Randall Balmer: Games historians play

  • An honor guard, followed by members of Georgia’s Black Caucus, carries the casket of Rep. John Lewis from the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/2/2020 6:40:15 AM

When historians feel frisky (or perhaps a little bit bored), we sometimes engage in thought games, teasing out various possibilities. One of the favorites is counterfactual scenarios. What if, for example, a favorable wind had not helped the English navy defeat the superior forces of the Spanish Armada in 1588? Would Elizabeth have survived on the throne? Would England have remained Protestant? How would the balance of power in Europe have shifted?

What if the Supreme Court had allowed the Florida recount to continue following the 2000 presidential election rather than issue a 5-4 decision that threw the election to George W. Bush?

Or, a question I recently put to my students: If the Great Awakening, the religious revival that consumed the Atlantic colonies in the middle decades of the 18th century, had not occurred, would the American Revolution still have taken place? And if so, would the Patriots, who drew from the persuasive oratory and the patterns of communication in the Awakening, have been successful?

A second game draws on history to play out various scenarios in the future. As someone who predicted the day following the 2016 election that Donald Trump would refuse to leave office should he be defeated in 2020, I listened with grim satisfaction as the president declined to affirm that he would abide by the results of the election in November. I’ve long feared that, having spent his presidency assailing the media, Trump would cry fraud and “fake news.” His supporters, in turn, heavily armed and abetted by the downstream media, would stage menacing demonstrations.

The Constitution, for all of its genius, doesn’t really account for such a possibility; the Founders presupposed the integrity and good will of those who held public office, something we can no longer assume in the age of Trump. And if you add to the mix the fact that the president is also commander in chief of the armed forces, you have a truly chilling scenario that could unfold later this year.

The final game that historians play is imagining what historians will remember about a particular era.

Let’s take the month just past, July 2020, as an example. What will historians remember about July 2020?

There’s a lot to work with here. I expect that at the top, or near the top, of the list would be the death on July 17 of John Lewis, the nonviolent battering ram of the civil rights movement who later became the “Conscience of Congress.” Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders in 1961 and, as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten by George Wallace’s state troopers on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. “I thought I saw death,” he recalled. “I thought I was going to die.”

Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis led annual re-enactments of that march, and last Sunday his coffin was carried across the Alabama River one last time on a horse-driven cart. That famous bridge is named for a Confederate officer, and many people believe the name should be changed to honor Lewis, the man who enjoined a younger generation to get into “good trouble,” advice that took on new resonance in the Black Lives Matter movement.

What else might historians consider for July 2020? The spread of the coronavirus to record levels will certainly be part of the conversation, although I fear that still more records may lie ahead.

How about the elegant and brilliant putdown of a fellow member of Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Apparently, the representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District, also know by her initials, AOC, encountered Ted Yoho, Republican representative from Florida, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Yoho felt it necessary to rebuke his freshman colleague, wagging his finger in her face and challenging her assertion that poverty contributes to violence. Ocasio-Cortez tried to mollify Yoho, but he called her “disgusting” and, according to a reporter, muttered a sexist slur as he walked away.

Ocasio-Cortez was prepared to drop the matter – just another day at the office for a woman, she said – but Yoho’s non-apology on the floor of the House of Representatives altered her plans. Yoho acknowledged the “misunderstanding,” though not the slur (which he denied). He also invoked his wife and daughters and added – in what might be the non-sequitur of the year – “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family, and my country.”

What loving God, family, and country has to do with a sexist comment remains a mystery. Ocasio-Cortez’s rejoinder on the House floor was a masterpiece of understated eloquence. “Having daughters is not what makes someone a decent man,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he does apologize. Not to save face. Not to win a vote. He apologizes, genuinely, to repair and acknowledge the harm done, so that we can all move on.”

Finally, July 2020 was the month that, according to independent sources, the number of Trump’s “false or misleading” claims since his inauguration exceeded 20,000. (My favorite is still the whopper that Mexico would pay for his “big, beautiful wall” at the southern border.) By way of comparison, the same source documents 28 such statements during his predecessor’s eight years as president.

If you juxtapose Trump’s spectacular feat of prevarication with an image of the president brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House, you have a sense of what historians call irony.

(Randall Balmer, the author of more than a dozen books, is a historian of religion in North America and teaches at Dartmouth College.)

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