As a student and teacher of US and World History, I have come across a great many beliefs about things that did or did not happen that are ultimately not substantiated by the historical record. In one of my favorite articles, “… and the Moundbuilders Vanished from the Earth”, historian Robert Silverberg writes about how European settlers could not understand who had built the structures and inhabited the archaeological sites that they uncovered as they spread out across North America.
They were particularly troubled by the fact that there were no people currently living in these locations and these descendants of Europeans assumed that the natives were not capable of having built civilizations as sophisticated as the ones that they were now unearthing. Although we know understand these were the ruins of civilizations built by indigenous peoples who had been killed off by the earlier spread of epidemic disease, Silverberg describes a wide variety of theories that were postulated and dismissed over a period of almost 200 years before historians finally settled on what is now widely understood to be not only the explanation most supported by the historical evidence but also the most logical explanation, one that seems like it should always have been the most obvious to anyone exploring the question.
Toward the beginning of his essay, Silverberg writes, “Men in search of a myth will usually find one if they work at it.” Although I introduce my students to this idea every year in my history courses, it is a thought that has resonated with me, even more, this election season, as we have observed voters eagerly seeking out and seemingly choosing to accept claims that cannot be supported by either fact or reason.
The Trump phenomenon is perplexing to the rational observer for any number of reasons. His entire campaign is a maze of inherent contradictions and objective incoherence. He is promising to “make America great again” by retreating from the economic and foreign policies that produced the greatness he is promising to restore. He “tells it like it is” by continuously making demonstrably false, misleading, and contradictory claims to a degree that is unprecedented in modern American politics. He complains about a “political correctness” in our society that appears to limit what can be said in public, but he is hypersensitive to criticism and encourages his supporters to take offense at every perceived slight.
Yet, the most glaring of these inconsistencies is the myth of Donald Trump’s business acumen. Aside from the transparent xenophobia stoked by his campaign rhetoric, the most basic rationale for a Trump presidency hinges on the perception that he is a business wizard and that the US needs someone like this to effectively address the economic challenges facing our country in the 21st Century. Like most myths, this is one that people appear to be accepting because they want it to be true, not because there is any rational basis for believing that it is. Indeed, whenever I have challenged a Trump supporter to explain why they think he is a good businessman, they typically respond by asserting that the question itself is illegitimate because it is obvious that he is. Like the Wizard of Oz, Trump is a wizard because he says he is and because people believe what he says.
But while trying to investigate this supposed business expertise, it is virtually impossible to find any evidence of Trump’s business success other than the ubiquitousness of his name attached to high profile projects and his own boasting of his expertise and accomplishment. He has not publicly released any personal financial information supporting his claims of business success. The information that is public record demonstrates both that Trump’s businesses have rarely been as successful as he has publicly claimed and that his actual role in developing many of the projects that have succeeded is considerably less than the presence of his name and his own claims about them would suggest.
It is unclear whether voters will question this myth, but it seems obvious that they should. Hillary Clinton has made and will continue to make, claims about her experience and her record of achievement. Since much of her life has been spent in public service, she is being and will continue to be, held accountable for the documentation that she does and does not provide to substantiate her claims. Her single biggest problem right now hinges on her inability or unwillingness to document her claims with the evidence that she is legally required to disclose and her apparent efforts to keep this material from becoming public record.
Yet, if a lack of transparency is the main argument against Clinton, Trump should certainly be held to the same standard. His campaign is premised on the notion that he is an accomplished businessman and that this success qualifies him for the presidency. We should at least expect him to document that he is, in fact, a successful businessman, something that he has never actually done.
There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about Hillary Clinton. Her efforts to withhold information from public scrutiny sits at the top of the list for many. Myths are created when people choose to believe things that are divorced from reality. For the most part, myths can be pretty harmless, as long as we recognize them as myths and do not willfully choose to act as if they were a reality.
This year it is possible that we might just end up choosing a myth as president. This is not the same as mythologizing a historical figure. Historical figures don’t make decisions and don’t have anything more than symbolic power. The actual president has real power. Whatever problems our country might be facing, there is no rational basis for believing that they will be improved by blurring this distinction between myth and reality, no matter how much we might want to do so.