History Under Siege: Trumpism, Counter-Memory and Schooling

by Eric J. Weiner

Today in the United States is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a time to bear witness and remember the savagery of Christopher Columbus and other European explorers when they first encountered indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. It’s also a day to recognize and celebrate the courage, knowledges, and cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world. It coincides with Columbus Day, a national holiday that triggers a day of protests and celebratory parades, rekindles debates about removing statues of Christopher Columbus from parks, squares and circles throughout the United States, and provokes critical discussions about the kind of stories we should be teaching the Nation’s children about his earliest encounters with indigenous communities.

The controversies surrounding Columbus Day should be seen as part of a larger struggle for the integrity of history education, historical research, national identity, and collective memory. Historians and American history teachers are the official guardians of the Nation’s collective historical memory; they are the defenders of historical facts and truths regardless of how ugly, embarrassing, or in contradiction they might be to the Nation’s distorted ideological view of itself. They are the essential workers of any free society and must be allowed to remain beyond the influence of state and corporate power. If Trumpists get their way, the struggle over the integrity of the “official” American history curriculum as well as how it is taught will get harder, more urgent, and dangerous.

Although American history curriculum has always been a site of ideological struggle, historians, history teachers, and curriculum designers have done a good job over the past several decades to revise many historical inaccuracies, distortions, and lies that helped whitewash the historical record in the service of white, male, imperialistic, and neoliberal interests. But with Trump’s latest decree to create a “1776 Commission” charged to design a “pro-American” curriculum of American history coupled with his promise to defund schools that use the 1619 Project as well as other curricular platforms that bring attention to historical facts and truths that counter the “official” curriculum, the Nation’s collective historical memory is under siege with public schools at the center of the assault. Whether Trump and the GOP actually care about how American history is represented and taught in schools or whether they are just cynically using the issue to create a political wedge between people who may otherwise be allied to vote against Trump in November is irrelevant.

By targeting American history, Trump’s “1776 Commission,” like the Ministry of Truth from 1984, will be policing memory; reconstructing a national identity that is built on myths, lies, erasures, absences, and distortions; and neutering public education’s critical function in a democracy. Although not a completely new strategy for teaching American history in the United States, Trump’s assault on American history education is unlike anything we have seen since McCarthy who, in the name of God and country, tried to undermine the basic pillars of democracy. The 1776 Commission’s directive, in the clearest terms, is not to design a curriculum of American history per se, but to create state-sponsored propaganda in the service of Trumpism, a white supremacist, fascistic neoliberal ideology intent on destroying the pillars of American democracy.

Not since McCarthyism overtook the nation’s political imagination have we been challenged to defend the autonomy and integrity of historical research specifically and, more generally, dissident intellectual work both within and beyond the classroom. How we respond to this attack will have a direct impact on what our children learn about our nation’s cultural, political, social, economic, and scientific past. What they learn about the Nation’s past will have a direct effect on how they imagine the future and their place in it. Without a determined and rigorous defense of the school as a public sphere, that is, as an engine and source of dependable research, a place of critical teaching/learning, and a defender of the historical record, the public school will become nothing more than a propagandist appendage of the Trumpist state. In this regard, the Trumpist attack on American history is also an assault on academic freedom, intellectual integrity, truth, complexity, historical ambiguity, and all forms and practices of culturally responsive and critical pedagogies. When history is attacked in this manner, it’s not only our memories of the past that are negatively affected; the future (i.e., all notions of educated hope and possibility) gets filtered and re-imagined through the ideological distortions and constraints of state power.

The Trumpist attack on American history comes in the form of a state-sponsored propaganda campaign to delegitimize the research that arises out of Critical Race Theory (CRT), all historical research that is attentive to unflattering events in the Nation’s past, and the work of history teachers at all levels of schooling who are committed to teaching their students the complex and often contradictory stories of violence, struggle, triumph, domination, hope, and compassion that comprise the Nation’s history. In Trump’s words, “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda that if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country.”

In what has become a typical rhetorical-Newspeak strategy of Trumpists, they accuse their critics of doing what they themselves have been accused of doing while turning the meaning of words–in this case, “propaganda” and “civic bonds”– upside down and inside out so that their meanings correlate with the ideological interests of Trumpism. To reiterate, it is not the work of historians and critical educators who are doing verifiable historical research, designing curriculum, and teaching students to think critically that constitute a crusade against American history; it is Trumpism’s white supremacist, fascistic neoliberal agenda for education and the Nation that represents a threat to our collective historical memory.

