Memory  /  Argument

Trump Sounds Ignorant of History. But Racist Ideas Often Masquerade as Ignorance.

The White House's fumbling about slavery and the Civil War fits a long pattern in American politics.

We keep sharing facts for a Trump administration that is broadcasting alternative facts and does not seem to care about the truth. We keep writing up history for a Trump administration that is writing an alternative history and does not seem to care about the real past. We keep wondering why Trump officials are so ignorant when we should be asking: Why is the White House writing into existence an alternative history with alternative facts about the Civil War?

What is the Trump administration’s political motive for reproducing false ideas that make Americans ignorant about their history? Why did Texas conservatives adopt a social studies curriculum that ranks “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” as the causes of the Civil War, thereby marginalizing slavery? Who is this history directed toward? What purpose does it serve?

Are Trump officials seeking to disrupt our conceptions of historical right and wrong to make the current, Trump-supporting defenders of the Confederacy feel they are right and not wrong? Are they seeking to inflame condescension in Trump’s smarter-than-thou opponents, while they present Trump the billionaire as one with the ignorant people? And why are Trump critics expecting Trump to describe a substantial part of his coalition — and their Confederate heroes — as bad people?

Revising racial history for the political present is an American pastime. Slaveholders and their historians claimed the “Negro-Races” had always “been Servants and Slaves, always distinct from, and subject to, the Caucasian,” as pioneering Egyptologist George R. Gliddon wrote to Calhoun. “The friendliness that existed between the master and slave … has survived war,” proclaimed Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady in his 1890 propagandizing of the “separate but equal” New South. In 1956, 101 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto that chargedthe 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling for “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort.” The historical line still goes that the civil rights movement destroyed the amicable relations, like the Civil War then, like the #BlackLivesMatter movement today.

No one outside of the White House knows what animates Trump’s fascination with rewriting Civil War history. But we will never know if we don’t ask the question; if we assume Trump officials are rewriting from the pen of ignorance.