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.
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.
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.