The Sheer Absurdity of Trump’s “1776 Commission” Report Is Hard to OverstateRoundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University.
Forty-eight hours before reluctantly leaving Washington, D.C., President Trump released the final report of the so-called “1776 Commission.” This commission was convened amid last year’s conservative outrage at the New York Times’ 1619 Project and its audacious claims that African Americans might have contributed to moving America closer to its ideals of equality. This report — denying slavery was a structural aspect of America’s founding, accusing the civil rights movement of “immediately” abandoning American principles once it had succeeded, and of modern anti-racism activists of being the moral equivalent of southern slaveholders — was released on Martin Luther King Day.
It’s a nice intellectual pairing to images of white supremacists storming the capitol with a Confederate flag.
In this report, every moldy trope of 1950s fifth-grade civics books are trotted out.
Americans settled a “vast, untamed wilderness.” Americans sailed from Britain to build a shining “city on a hill” an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice.” (Winthrop’s puritans certainly believed in justice–they were swift to crop the ears, brand the foreheads, drill the tongues, and burn and strangle heretics and sinners–but they were skeptical of liberty, except their own right to dissent from the Church of England.) Slavery was not the founders’ fault.
Trumpian agendas are evident throughout. In a lengthy discussion of the principles of the Constitution, only three provisions of the Bill of Rights are mentioned: religious liberty, the freedom of speech, and the right to keep guns. These three are questionably described.
In explaining the principles upon which the American republic was founded, a very fringe reading of natural law, clearly inspired by an intolerant desire to define some identities as “natural” and others as “unnatural,” is smuggled in:
Such a justification could only be found in the precepts of nature—specifically human nature—accessible to the human mind but not subject to the human will. Those precepts—whether understood as created by God or simply as eternal—are a given that man did not bring into being and cannot change.
This reactionary view of the world, that most human character is inherited and ancestral, is obsessively repeated: “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race.”
In fact, of course, Jefferson and other enlightenment thinkers of his age were highly skeptical of claims that any aspects of human nature were destined by birth but attributed more and more of human behavior to environmental causes. When Jefferson or Madison or others spoke of “natural rights,” they were referring to those rights people had in a state of nature, prior to the rise of organized governments.
There is a reason for the report’s authors slanting this piece of history: their ideological war against “identity politics” requires that they ground character on some unchanging tradition of nature. They cannot accept the insights of cultural anthropology that even Jefferson and his ilk had begun to glimpse: that social and cultural context most strongly influences human behavior. Instead, they want men to be men and women to be women, right and wrong to be absolute and structural oppressions to be ignored.
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