On this, the last full day of the Trump Administration, it’s worth spending a moment considering the final insult to history that Donald Trump’s stooges lobbed on their way out the door. Trump’s 1776 Commission released a partisan report on American history that actual historians, journalists, and pundits have rightly excoriated for its propagandistic conservative tone, its excuses for slavery, and its relentless claims that liberalism is anti-American. (James Grossman of the American Historical Association called it a “hack job” designed to foment division, which is going some for a guy who praised the History channel, home to Ancient Aliens, as vital for “stimulating and nourishing” interest in history.) I’m not interested in going through those well-covered problems, but I do want to point out a couple of the less noticed parts of the report, highlighting its mendacity.
Let’s begin by looking at how Trump’s team falsifies historical evidence. Here is a representative passage from a section on the evils of progressives:
They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. As one prominent Progressive historian wrote in 1922, “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.” Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times.
The “prominent Progressive historian” was Carl Becker, writing in his 1922 study of the Declaration of Independence. He. Was not arguing against the Declaration of Independence as the Trump team implies, but rather he claimed that the eighteenth-century concept of natural rights deriving from a study of the natural world was a literary conceit of its time, born of incomplete knowledge. He argued that the first principles of moral arguments, whether they be God, Reason, Nature, etc., were justifications not postulates, that the arguments were attempts to justify social, emotional, or political decisions in terms of a “higher law,” one that was a form of faith, not objective truth.
Twentieth-century people, he reasoned, cannot be arguing from eighteenth century ignorance. The question wasn’t whether natural rights could objectively be said to derive from the natural world but whether the moral argument served its political and social ends by appealing to an imaginary “higher law” that could justify a new social contract. “The natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence was one formulation of this idea of a higher law,” he wrote. Natural rights philosophy, while incomplete and not scientifically sound, “furnished at once a justification and a profound emotional inspiration for the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” He went on to praise the Declaration and its philosophy for
… a humane and engaging faith. At its best it preached toleration in place of persecution, goodwill in place of hate, peace in place of war. It taught that beneath all local and temporary diversity, beneath the superficial traits and talents that distinguish men and nations, all men are equal in the possession of a common humanity; and to the end that concord might prevail on the earth instead of strife, it invited men to promote in themselves the humanity which bound them to their fellows, and to shape their conduct and their institutions in harmony with it.
Becker finished his book by lamenting that nineteenth century philosophers had stopped speaking of humanity in general terms and instead rhapsodized over nations and factions, promoting division instead of universalism. The “harshness” of the industrial age had damaged the humanism of the natural rights philosophies.
Trumpists don’t like complexity, so this instead becomes a cartoon of liberals hating America.
And since I just spent six months writing about the second Red Scare, I might as well point out how the Trump team used the report to justify McCarthyism:
Led by the Soviet Union, Communism even threatened, or aspired to threaten, our liberties here at home. What it could not achieve through force of arms, it attempted through subversion. Communism did not succeed in fomenting revolution in America. But Communism’s relentless anti-American, anti-Western, and atheistic propaganda did inspire thousands, and perhaps millions, to reject and despise the principles of our founding and our government. While America and its allies eventually won the Cold War, this legacy of anti-Americanism is by no means entirely a memory but still pervades much of academia and the intellectual and cultural spheres.
“Subversion.” While there was Soviet spying in the United States and some efforts to manipulate social groups for political gain, the efforts were never as all-pervasive and widespread as McCarthyites pretended. “Subversion” is a word almost wholly associated with that dark period, the province of McCarthy in the Senate and HUAC in the House and Hoover in the FBI. It’s a loaded term that, used here, is obviously attempting to rehabilitate and justify the McCarthy/HUAC persecution of socialists, leftists, homosexuals, and other non-conforming individuals who were labeled “un-American.”
“Americans yearn for timeless stories and noble heroes that inspire them to be good, brave, diligent, daring, generous, honest, and compassionate,” the Trump authors write, seemingly confusing propaganda and mythology with history. “We still read the tales of Hawthorne and Melville, Twain and Poe, and the poems of Whitman and Dickinson.” Well, now, I don’t think the writers of this report read any of them. I think we all know now that Walt Whitman wrote homoerotic poems and was forced to live in the closet because of persecution. Mark Twain was a dedicated liberal who wrote devastating criticism of the American government, its imperialist adventures, and its failure to treat racial and ethnic minorities as fully human. Hawthorne’s works are a long argument against the intolerance and hypocrisy of America’s conservative Puritan strain. No one could possibly read Poe and come away feeling inspired—unless you’re Ed Gein. I chuckled, too, when the writers spoke of how Americans “revere the rugged liberty of the cowboys in old westerns.” Have Trump’s people read Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), the first major (non-dime) Western novel, the one that inspired the whole genre? They might not have noticed, but it’s not so secretly a gay romance. The male narrator is very much in love with the title cowboy.
That’s always the trouble with conservatives trying to hijack the arts for political purposes. They’re full of all that “anti-Americanism” that conservative politics rail against.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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