Nearly every seat in Maxey Auditorium was filled earlier this week as hundreds gathered to hear Professor David F. Schmitz, Robert Allen Skotheim chair of history, give his take on the results of the 2016 presidential election.
A specialist in 20th century American history and foreign policy, Schmitz is the author of several acclaimed books, including The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989 and The Triumph of Internationalism: Franklin D. Roosevelt and a World in Crisis, 1933-1941. He has served on the faculty for more than 30 years, and his classes, such as the history department staple America in Vietnam, are consistently among the most sought-after at Whitman.
"On Wednesday morning, he was the first person that I wanted to talk to about the election, if for nothing else than reassurance that there was still hope for the future," said history major Emily Krank '18, who helped plan her professor's hastily-arranged campus address in the wake of last week's vote and delivered the introduction.
"Understanding history is crucial to realizing the implications of the current political climate," she added. "Professor Schmitz spoke about the Rust Belt, and how its political realignment symbolizes the end of the New Deal coalition that has stood behind the Democratic Party in the past."
Schmitz told the assembled crowd that this conversation began in his classroom, when he cancelled his prepared lecture to discuss the outcome of this "unprecedented" election with students. ("Unprecedented is an overused word, but I can't think of a better one," he said.)
With encouragement from Krank and fellow history majors Jessi Anderson '18 and Steven Aslin '18, Schmitz decided to expand the classroom dialogue into an event for the wider campus community, "The Election of 2016 in Historical Perspective." He said he was humbled by the turnout, and urged audience members to "do what we do best here at Whitman, which is to analyze and examine" the factors leading up to Donald Trump's White House victory. Schmitz's remarks were followed by a lively Q&A.
"I think Professor Schmitz was the perfect person to give the lecture," Krank said. "As a history student, I hope the audience was able to recognize that many of Trump's strategies, such as calling upon the ‘Silent Majority,' presenting himself as a ‘law and order' candidate and utilizing political polarization, are not new tactics and have historically exacerbated division. His choice of capitalizing on that division, much in the same way as Richard Nixon, is frightening for me because of my knowledge of how terribly that tactic worked in the 1970s."
Schmitz's talk began with an acknowledgement of the effect this election has already had on many historically marginalized groups. He also explored historical patterns and parallels like the cultural divide in the United States during the 1960s and 70s, as well as how economic shifts have contributed to voters being drawn to anti-establishment candidates.
In closing, he praised institutions like Whitman that prompt students to think critically about the direction of the country and to be informed citizens: "Liberal arts colleges have never been more important than they are right now."