Donald Trump’s Bizarre History Conference
For good reason, President Donald J. Trump is not a man whom one thinks of as having a deep interest in or knowledge of American history. “History and culture—so important,” Trump said, inanely, in a Reno speech in 2017. Yet when the president gives examples, his complete ignorance of history comes forth at once.
For example, as conservative journalist Sol Stern pointed out during the 2016 campaign, Trump has constantly repeated a false historical story: He told rallies that General John J. Pershing, during his time in the Philippines, put fear in the hearts of fifty Muslim fighters he had captured by smearing pig’s blood on the bullets he shot them with. The Muslim religion views the ingestion of pigs as unholy. Gen. Pershing supposedly spared one of the fifty lives and told the fighter to go back and tell everyone what he had done. That is why, Trump claimed, the United States had no problem in the Philippines for decades. That the story was false got wide attention, but Trump’s exposure did not stop him from repeating the myth time and time again, even after he became president.
Then there was the time he praised his hero Andrew Jackson for being “really angry that—he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War”—even though the war started 24 years after Jackson’s presidency and 16 years after Jackson died.
And don’t forget Trump’s early meeting with African Americans during Black History Month, when he said “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice”—as if Douglass were still alive.
Yet on Constitution Day this year—last Thursday, September 17—President Trump convened a panel to discuss American history in the Great Hall of the National Archives, followed by his own presentation of the issues as he viewed them. Its central purpose was not to promote history but to use history to fuel the culture wars. His speech—most likely written by Stephen Miller with input or inspiration from David Horowitz—condemned the use of history by the left as being nothing less than “decades of left-wing indoctrination.” (More on that in a moment.)
To counter the left-wing presentation of history, Trump announced he was going to create a “1776 Commission” to help “promote patriotic education.” It was meant as an alternative to the 1619 Project, published last year in the New York Times. The faults and flaws of the 1619 Project have been widely discussed by many mainstream historians, ironically many of them available on the World Socialist Web Site. (Someone quipped that this was the first time a Trotskyist website was more accurate than the New York Times.)
Trump implied that only his right-wing cheerleaders objected to the arguments and historical research of the 1619 Project. It was he and his base who had the “mission . . . to defend the legacy of America’s founding” and who would “clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.”
Their goal was to stop “a radical movement” that is “attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance.” He told the conference attendees—as he tells the audiences at his rallies—that “left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials . . . [and] chanted the words ‘America was never great.’” Their goal was to force our countrymen to “bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life.” They came to their views about America after having received instruction “from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history” and “the totally discredited 1619 Project.” “The left,” Trump said, “has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.”
Much of what Trump said about Howard Zinn and his bestselling book A People’s History of the United States is accurate. Indeed, earlier this year I wrote a positive review of conference participant Mary Grabar’s book in which she carefully demolishes Zinn and shows his work to be anything but good history. Trump, who has undoubtedly not read one word of Zinn’s book, does not realize, however, that many of the most serious critiques of Zinn have been written by liberal and left-wing historians, not by conservatives.
Among the first of these appeared in 2004 in a social-democratic magazine, Dissent, and was written by Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. Concluding his essay, Kazin wrote “Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities.”
Then came educator Sam Wineburg, who wrote a major critique of Zinn in the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers (later excerpted in Slate), in which he writes, “History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity.”
Then in 2013, in the New Republic, liberal historian David Greenberg wrote that Zinn “relentlessly criticized American policy and seems to have stayed silent about the Soviet Union” and believed “that historical research should be carried out to serve present-day political ends.” Greenberg pointed out that Zinn, while he was teaching at Boston University, “regularly and cavalierly denounced prevailing academic standards, arguing that the university should teach ‘relevant’ subjects and forgo what he described as the ‘endless academic discussion’ of ‘trivial or esoteric inquiry’ that goes ‘nowhere into the real world.’”
But now we must ask (using Greenberg’s words about Zinn): Who is in the “cohort of scholars” that “enlist[s] history in the service of a political crusade or a social agenda”? It once was the Old Left and the New Left; today, as last week’s conference made clear, it is composed of the historians who, however good their intentions, let themselves be treated as props by the president or otherwise participate in his particularly repellent use of history.
To put it differently, there is good history and bad history, and either can be written by historians on the left or on the right. There is no such thing as left-wing history or right-wing history. There is only historical research and the conclusions drawn from evidence.
I tried to find conservatives who opposed Trump’s concept of patriotic history. It’s still early—the conference was just last week—and I may have missed some commentators. But there doesn’t seem to be much criticism in conservative circles. There is a brief Twitter thread from Samuel Goldman pointing out the inherent tension in wanting history that is “both true and inspiring.” “What do we do,” Goldman asks, “when those things don’t go together?” And I found a piece by Rick Moran in PJ Media. He deserves plaudits for his willingness to go on the record, especially on a Trumpist website. Moran does not hide that the authors of 1619 Project have “been called to account . . . by historians of both the right and the left” (emphasis added). He writes perceptively that
there is not a “patriotic” view of history, nor is there a “non-patriotic” view of history. There are the basic facts of “what happened” and then there are interpretations of what happened. The argument isn’t necessarily about America, it’s about the prism that we all look through as individuals to glean understanding from those facts of history.
