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On Donald Trump, U.S. history and Confederate statues

Trump argued against taking down statues of slaveholders and of military leaders who fought to break up the United States in order to preserve slavery, on the grounds that those statues are important for teaching U.S. history.

It’s a good thing that President Donald Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump
Before he became president, Donald Trump didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

That is not exactly obscure historical trivia. In fact, Lincoln was the first Republican president. And for years, state Republican Party organizations have held a “Lincoln Day Dinner” to fundraise, which I gather Trump also didn’t know, because he hasn’t been a Republican very long.

My evidence, admittedly not dispositive but pretty good, that Trump had only recently come upon this arcane bit of historical trivia, is that once he found it out (during 2017, his first year in office) he would bring it up, apropos of nothing, and say of Lincoln: “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican.” (That’s a real quote.)

Actually, I believe the fact that Lincoln was a Republican is not really some obscure knowledge that Trump happens to possess. But the fact that he thinks so is evidence of his ignorance of history. He apparently made it into his 70s before learning that the first Republican president had been a Republican and had, in fact, been Abe Lincoln.

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I bring this up, not only as evidence that Trump knows little about U.S. history. It is more probative in the matter of how smart Trump thinks he is, and how stupid he thinks the rest of us are, or at least those to whom he is trying to appeal.

Follow this additional Trumpian twist: More recently, Trump argued against taking down statues of slaveholders and of military leaders who fought to break up the United States in order to preserve slavery, on the grounds that those statues are important for teaching U.S. history.

Arguing for leaving up the statues of slaveholders, Trump said:

My message is that we have a great country: We have the greatest country on Earth. We have a heritage. We have a history and we should learn from the history. And if you don’t understand your history, you will go back to it again. You will go right back to it. You have to learn. …

Think of it: You take away that whole era, and you’re going to go back to it sometime. People won’t know about it. They’re going to forget about it.

Very touching. Not very logical to assert that taking down statues of Confederate officers will somehow lead to ignorance that the Civil War occurred, and then to an increased chance of it breaking out again out of historical ignorance, caused by lack of statuary.

Nor is it even slightly convincing, to me at least, that this is Trump’s motive for arguing against the removal of statues of Confederate generals, who, some would argue, were traitors to the country that Trump says is so great, the United States of America, and who participated in a war against that nation for the purpose of breaking it up.

I will confess that I have some mixed feelings about the movement to tear down such statues. I think it’s dangerous to try to erase things from history. I’d be happier, myself, if the statues had plaques added to them describing how these Confederates participated in a Civil War designed to break up the United States in order to perpetuate the practice of human slavery.

And it would help if new statues were erected nearby, of Lincoln and other heroes of the Union cause, with plaques further educating future generations of what happened in the 1861-65 period.

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That would work for me.

I’m a history nerd. I majored in history in college, and write about history a lot more than most journalists, who are raised to think of journalism as the story of “what happened yesterday,” which assumes that everyone was caught up on what happened before that.

I don’t claim that everyone needs to be a history nerd, nor that every president does. But as a history nerd, I have concluded that Donald Trump knows less history, specifically U.S. history, than most previous presidents, perhaps less than any.

He’s bad at history. He’s bad at logic. He’s bad at telling the truth. And, as in the matter discussed above, he thinks we’re so dumb that he can tiptoe a squiggly line of logic that will signal to (some) southerners, those who are part of his base, that he understands and sympathizes with their admiration for Confederate soldiers, while signaling to millions of others, who have different views, that he’s just sort of committed to the great contribution statues of Confederate generals make to historical knowledge.

The thing that stuck in my head about Historian Trump is that he thinks having learned that Lincoln was a Republican makes him smart, or he thinks we’re so dumb that it will make us think so.