On the Way Out, Trump Trashes History: Why the 1776 Project is so DamagingRoundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. Jacqueline Jones, president of the American Historical Association, teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin.
The report of the 1776 Commission, released Monday by the White House in one of the last gasps of the Trump Administration, is political propaganda masquerading as history. A slapdash effort cobbled together in a month, the report follows this administration’s pattern of dishonestly invoking the rhetoric of unity to divide the American people, especially along lines of race, but also family structure, religion and ideology. In this report, there is no place for the remarkable diversity that is “we the people” of the United States.
The presidential commission responsible for this partisan political screed included not a single professional historian of the United States, akin to filing a court brief without the benefit of legal expertise. Science doesn’t fare much better, appearing in the narrative only in scare quotes as an aspect of a “shadow government” supposedly operated by nefarious civil servants. The authors also show contempt for principles of “pragmatism,” which they consider suspect when compared to the supposed “universal” and “eternal” truths articulated in the late 18th century.
Government bureaucracies emerged in the early 20th century, a central feature of what has been known for a century as the “progressive” reform movement. Progressive reformers enacted data-driven public policy, attacked political corruption, worked to outlaw child labor, established the income tax and regulated business, for example promoting guidelines surrounding the production of drugs and food.
Such government intervention in the economy is dangerous stuff, says the commission, which somehow connects these impulses (which were especially influential in New York) to European fascism: “Like the Progressives, Mussolini sought to centralize power under the management of so-called experts.”
According to the propagandists, expertise, science and professionalism stand alongside another great danger to the vision of the Founders: “group rights.” In a bizarre twist, the authors of the report equate Sen. John C. Calhoun’s famous defense of slavery as “instead of an evil, a good — a positive good” with affirmative action and other policies that address the enduring legacies of discrimination.
The commission attributes current racial divisions to the shift from “civil rights” to “group rights” in the 1960s, again an odd formulation. On a page with a photograph of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. the report inaccurately refers to “an America fully committed to ending legal discrimination by the mid-1960s.” One wonders about those Confederate flags flying across the South, the flourishing of private segregated schools (often religious) in the South and de facto segregation in the North, and rampant nationwide housing discrimination well documented in historical sources.
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