In this election year, it might seem as though every possible avenue of political craziness has already been exhausted. Three professors from Geneseo’s history department sought to examine this notion through the lens of presidential precedence with a presentation entitled “Historians and the 2016 Election: Global Awareness and Engagement” during the all-college hour on Sept. 7. Presenting before the packed lecture hall were associate professors of history Justin Behrend and Kathleen Mapes and assistant professor of history Megan Brankley Abbas. Each spoke on a portion of the current political discourse in a historical context while associate professor of history Catherine Adams moderated the panel.
Behrend, a specialist on post-Civil War history, began by drawing parallels between the 2016 presidential election’s Republican nominee, Donald Trump, and the 1872 presidential election’s Liberal Republican Party nominee, Horace Greeley. “Both candidates were from New York City and utterly lacking in political or public service,” he said. “Both were very wealthy businessmen. Both gained fame through cutting edge mass media.”
The candidate comparison to Greeley sounds familiar to current election cycle observers. “In the 1870s, there was a lot of disaffection in the Republican Party,” Behrend said. “Many established Republicans at the time denounced Greeley. Future Republican President James Garfielda said of Greeley, ‘Was there ever so strange a freak in the history of the republic?’”
Abbas explored a more recent connection by examining the relationship between George W. Bush’s administration and the American Muslim community in the context of the War on Terror. Specifically, she pointed to the notion that Trump’s foreign policy has created a conflict with the foreign policy of the last Republican president.
“The way the Bush administration framed the War on Terror was as a multicultural, multi-religious society: ‘us’ against a fringed ‘them,’” Abbas said. “Trump has reversed that in a lot of senses. He’s shifted it to being a white Christian ‘us’ against a brown Muslim ‘them.’”
Mapes rounded out the panel, discussing the history surrounding immigration restriction in elections—one of Trump’s signature policy proposals. According to Mapes, the promise of restricting immigration is unique to Trump when it comes to presidential races.
“In terms of the issue of immigration, this election is unprecedented,” Mapes said. “No modern presidential candidate has made immigration restriction a centerpiece of their campaign. Previous presidential candidates realized the danger in alienating such a large portion of the population.”
Junior Jeanmarie Ryan voiced a positive perspective on the panel. “I thought it was cool to learn the differences between Trump’s policy compared to Bush’s actions after 9/11,” she said.
At the beginning of her lecture, Mapes provided some insightful words about the complications of comparing history to current events. “It’s important to remember that historians aren’t soothsayers,” Mapes said. “The past doesn’t repeat itself, as so many people argue. What the past can do is that it can help us reflect and contextualize today’s events.”