Donald Trump’s usable history

By Robert Emmett Curran

In a recent interview, President Donald Trump opined that Andrew Jackson was livid that the Civil War happened. That if he had been president at the time, Jackson would have kept the country united.

The stunning ignorance of history revealed in the interview was a reminder of earlier Trump forays into the nation’s past, as when he mentioned that he hadn’t realized that Lincoln was a Republican.

That Lincoln was a Republican was the most important fact about the election of 1860. Not to know that shows your utter cluelessness about what the defining issue of that election was: whether the country was going to allow the institution of slavery to continue to grow by protecting it in the territories, as the Southern Democrats wanted, or whether it would refuse to sanction it in these future states, as the Republicans promised, thereby setting it on a course of ultimate collapse.

Trump, who has made no bones about his disinterest in history, very likely assumed that the Republican Party has always been the anti-civil rights, pro-white party that he came of age with in the 1960s. Lincoln, he at least knew, freed the slaves, something one would never associate with the Republican Party of Goldwater and Reagan that, from the ‘60s on, has made Southern whites the key to their political success. Trump is such an innocent on America’s past that he can refer to Frederick Douglass as a contemporary figure who is broadly admired.

To make sense of Trump’s pronouncements on history one needs to consider the context in which they occur and to hazard the intent behind such remarks.

In the early stage of his presidential campaign in 2015, for instance, Trump touched off a controversy by an historically-challenged plaque at his golf course on Lowes Island, Virginia. The plaque, affixed to a stone pedestal of a flagpole overlooking the Potomac River, under the title “River of Blood” announced: “Many great American Soldiers, both of the North and the South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’” Beneath the quote was the authoritative signature, “Donald John Trump,” with the annotation: “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River.” That last remark seemed an in-your-face to the critics who decried his cutting down more than four hundred trees to afford himself and his club members a better view of the river. But its main purpose was to draw appreciation to himself for having “preserved” this living relic of the Civil War where, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, so many “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

That no such bloodbath occurred anywhere near this stretch of the Potomac meant nothing to Trump. When told that historians judged the plaque’s claim to be fictional, he replied, “How would they know that? Were they there?” as though direct observation is the only means of validating one’s historical statements. But then, without batting an eye to his self-contradiction, contended that “numerous historians” had assured him that this site was known as “The River of Blood.” When pressed to identify these historians, Trump allowed that they had spoken not to himself, but to “his people.” No doubt the same people who, Trump reported, had come up with all sorts of damning information about Barack Obama’s birth when then candidate Trump was using that calumny to secure a purchase on the support of Obama haters for his presidential run.

More telling was Trump’s further comment: “That was a prime site for river crossings. So if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a Civil War, I would say that people were shot — a lot of them.” This is pure Trumpian epistemology. If it could have happened, then anyone has the authority to say that it did. Particularly if you have a good reason for saying that it did. And what better reason than to enhance the value and prestige of your latest golf site? Thus, in Trump’s world, is history made. Call it a usable past.

As for Trump’s ruminations about Jackson and the Civil War, the usable past here is the depiction of Jackson, a hero of Trump, as his forerunner. Jackson, like Trump, would have had the strength, the raw force to bend history to his will. Trump, in Jackson’s mantle, plays savior of the Union. Amazing.

Robert Emmett Curran is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.