The University of Virginia’s Off-Center Miller Center: Whose Reality Is Alternative?

The Miller Center, an affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history, has long prided itself — with some reason — on being “non-partisan” and striving “to apply the lessons of history and civil discourse to the nation’s most pressing contemporary governance challenges.”

Recently, however, like so much of academia, the discourse in, from, and about the Miller Center has been far from civil. Readers may recall the brouhaha that exploded two years ago when the Center hired Marc Short, President Trump’s first legislative director.

As I discussed here in “The University of Virginia in an Uproar Again—Over a Single Faculty Hire,” the UVa community’s reaction was fast and furious, with a petition vehemently objecting to Short’s hiring garnering over 4,000 signatures. “The university should not serve as a waystation for high-level members of an administration that has directly harmed our community and to this day attacks the institutions vital to a free society,” it stated.

Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor of presidential studies at the Center, told the Charlottesville Daily Progress that “Short’s hiring is an institutional and moral crisis” because “the Trump presidency does not represent American democracy and has upended the political order.” Short, she said in a Vox article, represents “the forces of illiberalism.” As she walked up to the Miller Center the day of Short’s hiring, Hemmer continued, “The space between me and the building felt like a moral minefield. If I walked through the door, was I complicit in the destructive illiberalism of the Trump administration?” Nor was the enraged opposition to associating with Short limited to angry junior professors. Two distinguished history professors with endowed chairs resigned from the Miller Center board, William Hitchcock and Melvin Leffler, a former dean of the graduate school.

To his credit, Miller Center Director William Antholis resisted the pressure and refused to rescind his offer to Short, explaining his decision in an open letter that was reprinted in the Washington Post. He noted that many in the university community “believe deeply that this administration represents a dramatic departure from previous presidencies and has upended many of the norms that have long guided American institutions,” but he argued that Short’s appointment represented an opportunity: “welcoming someone back into our community to begin a robust and hard conversation about the future of our democracy, and doing so in an environment that prioritizes rational and respectful discourse. Marc brings a missing critical voice — one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers.”

Short was not welcomed, much of the discourse surrounding his presence was not respectful or even rational (did his mere presence really make other staff members “complicit in destructive illiberalism”?), and he resigned after several months to become Vice President Pence’s chief of staff. Nevertheless, Director Antholis’s courageous defense of civil discourse even with Trump Republicans (how sad that it does take courage to defend civil and respectful discourse with Trump-supporting Republicans on today’s campuses) deserves credit and applause, short-lived though it was.

Short-lived, because Director Antholis’s recent comments have used up all the credit he earned with his defense of Short, and then some.

In a December 16 email to Miller Center supporters, Director Antholis quoted from a longer memo he had just written discussing “how President-elect Biden can deal with a ‘new secession’ crisis” and urging the necessity of “uniting a pro-reality supermajority.”

Citing a recent poll finding that “77% of Trump backers say Biden’s win was due to fraud” (a number that no doubt would have been even larger if the question had asked whether respondents believe the election was characterized by massive unfairness in Biden’s favor, aside from fraud and whether or not the unfairness explained his victory), Director Antholis accused those millions of Trump supporters of creating a “secession crisis” by seceding from facts, truth, and even reality.

But the pathology of the “New Secessionists,” he writes, “goes deeper than the election…. [They] reject the institutions responsible for policing facts: our government and courts, our media, academia, and science…. [T]he New Secessionists ignore our institutions’ most redeeming features: openness to review, to reform, and to reality itself.”

The idea that those who reject the New York Times, the Washington Post, the FBI, and academia as the arbiters of truth and policers of fact have rejected “openness to reality” is risible, about on a par with Paul Krugman’s recent insistence in the Times that Biden will be “the first modern U.S. president trying to govern in the face of an opposition that refuses to accept his legitimacy…. And no” he insisted, “Democrats never said Donald Trump was illegitimate.” Michael Barone skewers that absurd claim here, quoting John Lewis and dozens of House Democrats who called Trump illegitimate, as did Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton, who claimed he had stolen the election. Even Krugman himself asked in a 2017 Tweet, “Seriously, how will this presidency ever be considered legitimate?”

Trump won in 2016 by approximately 77,000 votes in three key states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin), and Biden’s winning margin in 2020 was much smaller—43,000 votes in three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin). Among the millions of voters (over a third of the total) whom Director Antholis charges have rejected truth and seceded from reality, there are surely some scholars and journalists who believe this margin narrow enough, and the reports of irregularities widespread enough, that they remain open-minded on the question of whether there were enough illegal votes, even without fraud, to affect the outcome in one or more states. Indeed, former blind-sheik prosecutor and astute conservative commentator Andrew McCarthy, who has been severely critical of Trump’s post-election legal maneuvers, thinks it likely that Biden’s margin in Wisconsin was about half the reported 20,000 and that the legal challenge in Georgia had more merit than is recognized in the mainstream media.

