On Thursday, President Donald Trump visited the National Archives Museum—that tabernacle of American history that houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—to deliver a morose and angry speech attacking what he calls the left-wing indoctrination of American students. His speech didn’t so much open a new front in the culture wars he has waged throughout his presidency as much as it restarted one of the country’s oldest battles: Who controls our common history?
The primary target of Trump’s speech was the 1619 Project, a special issue of the New York Times Magazine published in August 2019 whose findings were widely contested inside academia even though its lead essay won a Pulitzer Prize in the commentary category. The package’s aim, in the words of its editor, was to reframe 1619, the year the first enslaved people were brought into the country, as the nation’s “birth year.” But the Times didn’t stop there; it also produced a school curriculum designed to bring that narrative into the classroom, and Trump’s ire extended to the educators who might want to use it—as well as left-wing revisionist historians such as the late Howard Zinn, proponents of critical race theory, and the radicals who have burned buildings and toppled statues. These people, Trump said, seek to “radically transform America.”
Like many of Trump’s wildest pronouncements—declaring Antifa a terrorist organization, threatening to shut down Twitter, claiming “ultimate authority“ to reopen quarantined America—this new attempt to dictate how history is taught will mostly likely fade into the background. The president has no direct power over the school boards who set education policy, let alone the textbooks from which history is taught, or the teachers who do it. All he can do is jawbone—but as we’ve learned, if all he can do is jawbone, he’s more than happy to do so.
The Trump plan, announced in his speech, is to establish a “1776 Commission” that will “promote patriotic education” and beat back the alleged slanders against the nation’s character. It’s likely to accomplish nothing. Likewise, the federal grant “to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history” that he talked about at the National Archives Museum will likely achieve nothing concrete.
In attempting to place his personal, political mark on what children learn in schools, Trump is no originator. In a fine survey piece this week by Olivia B. Waxman in Time, we learn that the political quarrel over the past—what the history textbooks should say, which accounts are elevated and which suppressed in the classroom, who composes curricula—has been contested in every generation since the Civil War. The historical is the political. For all the anxiety Trump’s foray into classroom history is stirring up among horrified liberals, the only real surprise is how late he arrived on the field.
That doesn’t mean Trump’s speech was an exercise in futility. It expanded his usual attack on the press by essentially accusing the New York Times of the political corruption of our youth. Said Trump, “This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” It also aligned Trump against teachers—few of whom were going to vote for him anyway—and the educational establishment, once mocked by Trump’s spiritual godfather George Wallace, who liked to refer to “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”
Since the earliest days of his presidency, Trump has sought to pit the “us” of himself and his crowd of cheering supporters against a nebulous “they”—that ever-expanding list of his enemies and foes, including but not limited to immigrants, the “deep state,” Democrats, reporters, note-takers in meetings, judges who defy him, residents of blue states, the makers of dishwashers, Mitt Romney, the Washington establishment, Muslims, his critics, the Chinese, former Cabinet members, whistleblowers and practically anybody who contradicts him. Trump stirs up and harnesses human animus better than any of his contemporaries, and it’s just like him to construct a fraudulent line of association that links rioting anarchists to revisionist historians to establishment journalists and finally to the educational establishment and wraps them all up in one tidy ball for kicking.
It's also a notable departure for a man known almost entirely for his inability to look past the present moment. Trump, officially, is no longer content with being the mere arbiter of the present, requiring compliance and agreement from everybody in the room. By attacking journalists, appointing a commission to lock down history in a way that pleases him and giving grant money for a “pro-America” curriculum, Trump intends to assert a new ownership interest in the past. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. With his National Archives Museum diatribe, Trump has staked his personal claim.
The dumbest thing William Faulkner ever wrote was, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Like, that makes no sense. Send your favorite “past” lines to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts considered a career in education. My Twitter feed was an Education major. My RSS feed’s favorite movie is Out of the Past.