The Trumpist crusade against American history education needs to be understood against the backdrop of the administration’s recent actions against refugees, Black Lives Matter protestors, Muslims, and working people of all races and ethnicities. All of these actions suggest an administration hell-bent on breaking the civic bonds between whites and blacks; new immigrants and old; Christians, Jews and Muslims; LGBTQ peoples and heterosexuals; and the poor, working and middle-classes. Trumpism is an ideology of disunity, ignorance, and division; it thrives on conflict, dis-information, mis-education, and social chaos. Stability— political, social, cultural—is a liability as is educating people to think critically about the difficult truths of the Nation’s past. Only by seeding division, inciting violence, policing education, and undermining confidence in democracy can Trumpism survive.

The Trump administration’s actions, with unwavering support from the GOP, provides a clear sense of what he actually means when he makes reference to “civic bonds” and the destruction of the country at the hands of what he says are left wing, intellectual terrorists. For Trumpists, civic bonds are not bonds that link all of us together and make us responsible to and for each other. In the Newspeak of Trumpism, “civic bonds” describe a state of dis-unity and division. For Trumpists, to be American is, first and foremost, to be heterosexual, Christian and white. Within the Trumpist imagination, this triumvirate bonds people to each other through a conception of civic agency and American history that excludes people that exist outside of its three major points of legitimacy. For Trumpists, neoliberalism is the ideological glue holding together the triumvirate; any criticism, however slight, of economic inequity and its threat to a functioning democracy is perceived as a toxic solvent that degrades the strength of these “civc bonds.” Historically, these bonds have been maintained and strengthened, in part, by a system of public schooling that too often refuses to teach students the facts and truths of the Nation’s history. He is correct to be fearful that the “civic bonds” built from the material of white supremacy, false consciousness, and religion are dissolving under the harsh light of the Nation’s historical record. These bonds cannot hold unless they are reinforced by state propaganda, a full-frontal ideological assault on education, and finally, through state supported domestic terrorism, i.e., Proud Boys and Oath Keepers “standing by.”

His fear that the country will be destroyed under the weight of the historical record reveals two things about Trumpism that are important to consider. First, it reveals a complete lack of respect for the essential role of public education in a functioning democracy. Trumpists are afraid that history researchers and teachers will resist working in the service of state and corporate interests. Trumpism’s disregard for the sanctity of academic freedom, the critical role of public education in a democratic society, and the need to economically support the public education system in its teaching responsibilities is laid bare in its fascistic discourse about curriculum and teaching. Without the disciplinary power of the White House threatening educators and administrators, Trumpists know that higher education and K-12 schools won’t bend easily to their demands.

One of the hegemonic strategies that Trump uses to manufacture consent for replacing American history with state-sponsored propaganda is to reframe the battle over history education in religious terms, i.e., as an epic struggle of good against crusaders of evil. By doing this, he is attempting to reframe the work of educators, researchers and historians against the backdrop of religion in which faith trumps critical inquiry and passions overwhelm reason. Rather than think about the school as a public sphere, Trumpists want to turn it into a quasi-religious sphere of teaching and learning. More than just an attack on American history, Trumpism wants to impose a fundamentalist, Christian-based curriculum on our children in which American history is filtered through the lens of good and evil. This appeal to religion is an attempt to erase whatever separation is left between the church and the state. Trumpism perceives any suggestion that religion has no business in matters of public education and/or the state as sacrilegious. Within the Trumpist imagination, secular humanism is the ground occupied by godless socialists and communists and represents a threat to their fantasy to establish a white, Christian “caliphate” in the United States.

For Trump, religious appeals are a powerful tool of political manipulation because a person’s faith is non-falsifiable and it, by design, sets up an “us/them” dichotomy; you’re either in the church or you’re out. When issues of the state are reduced to one’s faith, reasoned argument becomes an incoherent strategy of deciding what is true and false, fact or fiction, or right and wrong. Trumpism also turns what is a private matter into a public issue; religious freedom is no longer constitutionally guaranteed under Trumpism, but is contingent on its support. Freedom, in this context, is negative freedom. Consistent with the cynicism of Trumpism, it doesn’t matter to Trumpists that Trump is not a religious person nor does it matter that he is, according to Christian doctrine, a sinner. What matters is that Trump recognizes secular humanism as well as any other religion besides Christianity as a threat to the social order and is willing to fight against them. For Trumpists, as is true for all fascistic systems, the ends always justify the means. Forget about standards of epistemological coherence or an ethics of power of any kind; all that matters is winning.

