History According to Trump: The President and the 1917 Pandemic That Wasn’t

Historians in the News
tags: Donald Trump

When I checked Factbase, a Web site that catalogues Trump’s public statements, I found that he had made at least twenty-seven references to a 1917 flu pandemic since March 11th, and that did not count the offhand reference he made late Thursday afternoon while once again talking with reporters. A search of the White House Web site found that Trump mentioned 1917 on twenty-three days since mid-March. In a handful of instances—six, by my count—Trump referred to both 1917 and 1918, suggesting that someone had perhaps tried to give him the correct date, but he could never quite get it to stick. The story of a 1917 flu pandemic may well go down as a Trump classic, a pointless and unnecessary screwup that is also very telling about the President.


When considering Trump’s real-time historical revisionism, I keep coming back to the 1917 question. What does this mistake of little apparent significance, repeated over and over again, tell us about Trump and his well-documented willingness to make war on historical facts, big or small? To start, it confirms an essential truth about the President: he will never admit that he is wrong, even when he is blatantly incorrect and it would cost him nothing to fix the error. This is, after all, a leader who has made more than eighteen thousand false or misleading claims since taking office, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, many of them whoppers of far more damaging impact than his repeated misstatement about the flu pandemic that likely killed his grandfather.

There are other, potentially more worrisome, explanations, however, beyond mere pride and stubbornness in the persistence of this particular Trumpism. It suggests a President who is either unable to process information once he has something incorrect in his head, is surrounded by people who refuse to correct him from making an embarrassing mistake over and over again, or who refuses to acknowledge a mistake and would rather rewrite history to conform to the mistake than simply correct himself and move on.

After finding that Trump had made dozens of references to an event that did not occur in 1917, I asked John Barry, a historian whose definitive account of the contagion, “The Great Influenza,” spurred President George W. Bush to push his government on pandemic planning, what he made of Trump’s mistake. “It encapsulates so much about him,” Barry said, “the ignorance, the insecurity that makes him willing to embrace and fully commit to a mistake rather than admit even the smallest error, the arrogance that he can get away with it.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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