American News

A New Hysteria Around History in the US

For a nation that has always focused on the present and future and neglected the past, a debate is now raging about defending something long considered unimportant.
US history, American history, USA history, statues America, statues in America, Donald Trump, Trump news, US politics news, US news, Peter Isackson

© Leigh Prather

July 09, 2020 17:34 EDT

In its report on US President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July weekend in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, the Associated Press characterized his speech as “a direct appeal to disaffected white voters four months before Election Day.”

While Trump himself “zeroed in on the desecration by some protesters of monuments and statues across the country that honor those who have benefited from slavery, including some past presidents,” the AP notes that Kristi Noem, a Republican governor, “echoed Trump’s attacks against his opponents who ‘are trying to wipe away the lessons of history.’”

The City on the Hill Has Lost Its Shine and Its Bounce


Americans suddenly seem obsessed with history, which used to be dismissed simply as “the past” and subjected to the proverb, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk.” So, what could the phrase “the lessons of history” possibly mean to a contemporary American?

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Lessons of history:

1) From a historian’s point of view, the nuanced conclusions that can be reached about the possible meaning of events in the past, including the unintended consequences of decisions made by historical persons or institutions 

2) For the layman in the United States, the simplistic chauvinistic anecdotes and bullet points dispensed in schools, especially when the content derives from books published in Texas

Contextual Note

As a prominent actor in what will soon be called an epoch of history — the Trump era — the president is living proof that obtaining a degree from Wharton doesn’t require a solid appreciation for or understanding of history. According to John Bolton, the former national security adviser, Trump may still be ignorant of the fact that the United Kingdom acquired nuclear weapons nearly 70 years ago and that Finland declared independence from Russia more than a century ago. Perhaps those two events took place in the too distant past to pique his curiosity or have so little bearing on today’s geopolitics that they merit forgetting.

Bolton is not the only commentator to maintain that Trump’s grasp of history or of geopolitical reality is less than impeccable. But just as the killing of George Floyd in police custody has sparked a vast movement of people seeking to reevaluate some salient aspects of US history, Trump has decided that though he may not understand it, he has the duty to defend “history.” He appears to see it as a damsel in distress, bound by the villain to railroad tracks as the locomotive steams toward the captive in the kind of cliffhanger Trump probably remembers from his exposure to the history of cinema.

Trump is right. History has long been manhandled in the US. And this is the moment to honor it. After all, the history of the now-globalized human race has taken a highly visible turn at least since 2001, with a notable acceleration since Trump was elected in 2016. Given the stakes, Americans should finally not just invest in history’s defense but inject it with the life it deserves. 

Embed from Getty Images

To defend history, the best place to begin is to examine the methodology of historians. The word itself is borrowed from French, where the noun histoire signifies both “history” and “story.” History as a discipline can justifiably be described as an imperfect version of the most accurate and complete story we can honestly tell about the past after having examined all the available evidence.” In some sense — on the storytelling side — it’s a discipline closer to literature than science. But Trump refuses to see it as a discipline, preferring to treat history as political advertising. Advertising also tells a story, though no reasonable person would call it a discipline.

Why is this important? Because the citizens of such a comparatively youthful nation have never really known what to do with history, especially their own history. Among the myths that Americans are taught in school is the idea that the American Revolution sealed the definitive rejection by a forward-looking people of the stale, sclerotic traditions of Europe, whose nations were the prisoners of their history. America was all about creating a new civilization, not adulating the past. With such a vision, even the idea of the past became permanently irrelevant to a people on the move.

Trump complains that the protest movement is no more than “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” The opposite is of course true. History has already been wiped out of Americans’ field of awareness. History has actors, not heroes. Some stand out symbolically as either heroes or villains, at least for the sake of storytelling.

Concerning the erasing of values, the famed “Puritan values” the US has traditionally been proud of were long ago replaced by the pursuit of wealth and fame, the two values that have guided Trump’s own life story. As for indoctrinating the children, some of us have an idea of what indoctrination looks like. Many of us were taught at school that Christopher Columbus’ contemporaries believed that the world was flat (false) and that a teenage George Washington, after castrating his father (i.e., chopping down his “favorite” cherry tree), proudly proclaimed, “I cannot tell a lie” (ridiculous).

Speaking as if preparing his political supporters for battle, Trump declared that “just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way, and we will win, and win quickly.” Time is, after all, money, and short episodes of history are easier to commit to memory. 

“[W]e will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people,” Trump added, imagining the mustachioed villains clad in black (with skin color to match) who have conspired to bind the damsel to the rails.

Historical Note

Donald Trump didn’t just complain. In a bold gesture, he announced an executive order to create a “National Garden of American Heroes” with his own list of obligatory denizens of the garden, the criterion being that they must be “historically significant Americans.” 

The problem with this approach is that if history is reduced to stories about heroes, the damsel history would remain bound to the tracks. Heroes of various kinds do exist, but because they are deemed heroic, their stories take us outside of history into something closer to dramatic fiction. Worse, heroes can only be understood as champions of some collective endeavor — a cause, venture, belief or even an art form — that students of history need to come to grips with before they can assess the relative virtues and contributions of the heroes. There is little doubt, however, that the idea of celebrating heroes as role models would appeal to the host of a former reality-TV show called “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Asawin Suebsaeng and Allison Quinn at The Daily Beast describe Trump’s drift as nothing less than a call for a new civil war. But the conflicts Trump typically cites tend to be the war of independence and World War II. The Daily Beast tells us that Trump repeatedly found ways “to compare himself and his supporters to Patriots during the American Revolution—and protesters to members of the British Army.” 

But Trump then shifted his allusion to the 20th century and World War II when he declared “there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.” He even glanced at China’s Chairman Mao Zedong: “[T]his left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.” Heroes are important, but so are recognized villains.

Trump’s understanding of history resembles a jigsaw puzzle in a tempest where the wind has blown away most of the pieces. Interpreting the scattered ones that are left requires an imagination guided by whatever fantasies happen to be tumbling around in Trump’s unconscious. To be fair, that pretty much corresponds to the way the lessons of history tend to be written by totalitarian regimes. In the end, Trump may be far more normal than people give him credit for.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member