Opinion | What Trump doesn’t understand about U.S. history

Trump knows practically nothing about American history, cares even less and displays his ignorance breezily. He is amazed to learn that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. (“A lot of people don’t know that.”) He asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” Nothing makes the case for overhauling our teaching of basic U.S. history and civics like the 45th president.

Trump describes history as a saga of heroes and villains, good vs. evil, pure and simple. The United States is the embodiment of good, “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” he said last week, whatever that means. Studying history is supposed to instill love of country. But today, he warns, the good and the love are under attack from evil radical leftists, “aided and abetted by liberal politicians” including, of course, Joe Biden. American history, in short, instructs us to vote for Trump.

Patriotic education, as Trump conjures it, features the stories of exemplary champions, conquerors and explorers — “some of the most incredible people who ever lived,” he extolled at the Archives. It teaches history in the spirit of admiring uplift cultivated at the nation’s founding by George Washington’s first biographer Parson Weems, with little room for complexity or imperfection or tragedy. It is history designed not to enlighten but to build students’ devotion to a land of infinite hope, a nation “where any dream can come true,” where right always triumphs over wrong and where seldom is heard a discouraging word.

None of this has anything to do with history and everything to do with Trump. American government is actually founded on the ambivalent principle that there is good and evil in everyone. “If men were angels,” James Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” The Constitution prescribes a system of checks and balances to deter any would-be tyrant, a figure the Framers knew the United States might very well produce.

The Constitution also tolerated and even protected slavery, the source of the civil war that abolished it. The post-war constitutional amendments establishing full legal and voting rights were largely undone in the assault on Reconstruction, a reversal still at the core of our present national crisis. Understanding American history demands examining all of the struggles and alliances among Americans to define and redefine the nation’s founding principles. Patriotism comes from learning about this frequently murky, often difficult and occasionally heroic history. That is the history many schools need to teach more effectively, along with the basic structures of government and the Constitution, the fundamentals of citizenship.

Trump’s cynicism is the ultimate monument of his administration. No president in our history has so brazenly undermined the Constitution’s checks and balances. No president has welcomed an authoritarian Russian regime’s systematic efforts to poison the wells of American democracy. True to form, Trump saw fit to kick off his Potemkin village of a history conference with yet another smearing of Biden and liberals as accomplices of anti-Americanism. Honorable conservatives have denounced the conference.

Equally telling was Trump’s singling out of the New York Times’ 1619 Project — which has received far weightier criticism from the left than from the right. The project’s defects became clear to me back in December, after four colleagues and I pointed out factual errors in the discussion of slavery and the American Revolution in the project’s lead essay.

We later learned that a university historian contacted by a fact-checker had warned about these errors, but the project’s editors chose to ignore her. The mistakes concerning Britain, the Atlantic slave trade and the origins of the Revolution still appear on the Times’ website, despite a subsequent no-fault “clarification.” The project has also tried to back off its original attention-grabbing claim, that 1619 and not 1776 marked the true founding of America, and has altered materials on the website.

Evidence clearly doesn’t matter too much here, where polemic is key. While Trump claims that freedom is the essential propelling theme of American history, the project’s lead essay charges that slavery and racism are the essential themes. According to the project, the documents that Trump hails as sacred texts more exactly established a slavocracy.

Historians may one day conclude that the White House history conference and the 1619 Project were closely matched symptoms of the same era, feeding off each other. The pessimistic racial essentialism that dominates the 1619 Project comes to the fore in bleak times, like the 1850s or late 1960s, when the raw, racist demagoguery of which Trump is a master takes hold nationally. Trump, meanwhile, seizes on the 1619 Project as a godsend to try to frighten voters and salvage a sputtering campaign, the project’s chief contribution to the 2020 election.

The real choice isn’t between Trump’s rendition of our history and the 1619 Project’s. It’s between ideological distortion and legitimate historical writing, with its respect for facts, its skepticism about pat answers and, above all, its refusal to shape the past to fit a fixed political agenda.

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