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Donald Trump has been talking about history. That would be good, if he was also giving some thought to it. Earlier this month, he commented on the U.S. Civil War in his trademark clumsy, off-the-cuff style. The statement was shocking not only because the president is so very clearly ignorant about U.S. history, but because Trump essentially asks, "Why isn't anyone studying history?" The truth is that people do study history, but people like Trump are trying to stop them, and have been for decades.
Here's what Trump said recently during a Sirius XM P.O.T.U.S. interview: "I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that - he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, "There's no reason for this." People don't realize, you know, the Civil War - if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"
First off, Andrew Jackson was responsible for the forced removal of Native Americans from the South in the 1830s. Thousands died along what was known as the Trail of Tears. Not very big-hearted of Jackson. That's not all there is to question in Trump's statement, which Civil War historian David Blight wrote revealed Trump's "5th grade understanding of history or worse." But maybe Trump's most absurd assertion is that no one asks why there was a Civil War. Because there are a lot of people who ask why. They've been asking why for a long time. They're called historians.
But Trump probably hasn't read any critical history of the Civil War. If he has, he certainly doesn't see any merit in it. Judith Giesberg, a history professor and editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era, wrote in response to Trump: "when somebody poses a question like that and denies that it has ever been asked before, it's usually because they don't like the answer..People have asked that question for many years, and, for many years now, historians have come to one conclusion, repeatedly. And that is slavery."
The fact that slavery caused the Civil War is troubling to people who like to ignore the long history of white supremacy in the U.S. Those in positions of privilege prefer to perpetuate myths about America as a place where people get exactly what they deserve, which is the underlying justification for social inequality in political philosophies throughout time, from the Protestant Ethic to meritocracy. The idea is that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful because they work the hardest or are the smartest. Historians have abandoned this notion since a social revolution occurred in the academy that changed the definition of historical evidence and how we look at it.
A combination of Vietnam draft exemptions and federal programs to make a college education more accessible to the working class changed the social dynamic of the college campus as well as the politics of academic scholarship in the 1960s. In history, this group was less interested in studying "great white men," and poured over whatever sources were available to study people who'd been left out of scholarly history, like workers, racial minorities, and women. The politics of academic history shifted away from the celebration of the past that informed American exceptionalism, and toward empowerment of and empathy with the historically marginalized. More academics were piecing together a history of power and privilege in the United States. This threatened those in power, and the white-male supremacist, capitalist system that privileged them.
The infamous Lewis Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 marked the beginning of the systematic undermining of radical academia. Powell's memo outlined a plan for American ideological realignment, and helped to usher in the era of neo-conservatism that replaced the liberal state of the mid-twentieth century. In it, Powell identified the college campus as "the single most dynamic source" of the attack on American capitalism, particularly "social science faculties." Powell urged U.S. businesses to fund conservative think tanks, influence university curriculum and hiring, and assist in growing business schools, all of which the corporate class has done. Additionally, they have taken over university administrations, drastically reduced full-time positions for university professors, and recklessly defunded history and other humanities programs. As a result, campus politics have shifted to the right. And college students are instructed to participate in, rather than challenge, the neoliberal project that has eliminated their job security, dashed their hopes of retirement, and left them in ruinous debt.
Donald Trump is very much part of the anti-social sciences political ilk, working against critical thinkers and the democratization of higher education. Trump supports the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), established by the Johnson administration in 1965. The NEH has funded the work of thousands of scholars, including lectures, exhibitions, and prize winning books on, among other things, slavery and the Civil War. Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War was an NEH project. At the same time, the Trump budget calls for a $5 billion reduction in college financial aid to students from low-income families, as part of a 13 percent cut in Department of Education funding. Analysts at the Center for American Progress write that Trump "is making a direct assault on the opportunities for low-income students and people of color to complete an education and fulfill their career goals."
Revealing his own ignorance about history at the same time he asks why everyone is so ignorant about history--all while his policies limit the study of history--takes a special kind of arrogance on Trump's part. But the effects of all this ignorance on our society are calculated. Trump's absurdist historical revisionism fits nicely with his "fake news" claims that dismiss fact as fiction. A necessary component of authoritarianism is mass ignorance, which allows despots and demagogues to reshape our collective memory in whatever way they choose. For people like Trump, who live in castles and whose power is built on fairytales, others who point out that the emperor is not, and never has been, wearing any clothes, must be destroyed.
[Chris Lamberti has a PhD in History from Brown University and works as a researcher for Workers United in Chicago.]