As a conservative, Moran agrees that Zinn’s type of history is “dishonest.” But he asks whether “offering a counter-narrative just as dishonest, just as one-dimensional” is how the Zinn-type distortions should be answered.
And that precisely is what the Trump conference on American history was all about. Moran recounts the “patriotic education” he received as a young man at a Catholic school: “The way that our ‘history’ was taught guaranteed that we would love America, admire our founding, feel bad for the slaves and Indians, and celebrate the fact that we were the greatest nation on earth because God loved us and blessed us. Not exactly penetrating scholarship.”
America has had glorious myths and an admirable reality, but Moran acknowledges that running beneath “the glitz and gold has been a dark current of suffering, oppression, and evil.” He concludes by noting that how one interprets our past is a choice. “And it would be far better to show kids how best to make that choice by teaching them a wide variety of viewpoints and interpretations than propagandize them by indoctrinating them with only one.”
That is a message that Donald Trump did not want to hear and that was absent from his American history conference. Indeed, Trump wants the mirror opposite of history as written by Howard Zinn; he wants to go back to the old days when history was taught in such a way that students would unreservedly love the United States. Trump noted that an NEH grant had been given to the conservative National Association of Scholars to develop a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” America’s young people, Trump said, “will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”
Will Trump’s concept of patriotic history depend only on books by right-wing historians, of which there are quite a few? Would anything else be acceptable to Trump and his followers, since, as Trump put it, “American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools”? That such a curriculum might in and of itself be indoctrination was never obviously considered.
Let’s turn now to the other participants in the conference, the panel that went on for about an hour and a half before Vice President Pence and then President Trump spoke. Remarkably for a history conference, of the ten participants (including the moderator), only two are actual academic historians: Allen Guelzo, now at the James Madison Center at Princeton, and Wilfred M. McClay, now at the University of Oklahoma but heading soon to the conservative Hillsdale College, where he has accepted a professorship. (Hillsdale president Larry Arnn moderated the forum.)
McClay was there to push his new American history text, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, published last year by the conservative publishing house Encounter Books. The audience learned from another panelist, Theodor Rebarber, that the NEH had given a grant—apparently the same grant Trump would later mention—to develop a curriculum based on McClay’s book, with the hope that many schools would choose it as a basic text.
McClay’s book reads like the history texts I read in high school, such as the classic textbook by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager, Growth of the American Republic (1930). Like that two-volume textbook, McClay’s runs through American history with a narrative of main eras and events in our past. It is an old-fashioned trip through the Republic’s growth. In the very last chapter, we get McClay’s judgment on Donald Trump. Writing in 2019, he notes Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and says Trump “seems to have enjoyed considerable success” in boosting the economy, but says that it is “far too early at this juncture to make any judgments or predictions about his eventual success or failure.” Presumably now, more than a year later, McClay has had enough subsequent evidence—an impeachment, a botched pandemic response, skyrocketing unemployment—to make some “judgments or predictions” about Trump’s presidency.
As left-wing historian Michael Kazin writes in a rather devastating review in Dissent—the same journal in which he wrote his equally devastating critique of Zinn—McClay’s purpose is to “present a past brimming with ‘hope,’” but he ends up writing “a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.”
It is what is left out of McClay’s book that is telling. He writes little about the social movements that fought for change, such as the abolitionists before slavery came to an end. McClay also gives the “silent treatment to the long struggle for black freedom,” Kazin writes. The great and especially important W.E.B. Du Bois is mentioned once, but only as a supporter of eugenics. Booker T. Washington is mentioned in passing only because Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House. Major black figures of importance to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s are never mentioned, except Martin Luther King Jr. (since everyone today claims his mantle). Kazin notes the complete absence of Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, and A. Philip Randolph. (I would add Bayard Rustin to the list.) Malcolm X gets a fleeting mention, but there is only a brief discussion of black nationalism, whose advocates, McClay comments, were guilty of “nihilistic anger.”
There is no mention by name of SNCC, nor of Bob Moses or Stokely Carmichael, nor the Freedom Summer (1964) in which activists braved the wrath of the Klan and registered black citizens to vote. And, regretfully, no mention of John Lewis, who began his activism in SNCC and ended it as a member of Congress.
Mary Grabar was at the conference essentially to give a précis of her recent book critiquing Howard Zinn. (Neither she nor the only other woman participant, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was asked any questions during the brief Q&A session.) Zinn’s book is reprehensible and deserves criticism, but to do so, as I noted earlier, should not be an occasion for supporting Donald Trump, but rather stand as a serious exegesis of the body of Zinn’s work. At this conference, Grabar acted as one favoring the Trump agenda of a “patriotic history” as a sound rebuke to Howard Zinn. She did not pause to ask whether the result would be like a Howard Zinn text—but written from the views of the Trumpist right.
Allen Guelzo, one of the most distinguished historians in our country today, whose books on Lincoln and the Civil War era are considered among the very best, spoke in a calm, persuasive manner about the negative effects of the politicization of history from the left, and its failure to understand that the American experiment sprang directly from the Enlightenment.
Another panelist, Peter Wood, is an anthropologist and not a historian; he is the president of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that opposes many left-wing courses and curricula. Wood went rather off the deep end when claiming that recent violence on the streets is connected to the left-wing education of college students. The ideology “crafted on campus” is “exported to the streets, particularly hatred of America and contempt for law.” He added that the anger and “fiery emotion” is “ignited on campus and intensified by the mob in the streets.”
Wood’s claims then grew even stranger: He said that activists who learned radical ideology on campus and who were “alienated from our cultural norms and primed for lawlessness” were participating in “staged events managed by well-trained experts.” Such events are “made to look like impulsive outbursts of passion but they run according to a well-rehearsed script.” Does Wood have proof that those participating in riots and vandalism learned that they should act this way from taking a course of a leftist historian?
His answer follows:
Who writes that script? The answer is fairly evident. It is the campus activists—some faculty as well as students—who have spent years immersed in anti-liberal ideology, identitarian indignation, and the study of Maoist tactics. They’ve been taught that gaining power by any means necessary is the legitimate path to what they think of as “social justice.” And they are eager to put what they have learned into practice.
“Maoist tactics”—really? What college or university teaches this? Wood acknowledges that “only a fairly small minority of college students” have been fully indoctrinated, but these few, he says, are “the organized, managerial staff of the riots.” Again I ask, where is the proof? Has Wood interviewed the rioters in Kenosha and Portland? I doubt it. Does he know for a fact that they tie in with “local networks of Antifa and BLM?” If all this is, as he says, “fairly evident,” where is the evidence?
Wood cast the problem in existential terms. “Our civilization could quickly disappear” if it were “neglected or attacked outright.” Indeed, our civilization “is disappearing,” he says. The “current wave of protests,” he said, is the result of “decades of efforts by our radical left to turn our colleges and universities into incubators of profound dissatisfaction with the American way of life.” Some students leave school with “a proud delight in destruction for its own sake,” or even with “an Ivy League diploma in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other.” The latter line is likely an allusion to the lawyers arrested last month in New York after throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police car. These sad and deluded individuals are clearly alone in what they sought to do. One was a successful Princeton- and NYU Law-educated corporate lawyer. Neither Wood nor anyone else has much of an idea at this point about what motivated them to act so stupidly.
I have nothing but disdain for the professors who use their courses to try and convert their students to Marxism or any other radical ideology. The late historian Eugene D. Genovese was a major historian. The books and articles he wrote while he was a Marxist hold up, as do those he wrote when he became a conservative Catholic. I knew him well enough to know that in both phases he did not indoctrinate students; he only taught history so that students could understand the past of the American South and its legacy of slavery.
Everything the panelists said at last week’s conference must be looked at in the context of the event itself. Historian L.D. Burnett, writing in Slate, is incorrect when she writes that the conference was “100 percent anti-intellectual.” Allen Guelzo, for example, did not offer a right-wing rant. But even his appearance—as with those of all the participants—served as a fig leaf, providing legitimization for the development of a Trumpist state-dictated popular history that would be used to teach a “patriotic” version of our nation’s past.
This is not the attitude of many of the radical professors who are historians I still know. They do not insist that their students agree with them. The activist and professor Cornel West team-teaches a course with Robert P. George at Princeton University. Robby has written about how West’s list of books and articles to read includes scores of conservative books with which he does not agree. Both men are completely supportive of free speech on campus.
The serious historians who participated last week, as well as the other panelists, were there to provide a cover for the politicized history that Trump favors. Nothing, however, compared to some of the remarks Ben Carson made. Since everyone knows he was a medical doctor of great accomplishment, but not a historian, nor even someone known to have given any thought to the subject of the conference, why was he even there? A clear reason is that he is an African American, and stood out in a panel composed of all white men and two women.
Deploring what he called “a coordinated attack on her history, her institutions, and her heroes,” Carson turned inexplicably to the role of the press. The news media, he said, were meant originally to function as objective “honest brokers of the truth” that recorded events and brought knowledge of them to the people. That was why the media were “protected,” he said—obviously referring to the First Amendment. Carson apparently does not know that the press in the early days of our Republic was as contentious and nasty as ours today, and far less dedicated to reporting objective truth. Carson suggested that the First Amendment’s protection of the media’s right to say what it wants might have been a mistake. Sounding like Noam Chomsky, he told the attendees of how easy it is to be “manipulated” by the media.
There are some important questions that deserve to be asked about the teaching of history and its contribution to creating a sense of citizenship, and the ways in which those two can be in tension with one another. But such questions went unasked at last week’s conference. The White House Conference on American History was anything but what the title of the forum announced. It was a publicity stunt, and the participants, including the two historians, were played by Donald Trump and his administration.