The Miller Center is a nonpartisan affiliate of U-Va. that houses some two dozen scholars of presidential history and occasionally awards temporary appointments to former government officials. So why the fuss about Short? Shouldn’t we be welcoming a Trump official into our ranks? Aren’t we professionally obligated to “talk to both sides”?
Our decision, a painful one, had nothing to do with unwillingness to engage with policymakers with whom we disagree. We’ve spent our careers studying controversial decisions and controversial people. As sponsors of conferences and lectures, we have always invited those of differing opinions from across the political spectrum. We have worked with former ambassador Eric Edelman, who advised Dick Cheney on national security, as well as Melody Barnes, a leading domestic policy adviser to Barack Obama.
But the Marc Short decision was different from previous appointments at the center because Donald Trump is different from previous presidents. The Trump presidency has taken the country into uncharted waters, and it has presented an especially tough challenge for scholars. By breaking the norms of presidential behavior, by upending the rules of civil discourse, by casting doubt on the meaning of truth and by embracing the rhetoric of racism and white supremacy, Trump has departed sharply from recent historical precedents.
Ruptures in history are precisely what scholars like to study. That is our sweet spot. And we’ll be studying the Trump effect for decades to come. Certainly historians will disagree on the origins of Trump’s brand of populism, the reasons for his political success and the consequences of his vulgar rhetoric. We look forward to having such arguments. But academic inquiry adheres to certain rules. Scholars are required to use and respect evidence and to follow that evidence even if it reveals unpalatable insights. That is, we are professionally required to keep an open mind and let the evidence guide us.
Can Short abide by these ground rules? Is he the right person to invite into this process of scholarly reflection and analysis? His public record suggests he is not. He has been a profoundly partisan operative for his entire professional career. His early mentor was Oliver North, a man who had engaged in illegal covert actions and who directly and knowingly contravened congressional legislation. Short also worked for the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners fund, an organization that prides itself on the surreptitious funneling of dark money to right-wing causes. This is hardly the résumé of a man devoted to dispassionate reflection.
In his recent work in the White House, Short has associated himself with ongoing attacks on a free media. He has associated himself with rhetoric and policies that have empowered and emboldened white supremacists and that have led to spectacular increases in racist and misogynistic talk and behavior in this country. He has been a visible and active spokesman for an administration that has undermined the FBI and our intelligence agencies, that has tried to disenfranchise millions of voters and that has separated asylum-seeking mothers from their children.
We do not assert that service in the Trump administration is a bar to a fellowship in our university. But there should be some basic criteria, including a record of distinguished public service or some academic credentials. H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, holds a PhD and has written a highly regarded book about civil-military relations. Ambassador Nikki Haley has a long career in elected office, and as governor she was noted for removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. These officials have demonstrated independence and integrity even while serving in this truth-challenged administration.
Short, by contrast, has no record of scholarship to recommend him, nor has he demonstrated independence from Trump. Instead, he has been a loyal mouthpiece, merely echoing the president in his many public appearances. One such regrettable example came soon after the neo-Nazi rally in our hometown, Charlottesville, last August. After Trump made his infamous remark condemning “both sides” in clashes between the marchers and counterprotesters, Short quickly reinforced this message, applauding the president for his “clear and outspoken” denunciation of the violence — a statement that clearly twisted the truth.
But the issue at stake is larger than Short, who is just a foot soldier in this destructive presidency. The problem here is whether the authority and legitimacy of the academy, and the search for the truth on which it depends, can survive the Trump presidency. Our commitment to evidence, civil discourse, reason and logic — these values are under siege from forces we do not fully understand and require far more urgent study.
Rather than curry favor with administration officials like Short, we should be applying the standards of rigorous and impartial analysis to them. That means rejecting Trump’s claims of fake news, his falsifications of history and his dog-whistle praise for alt-right thugs who unfurled flags of hate in our hometown. In the university world, we insist on the primacy of evidence, reason, judgment and facts. We refuse to reward and honor people who have spent their time in public service working only to elide the truth, to bend facts to serve partisan purposes, to mock the free press and to scorn the very act of free thinking.
To treat Marc Short as a trusted colleague in the pursuit of objective analysis would be a surrender to the forces of unreason and obfuscation that have fed the Trump presidency.