidence that the president found the many allegations of sexual abuse against young girls by Moore generally credible. But shortly thereafter, Trump fully endorsed Moore. Short said former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was doing a “great job” amid a series of escalating scandals, which eventually forced Pruitt to resign. Short also reportedly blamed civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis when Lewis declined to attend the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opening because of Trump’s attendance. In short, Short is part of the machinery of Trump fabrication, and the academy needs to reckon with that.
Taken one by one, each little fib and falsehood can seem benign, or erroneous, or the result of a chaotic communications strategy and a president who cannot keep his story straight. But taken in the aggregate, these are defenses of falsehoods and cover-ups. Sure, that’s what White House spokesmen do. But when the president is a serial liar and you lie to cover for him, you’re part of an attack on truth. Leffler may have said it best. “I am told he is a good man,” he told me. “History tells me that many good people wind up doing terrible things. They don’t intend to; they have their own goals in mind; but they become complicit, at best, and enablers, at worst. I am resigning because I think what is going on is morally reprehensible. I think the Miller Center must NOT normalize, legitimize, reward, and honor behavior that is reprehensible.”
Antholis argues that Short has not himself personally attacked the press. He says that he draws a line at Trump administration officials who “attack core democratic freedoms” including a free press but that Short is not that. In his view, Short has denounced last year’s white supremacist march on Charlottesville and has done his best with a president whose messaging can be fluid.
A simple response might be this: If you are out on the hustings helping to sanitize and rationalize Trump’s constant prevarications, you are not the real victim here. And when universities lift these sanitizers into positions of academic prominence, they are abandoning an obligation to further truth and knowledge. When Harvard gave academic cover to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and his absurd lies, it wasn’t inviting in a plurality of “diverse viewpoints.” It was welcoming fabricators as Harvard scholars on par with faculty truth tellers. That’s suggesting that there are good people on both sides of the truth.
When the academy fails to distinguish between those who trade in truthful observable facts and those who spin out demonstrable lies, that has nothing to do with tolerance of different viewpoints. It has everything to do with blurring the line between what is known and knowable and what is just false. There is no reason to believe that someone who has dissembled on behalf of this president will truthfully teach, speak, and write about this administration going forward. Donald Trump differs from other presidents in that he does violence to empirical and provable fact on a daily basis. His administration is actively attempting to establish the argument that institutions that exist to determine truth—from the national security apparatus, to the courts, to the free press—are all liars. He talks about the free press as would any tin-pot dictator. The attacks on those institutions are so protracted and so endemic we almost don’t notice them anymore. (On Sunday, Trump again referred to the media as the “enemy of the people.”) If any entity still has the capacity to take notice, it’s the academy.
In their letter of resignation, Leffler and Hitchcock close by saying it is incumbent upon those who believe in institutional values like factual inquiry and basic civil debate to step forward: “As teachers, we have often told our students that the defense of democracy and its basic ideals—respect for truth, inquiry, reason, decency, civility, and humanity—requires constant vigilance and active engagement.” Universities are the last places that should lift up and glorify those who have enabled this president’s attack on truth. History should not be written by those who have shown no regard for reality.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus