Yesterday, May 1, 2017, President Donald Trump issued only the latest in a long series of facepalm-inducing clangers that make us fear for his (and our own) sanity. In a media interview, riffing about his endless admiration for Andrew Jackson, Trump said, “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” This statement, uttered with the usual carelessness and lack of forethought that’s par for the course for Donald Trump, certainly got the attention of historians, who point out that, yes, well, actually a lot of people do ask the question why there was a Civil War and why it couldn’t have been worked out ahead of time. I don’t need to add much to the roar of response, other than to reiterate that yes, it really was about slavery, but Mr. Trump’s comments have clearly demonstrated why we need good history education in America, and why the case of a historically ignorant and intellectually incurious President is dangerous to our democracy.
That Trump is wrong about history, as a substantive matter, is quite apparent. He doesn’t know, for example, when Andrew Jackson lived, has certainly never heard of Indian removal or the Trail of Tears, and his “why could that one not have been worked out” quip indicates his complete ignorance of things like, say, the Compromise of 1850. Although his ignorance is shocking, it’s not really that unusual among politicians. Politicos, for example, never seem to get “appeasement” right. Ignorance of the facts of history is a curable problem, which is why we have history classes in the first place. The problem, though, is what Trump’s ignorance of history says about how he thinks and how he sees democracy, the political process and his own job. These, I think, are much bigger problems than simply being uninformed on the facts.
The Civil War was a highly complex event with so many levels to it, that historians will never run out of things to analyze. Trump, however, sees it as very simple–deceptively so.
At least during the campaign, Trump billed himself as sort of an anti-politician, a populist outsider who would “shake up” Washington and make its political institutions accountable again. This isn’t an unreasonable goal, and several Presidents, from Grant to Eisenhower to Reagan, have attempted to cast themselves in this light. What makes Trump different than they were? Historical ignorance, mixed with a fair amount of naivete. Trump thinks even the most complex political problems all have very simple solutions, and all it takes is a no-nonsense guy with the willpower to implement them. He views Washington politicians as a craven and self-serving class that’s allergic to simplicity and has abandoned common sense. His gaffe about the Civil War indicates that he believes this was also true as far back as 1861, and that only a “tough” fellow like Old Hickory could wipe away political intransigence with a few harsh words and a sweep of his hand.
If Trump knew anything about history, he would understand that it’s just not that simple. The sectional crisis of the Civil War was an insoluble problem that generations of gifted statesmen, like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, failed to solve; the best they could do was stave off the inevitable with a series of increasingly threadbare compromises. The Civil War wasn’t caused by out-of-touch politicians ignoring simple, common sense solutions that could’ve been rammed into their heads by some bullying or shouting by another politician. That he thinks this is how the American political process works, and has always worked, is alarming for two reasons. First, it shows how little Trump understands that process; and second, it indicates how much he honestly thinks that he himself is some sort of genuine original, of the kind who has not been President in over 150 years, who can get solutions where the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay failed. Trump, with his narcissism, is nothing if not convinced of his own capabilities and cunning.
The Compromise of 1850, which I’m quite sure Trump has never heard of, was exactly an attempt to “work out” the issues of the Civil War before it came to violence. It didn’t work.
One of the most important things about history is that it teaches us just how complicated the problems of the world really are, and always have been. The farther things seem from the present, the greater the danger is that they’ll look simple to us. Take again “appeasement” and the coming of World War II in Europe. Someone ignorant of history would boil the whole thing down to, “if only they stopped Hitler at Munich…” If you actually study what was going on in Europe in 1938 and 1939, the depth of the problem becomes much clearer. Similarly, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s looks, to the uninformed, very straightforward. Rosa Parks sat down on a bus; Martin Luther King gave a speech about having a dream; LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we’re done. This reductive approach to history is worse, I think, than not even knowing who Rosa Parks and LBJ are in the first place.
There’s another problem too: Trump has no intention of trying to fix his historical ignorance. He doesn’t care if he’s wrong. He won’t be swayed, by the reaction to his gaffe, to try to learn a little more about the Civil War and why it happened; he sees absolutely no value in that inquiry, or any historical inquiry, really. Trump doesn’t even read books! He’s one of those creatures who dismissively claims he “doesn’t have time to read,” as if it’s a luxury that only within the reach of the idle (and presumably the unsuccessful). How do you reach someone like this? More importantly, how does someone so intellectually incurious find their way into the halls of power in the first place?
Historians everywhere reacted this way when Trump opened his mouth this week.
If Donald Trump were in my history class, he would flunk–not because he didn’t know the facts, but because he would have no interest in learning them. History is not a whimsical intellectual pursuit of liberal elites who can’t get better jobs. It’s a vital part of understanding our country, our world and how things work. I don’t think Trump has any appreciation of this. And the sad thing is, he really doesn’t care.