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Trump Will Suppress American History

Trump Will Suppress American History


This past fall, in a small southern foundry, Robert E. Lee’s face was placed on a furnace that reached a temperature of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat mounted, a haunting orange-red glow appeared across Lee’s severed visage, and the cracks that split his bronze cheeks began to look like streams of dark tears beneath his eyes. Lee’s face was once part of a larger statue of the Confederate general that stood in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was at the center of protests and counterprotests during the infamous “Unite the Right” rally there in 2017. The city had taken the statue down in 2021 and given it to a local Black-history museum. Once melted, the statue’s bronze would be repurposed into a new work of public art.

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As I contemplated Lee’s metal face glowing like a small sun in the dark universe of the workshop, I thought of the statement issued by former President Donald Trump when the statue had come down. “Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all,” Trump had written, reaffirming his past praise for the Confederate leader. Trump was implicitly telling his base: They came for Lee, and next they will come for you. It’s not hard to see why the metalworkers who melted down the statue of Lee did so at an undisclosed location; they reportedly feared for their safety.

The claim that Lee was a brilliant strategist is a bit of Lost Cause mythology that historians have largely debunked. Still, it’s worth pausing to consider why Trump has made a point, on several occasions, of commending a man who led an army that fought a war predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of chattel slavery. Lee himself was a slave owner who tortured those he enslaved; one man said Lee was “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, [he] then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine.” Lee also argued that slavery benefited African Americans, deeming it “necessary for their instruction as a race.”

Trump is not a student of history, military or otherwise. But he knows very well what defending Lee signals to his supporters, many of whom see the general as a paragon of white, male, southern Christianity. Nostalgia for a past in which white Christian men possessed the nation’s political power has always been at the core of Trump’s appeal; his most enduring slogan, “Make America great again,” is an unsubtle pledge to restore just such an order.

Trump rode that pledge to power in 2016. Now running for a second term, he has promised yet more: to impose his harmful, erroneous historical claims on school curricula and to instill a culture of fear in classrooms across the country that dare to deviate from his preferred historical narrative.

Although educational policy is formed most directly at the state level, the Department of Education has $79 billion of discretionary funding that it can use as both carrot and stick, to encourage states and school districts to teach—or stop them from teaching—certain topics in certain ways. Trump’s 2024 education-policy plan promises to cut federal funding to any school or program that includes “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content” in its curriculum. Already, in Texas, Florida, and other Republican-controlled states, educators are being ostracized for attempting to teach parts of American history that don’t cast straight, white, Christian Americans as the primary protagonists. Teachers are being punished for engaging with the history of policies that segregated, violated the rights of, or oppressed those whose identities fell outside that group. Trump would encourage such sanctions on a national scale.

What Trump and the MAGA movement want is a country where children are falsely taught that the United States has always been a beacon of righteousness. Despite our nation’s many virtues, the truth of its past is harrowing and complicated. Slavery, Jim Crow, Indigenous displacement and slaughter, anti-immigrant laws, the suppression of women’s rights, and the history of violence against the LGBTQ community—these things sully the MAGA version of the American story.

In September 2020, Trump held a “White House Conference on American History,” at which he announced that he was establishing the 1776 Commission to create standards for “patriotic education.” (The commission’s name was a direct reference to, and rebuke of, “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times series that outlined the centrality of slavery in America’s origins.) “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said in a speech that day. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” Trump embraces, uncritically, the idea of American exceptionalism. But the “truth about our country” has not always been magnificent for all Americans—particularly those who, for generations, were denied access to social, economic, and political advancement.

A central part of Trump’s project is to depict the presentation of empirical evidence as an attempt at ideological indoctrination. The claim that this country has prevented millions from achieving upward mobility should not be a controversial one; it reflects actual policies such as convict leasing, school segregation, and housing covenants. To Trump and his allies, however, anyone making such a claim has fallen prey to a “radical movement” that sees America as an inherently and irredeemably evil country. A professor stating that the Confederacy seceded from the Union because of slavery and racism is a member of the “woke mob,” never mind the fact that the seceding states said this directly in their declarations of secession. (Mississippi in 1861: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest in the world.”) An elementary-school teacher highlighting the importance of LGBTQ figures in the history of American activism is reprimanded for being part of an effort to force sexuality onto students, never mind the fact that Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, and Marsha P. Johnson played an indisputable role in shaping political life.

Trump would prefer to simplify that which is complex and celebrate that which is abhorrent. He would prefer to ignore everything that doesn’t align with a narrative that suggests, as he did when announcing the 1776 Commission, that “to grow up in America is to live in a land where anything is possible, where anyone can rise, and where any dream can come true.” The notion that Americans must acknowledge multiple realities at once—that George Washington was both a Revolutionary War hero and an enslaver who hired slave catchers to recapture his runaway property, for example—is anathema to this worldview.

The 1776 Commission released its report on January 18, 2021, two weeks after Trump inspired thousands of people to attack the U.S. Capitol, and two days before Joe Biden was inaugurated. Upon taking office, Biden terminated the commission. Trump has shown a clear commitment to continuing its work.

In a second term, Trump would have even more reason to promote the rewriting of the American past. January 6, 2021, was one of the darkest days in our country’s history. Already, the MAGA movement has attempted to make it into a contemporary Lost Cause, framing the insurrectionists as patriotic heroes on a righteous mission to protest a rigged election. In this telling, the people who have been charged for the violence and destruction they inflicted are innocent “political prisoners.” This, too, is dangerously fictitious.

The most patriotic education is one that demands that we sit with the totality and complexity and moral inconsistencies of the American project. Trumpism seeks to censor attempts to tell this sort of story. Trump says that he will double down on this effort if reelected. History has taught us that we should believe him.


This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Trump Will Suppress American History.”



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