That is, even on today’s hyper-partisan campuses, surely there are some who have not seceded from reality and who await facts yet to be determined and published. More common, however, are views similar to the ones expressed by Director Antholis—certainty that the arbiters of truth and policers of fact have already told us all we need to know to label doubters as truth-renouncing fact-deniers. As usual, the last word(s) on this mess will be had by historians, and as a lapsed historian myself, that brings me to another problem with Director Antholis’s denunciation of the “New Secessionists.”

The original secession crisis was the secession of seven states upon the election of Abraham Lincoln. “The secessionists feared Lincoln would immediately and directly dismantle the slave economy,” Director Antholis writes. “Newspapers—operating at warp speed, thanks to the day’s breakthrough communications technology of the telegraph—helped fuel an alternative reality.”

As it happens, I spent a good deal of time fighting the Civil War in my former academic life. My first scholarly article, “Toward A New Civil War Revisionism,” was published in The American Scholar in 1969, and it generated enough controversy that several years later I published a reply to critics, “The American Civil War and the Problem of ‘Presentism’” in Civil War History. I have long lost whatever expertise I may have had, but I am nevertheless confident that what Director Antholis writes about the “alternative reality” of the original secessionists is — ironically, given his professed devotion to facts — thoroughly mistaken.

The people of South Carolina explained their reasons for secession quite clearly in their Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. After a long list of depredations committed by the Northern states, such as denouncing slavery as “sinful” and urging slaves to revolt, the Declaration stated the following:

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The South Carolina secessionists were arguably immoral, and certainly “systemically racist” as we would now say, in their determination to protect the evil institution of slavery, and their decision to secede was probably a huge blunder, even with their own interests in mind, since it hastened the destruction of slavery. But they most certainly did not live in an “alternative reality.” They did not fear that “Lincoln would immediately and directly dismantle the slave economy,” but, taking him at his word, they saw quite clearly that by blocking the expansion of slavery, he would indeed put it on “the course of ultimate extinction” as he stated in his “House Divided” speech in one of his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. The decision to secede, in short, may have been mistaken, but it was definitely not a product of living in an alternate universe divorced from reality. Quite the contrary, it was grounded in an accurate understanding of impending and growing threats to the South’s slaveocrocy.

Director Antholis is similarly mistaken about those he derides as the “New Secessionists.” Perhaps there was not enough fraud or improper ballots to sway the election, but to claim that refusing deference to the truth-determiners and fact-verifiers in the media, government, and academia is seceding from reality borders on the bizarre. If there is an alternative reality here, it is inhabited by those who continue to trust a mainstream media that systematically refused to publish information detrimental to its preferred candidate; whose most probing question during that candidate’s basement-closeted campaign concerned his favorite ice cream flavor; a social media that actively censored unwanted political information and those who tried to disseminate it; a government, in the form of politicized law enforcement and intelligence agencies, that attempted to undermine a political candidate and then president; and, perhaps most of all, academia, where unfettered freedom of speech is a fugitive and cancel culture runs rampant.

To regard a third of the electorate as “New Secessionists” divorced from “reality” is insult, not analysis—simply the latest in a long line of insults going back to Obama’s insistence that only the Democrats are “reality-based” (see here and here for examples), his dismissal of “bitter clingers,” and Hillary Clinton’s denouncing irredeemable deplorables as sinful (since systemically racist) as slaveholders.

Concluding his memo by looking to the future, Director Antholis wrote that “Lincoln treated secessionists in his era as friends not enemies. President-elect Biden cannot accept their reality, nor should he,” although he should be willing to work with them if they are willing to work with “reality-based institutions.” If they are not, “action must be tethered to a reality that can be fully acknowledged and accepted by the other two-thirds of the nation. That must be nonnegotiable.” If they refuse to defer to those institutions, in short, the other third of the nation should be regarded as irredeemable and not allowed at the table of civil discourse.

It’s impossible to see how Marc Short or anyone like him would be hired at the Miller Center today or in the foreseeable future. Thus a voice that Director Antholis once justified hiring as an otherwise “missing critical voice — one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers”— will now be missing from the Miller Center and other similar ideologically exclusive enclaves. Increasingly across academia, the approximately half of voters who supported Trump are about as welcome as astrologists at an astronomy convention.


Image: Karen Blaha, Public Domain. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and has been cropped.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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