Within the formulation of “us vs. them,” compromise, an essential component of democratic discourse, becomes an anemic rhetorical strategy for deciding outcomes because it requires all parties to acknowledge to some degree not just the validity of the other side’s arguments, but their right to have them. Trumpism is a winner-take-all ideology in which compromise is seen as weakness and strength is animated through domination. Because the final solution for Trumpists is not deeper understanding across our differences, but the annihilation of those who they have already determined are their enemies, polemics and bombast are the rhetorical strategies of choice. Trumpism’s view of history is, at its core, cynical; victors should write history because they have earned that right. Finally, Trump’s use of the word “crusade” to describe those he perceives as a threat to the Nation, as well as his suspicion of science and intellectual work more generally, reveals his commitment to pre-Enlightenment ideas about government, power, and leadership.

Second, and something that he certainly doesn’t intend, Trump’s comments reveal his perception of the Nation and it citizens as fearful, fragile and weak. His “patriotism” is unveiled as little more than fear and paranoia hidden beneath the flimsy and tattered robes of white nationalism and an unconvincing embrace of American exceptionalism. Trumpism imagines the Nation and its citizens as weak and fragile. In a state of perpetual and potential victimhood, Trumpists see offense (and offensiveness) as the best defense; its ideological foundation is built essentially from a deep fear that the structures of knowledge and power that have historically helped to maintain the hegemony of white supremacy, Christianity, patriarchy, and neoliberalism will be unable to survive under the force of historical facts and truths. Trumpists believe that the Nation will not survive if its citizens are allowed to learn the complicated historical facts, difficult truths, and moral contradictions that inform its inception and development. In other words, if the Nation is as powerful and exceptional as Trumpists say it is, then wouldn’t it be able to uphold the weight of the historical record? Asked somewhat differently, if Trumpists truly believed in American exceptionalism, wouldn’t they be confident enough in the Nation’s citizenry to learn the facts and truths of their history without fearing that learning about these things would destroy their civic bonds and the Nation?

A country built on historical lies is a weak state just as a leader who pathologically lies is a weak leader. It takes courage to speak and teach the truth; cowards lie. This doesn’t mean that a “weak” leader should be ignored or doesn’t represent a clear and present danger. On the contrary, a weak leader, like a frightened animal, can be extremely dangerous. But unlike a frightened animal, a weak leader can be effective in organizing rabid support from an equally frightened constituency. A citizenry educated to believe in historical lies will continue to form the kind of weak civic bonds that will inevitably threaten the democratic experiment in self-governance. A civic consciousness built from the material of lies and state-sponsored propaganda exists in a perpetual state of fear, paranoia, and suspicion. In this heightened state of fear and paranoia, the citizenry will look desperately for a supreme leader—an authoritarian personality—pledging their allegiance not to the Nation (or to the set of principles it represents), but to the one who promises relief from fear, anxiety and pain. Consistent with the markers of an authoritarian personality, Trump must infantilize the people in order to rationalize his domination of them.

Trump’s fear and the fear of Trumpists is tangible; their desperation a clear and present danger to the promise of American democracy, history, collective memory, and the future of public education. Trumpism is not an ideology that will go away with Trump. Regardless of whether he wins or loses in November, Trumpism will continue to be a pervasive anti-democratic, fascistic ideological force in the United States for the foreseeable future. Trumpism reveals not only deep structural flaws in the pillars of American democracy but the degree to which fear and desperation guide so many people’s political and educational choices. Vulnerabilities few could see are in full view, yet the terror that awaits us remains unforeseen.

Whether the Trumpist insurrection is put down will require an organized and sustained effort by a cross-section of political interests. Black Lives Matter activists, feminists riding all waves, LGBTQ communities, environmentalists, scientists, Indigenous peoples, Antifa, unions, immigrant communities, members of the police and military that care about justice as much as law and order, teachers, socialists, and other concerned citizens from across the ideological spectrum who are alarmed by Trumpism’s assault on history, education, memory, and, more generally, democracy must begin to see the rise of Trumpism as more than just a common concern, but as a clear and present danger. Its defeat might be just the thing that can finally unite the fractured movements of social justice that have been operating to varying degrees as independent movements. But at some point, even a concerted effort to defeat Trumpism will be limited in its ability to transform the economic global structures of capital that continue to threaten ecological systems—human and environmental—throughout the world.