Presidential campaigns bring out the best and the worst in the American partisan. The nominating conventions evoke exuberance and awe, excessive indulgence and sometimes even quiet dignity. Some speakers express humility and others parade a supercilious arrogance.
The worst of the arrogance is demonstrated by the pretentious preeners, demanding unqualified appreciation of their opinions, which they display for the edification of others as if they have unique wisdom and insight that testifies to their brilliance. They demand applause from the cheap seats.
Arrogance among the so-called “credentialed” was put spectacularly on parade in the 1964 race between Sen. Barry Goldwater and President Lyndon B. Johnson. More than a thousand psychiatrists, offended by the senator’s conservative political positions, declared that he was not “psychologically fit” to be president. They diagnosed him as a “paranoid,” a “dangerous lunatic” and an “anal character.” He had a “grandiose manner” and a “godlike self-image.” None of the eminent headshrinkers had interviewed him, but one of them confidently said the senator had “a stronger identification for his mother than his father.” Exactly how the doc could know that was not clear (then or now).
The American Psychiatric Association, eventually realized that it had suffered both an ethical and a public relations disaster with this Freudian slippage of its members (some called it “temporary insanity”), and after lengthy debates the association created a new principle of psychiatric ethics called “The Goldwater Rule.” It’s now considered unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion on a public figure without a clinical examination and proper authorization. This is something that even a certified nut could have told them.
The prominent professional preeners today are not psychiatrists who have learned their lesson, but historians. “Historians Against Trump,” men and women with higher academic degrees who have bonded in their covens, have signed a letter to whoever is willing to read it, saying that “we have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”
They insist they have no particular political persuasion or party, or identify as anything as mortal as “activist” or Democrat. That would be professionally tacky. But when historians attack Donald Trump for his “blinding self-regard” they do it as academics blinded by self-regard of their own. They’re not “playing politics” because that would be beneath them.
Some historians are embarrassed. Stanley Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University, exposes their hubris and pretense as something like a parody by Chevy Chase on “Saturday Night Live”: “We’re historians, and you’re not.”
In his New York Times op-ed, the professor writes, “The claim is not simply that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority but that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers.” Fish continues, “But there’s very little acknowledgement of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths.”
Fish, a literary scholar who carefully dissected the powers of persuasion of Satan in John Milton’s classic “Paradise Lost,” does not defend Donald Trump, but exposes the way these historians, academicians and aspiring intellectuals dress up partisan views in pretentious language as if an advanced degree bequeaths moral virtue and confers objectivity and understanding that a mere ordinary voter does not have.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice, made herself look foolish with remarks about Trump that she now regrets; however, at least she did not suggest that her remarks reflected judicial authority or that her legal education validated her personal political opinions. Academic training — historical, philosophical, legal, theological or mathematical — does not confer political authority.
The piling on continues in Cleveland over Melania Trump’s eloquent speech the first night of the convention, that passages in it were plagiarized from a speech made by Michelle Obama eight years ago. Certain words were strikingly similar. It’s a pity that the Trump campaign could not have simply acknowledged the mistake immediately, and said how wonderful it was that both women could join in spreading the same positive values to the next generation: “You work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.”
That’s an important message from any first lady or first gentleman, Republican or Democrat. It’s so simple even a psychiatrist or a historian could understand it.