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.
1/19/2021 02:44:02 pm
The right wing holds Twain up as an icon even though he was liberal while there is an active leftwing effort to ban or censor his works. American politics at their finest.
1/20/2021 04:57:16 am
The only effort to ban Twain that I know of is centred on the use of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn. I don't approve of that effort, but then I'm a fairly privileged white male. I understand that Black people in the US may feel differently.
1/20/2021 10:20:56 am
1/19/2021 06:27:59 pm
American Republican party supporting Youtube comments tend to point to ranting alchoholic KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov's pamphlets and lectures to prove their theories, but oddly if you actually read said pamphlets despite their rants against rock music, SOCIAL JUSTICE (he loves allcaps) and minority rights, he has to qualify actual KGB involvement in such things with:
1/19/2021 07:14:54 pm
"If it's not gay it don't play!"
1/19/2021 09:37:12 pm
1/23/2021 04:13:53 pm
K? I know it's weird? But I'm kinda obsessed now on "Classic American Authors Death Match".
1/20/2021 08:57:43 am
Ah, the Donald the Trump "experts". Historians who have no real knowledge of history and Lawyers who have no real understanding of the law, working for someone who has no understanding of the functions of a President in a democratic government.
1/20/2021 03:09:07 pm
All the Republican presidents are dumb and bad, and all the Democrat presidents are light and bright. How much intelligence is needed to realize that there is something wrong with this narrative, and that a democracy cannot operate on the basis of this narrative?
1/21/2021 03:49:15 pm
Regarding Trump’s intelligence:
Darold Knowles, they told similar things about Ronald Reagan and about George W. Bush. And I always wondered: Who are the fools buying this?
1/22/2021 10:51:42 am
Darold Knowles, this has a similar quality than Obama wanting to meet the "president of Canada". And what about the 200 million Covid victims in the US of whom Biden phantasized? And didn't George W. Bush wonder that there are blacks in Brazil?
1/22/2021 02:08:33 pm
Okay then, here’s some more:
I would like to urge all liberals to take the Trump history paper more seriously. Because, have you never imagined what impression modern school books teaching history the liberal way make on conservatives? Just excactly the same impression, only the other way round.
1/21/2021 10:52:59 am
Is this the same Hubertus Knabe who actually sued the United States after the revelation that the American NSA has been illegally spying on German citizens without authorization and in violation of German sovereignty?
Larry Storch, yes, this is the same person. A historian who dedicated his life to the research of the former communist Germany's secret service. Sueing the NSA was rather a symbolic act and until now I had not heard about it. Others are more well-known to work against modern secret services.
1/22/2021 12:16:29 am
Well Franke, leaving aside the mostly incomprehensible screed in the latter part of your post, I have to say that I feel sorry for you and Germany as a whole. Americans really cannot fathom the weird idea of being in such a weak position in relation to another country in the way that you described Germany’s submissive posture relative to the US. I can agree with you though that it’s probably for the best given the unfortunate history of Germany.
1/20/2021 01:26:01 pm
The 1776 report: if Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" were a post on 4chan, or Parler.
1/20/2021 03:50:00 pm
I've been aware for some time of the attempt to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy in Conservative circles -- first saw it decades ago on one of those Sunday morning political shows wherein George Will indicated "McCarthy was probably right." Even back then the Fringe was becoming mainstream in those circles.
1/20/2021 08:49:06 pm
Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, Harry Hopkins, Klaus Fuchs, Shall I continue?
1/20/2021 08:00:27 pm
The 1776 Constitution "preached toleration in place of persecution, goodwill in place of hate, peace in place of war".
1/21/2021 03:48:58 am
Not part of the Constitution but nice try Mr. Raza.
1/21/2021 09:55:15 am
It was done under the 1776 constitution. I am not Mexican, not even what you call in a racist way "Latin", "Spanish" or “Mr. Raza”, but I know that slavery and war of conquest are not compatible with democracy. Only after the end of apartheid in 1965.
1/21/2021 03:30:04 pm
What "Constitution" in 1776 Mr. Raza?
1/21/2021 09:31:16 am
Ah, first day of the new civility. Back to book burnings.
1/21/2021 06:58:56 pm
"The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the United States.* It was drafted by the Second Continental Congress from mid-1776 through late 1777, and ratification by all 13 states was completed by early 1781".
Victor Davis Hanson was member of the 1776 commission. In this podcast he talks about the work in this commission, what they wanted to achieve with it, why Progressivism is bad in his opinion, etc. etc. Quite a nice background supplement to the document itself.
Politico published an article which -- after the obligatory exaggerated and unfair criticism of all what is "Trumpish" -- reaches the conclusion that the 1776 commission was not so bad an idea, and that the 1776 paper contains some valuable thoughts which could be re-used in a bipartisan approach.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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