In his comments at the close of the White House Conference on American History, a gathering that did not take place at the White House and that included few historians, President Donald Trump offered a chilling vision that is one more sign of the country’s steady advance towards despotism.
Trump wanted to “preserve our glorious inheritance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,” though nothing has threatened them so much as his administration. The Constitution, he said, “was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western Civilization,” and “no political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.” So he said.
Only enemies of the American state would disagree with him. He denounced “a radical movement” that “is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance.” These enemies of the American people have demolished statutes of slaveholders, that they have engaged in protests and riots. “The left-wing cultural revolution” visible everywhere, he said, “is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
He denounced Howard Zinn, whose forty-year old People’s History of the United States terrifies the right. Zinn has lived rent-free in the minds of think-tank denizens like panelist Mary Grabar for many, many years. Zinn, Trump said, wrote a “propaganda tract” that tries “to make students ashamed of their own history.” The 1619 Project, meanwhile, “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principles of oppression, not freedom.”
Those pushing these views are disloyal. Trump said that. Like America’s enemies, they “want to see American weakened, derided, and totally diminished.” Teaching “critical race theory” to our children, he continued, “is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.” Thus “Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” These ideas are so dangerous, in other words, that they must be suppressed. They are poisonous and they must be rooted out and eliminated. Indeed, the President boasted of having “recently banned training in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government.” We will reeducate those exposed to these subversive ideas.
The panelists, mostly white men speaking at a panel organized by the President of the United States at the National Archives, played variations on this theme. There was absolutely nothing new here. They could have plugged in the National History Standards in the place of the 1619 Project, and it would have been a 1990s flashback, or “multiculturalism” for 80’s Night. With no sense of irony these well-compensated denizens of Right Wing Think Tanks and ideologically-connected Colleges lamented their marginalization. And, one by one, they expressed their fear of ideas, taught by historians, that they know they cannot refute. It was a disgraceful affair, capped by the President signing an unconstitutional executive order establishing the “1776 Commission” to indoctrinate American children with “patriotic” values. Because he is afraid of them being indoctrinated.
I know many friends who have laughed at this President’s many monstrosities, but we are not laughing any more. This is dangerous. It is no joke.
When I hear how colonists wiped out close to 70% of the Indigenous population of the Americas and dispossessed them almost entirely, I do not believe that the country was founded on principles of liberty and equality. When I figure that more than 2/3 of the people who crossed the Atlantic to come to English America between 1630 and 1780 came in chains, liberty and freedom do not compute. When I remember that nearly 50% of enslaved children born in Virginia died before their fifth birthday, and that the United States abolished slavery only after a bloody Civil War and after our former imperial overlords in Great Britain, it does not seem to me that freedom and equality are cardinal American values, whatever we say about ourselves. When I realize that in the very same speech in which the President claimed the country was founded on such glorious principles he denounced those who want to take down monuments to white supremacy and congratulated himself on the punishments he has decreed through an unconstitutional executive order for those who damage them, all I see is hypocrisy and the emptiness of his arguments. I walk away from this still convinced that the widely held notion that this country was founded on principles of liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history.
We can hardly expect a country founded by those who enslaved millions to have done otherwise than to create a republic based on white supremacy. And when I hear so-called historians, like some of those gathered at the President’s Conference on American History, claim that the Revolution is unfinished, that we are still engaged in the work of crafting that “more perfect union,” I am left unmoved. We have been at this for close to two-and-a-half centuries, I might point out. How much longer will it take for you to admit that our commitment to liberty and equality may be highly qualified at best?
The biggest lie in American History has been challenged in all sorts of ways. Historians, like those involved in the 1619 Project, have done so. And so have so many of the young people protesting out in the street.
The response of these “historians,” for few of them actually had any training in history, is not to engage with the evidence or to present interpretations of their own rooted in primary source research. Rather, they challenge the patriotism of those who write these histories, and who question “these truths.” You cannot possibly love the country if you believe these things, they say, and your thoughts are so dangerous that they must be suppressed.
At one level, there is nothing new about any of this. History has always been political. I think of the debates chronicled in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream years ago. I remember reading of the treatment received by Charles Beard after he published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Much of what Trump’s chosen panelists said about Howard Zinn’s People’s History and the 1619 Project was said about the National History Standards twenty-five years ago. History as academic discipline versus history as civic education and indoctrination; history as a scholarly pursuit versus a set of comforting myths we tell ourselves about our past; history as a method for studying change over time versus history as a dogma, the challenging of which is dangerous and subversive: it has all been done before.
So the arguments presented at the White House Conference were all pretty familiar. I have been at this for a while, and I have followed the “History Wars” over many years with great attention. I have seen this before. The notion that historians are unpatriotic, that they will destroy their students’ love of country, and that they are teaching kids to be ashamed of their nation’s past, has been repeated many, many times. But what strikes me as new, this time, is the stridency with which the President and the speakers at this conference cast their opponents not merely as historians with whom they disagree about the past but as enemies of the state. They advance a coward’s ideological purity that casts historians as dangerous subversives. The President likened them to child abusers, aligned with leftists, anarchists, and socialists. Oh, they are so frightened. And they will strike those who frighten them. This long ago ceased to be funny, and is one more reminder of how much is at stake in the coming election.