In a pair of speeches delivered to celebrate the Fourth of July, President Trump recaptured the dark tone of his “American carnage” inaugural address. He described a nation at war with itself and its legacy, and he upped the ante in the cultural wars. This nation’s history and its collective memory, the President proclaimed, are one of the major battlefields in an ongoing culture war.
At Mt. Rushmore, the President warned his audience that “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”
He called out “cancel-culture totalitarianism” and a “new far-left fascism” that “would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress. To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.”
President Trump offered himself as the direct descendent and protector of the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and (Theodore) Roosevelt. “I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten.”
The next day he returned to these same themes. “In every age,” he said, “there have always been those who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present. Those that are lying about our history, those who want us to be ashamed of who we are, are not interested in justice or in healing. Their goal is demolition.”
Trump promised to present a new version of America’s past when he announced the creation of “a brand-new monument to our most beloved icons” which he labeled “The National Garden of American Heroes.”
Acts of commemoration of course are the very stuff of politics. In and through our political processes we decide who or what should be remembered or memorialized and in what ways. Thus it is not surprising that a President might use such acts for political purposes, but it should be kept in mind that this is a President whose uses of history are marked by “ignorance and denial,” as Yale historian David Blight has put it.
For President Trump to offer himself as the leading defender of America’s collective memory is quite audacious, as is his criticism of political movements whose manipulation of history and memory he emulates.
Authoritarian, fascist, and totalitarian regimes long have been characterized by their uses, and erasures, of national histories. Sometimes such distortions are intended to legitimize the regime and its leader by associating them with a glorious, mythological past. Other times history is rewritten to demonize enemies and obliterate inconvenient truths which complicate the political work a regime seeks to carry out.
Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, for example, ordered the rewriting of their national histories to show that they were the true inheritors of their nation’s imperial past.
Hilter called the Nazi regime the “Third Reich” to make that association with a consolidation of past power explicit. And, in his autobiography, Mussolini characterized such efforts as part of a quest to recognize and acknowledge Italy’s greatness.
“I have searched,” he wrote, “to be sure, with a spirit of analysis the whole ancient and modern history of my country. I have drawn parallels because I wanted to explore to the depths, on the basis of historical fact, the profound sources of our national life and of our character, and to compare our capacities with those of other peoples.”
The Nazis also produced a history of the Jews from a National Socialist angle. They tried to decipher hidden meanings in that history that might be useful in purging Germany of its Jews and constructing a new Aryan identity. Hitler ordered the destruction of World War I memorials in occupied Belgium and France which he said defamed the army and perpetuated hatred against Germans.
As the Swedish journalist Anders Rydell notes, “Nazis were engaged in a battle for memory.”
Today it is not surprising that in his battle for history and memory President Trump would borrow from Vladimir Putin’s playbook. Putin has invested enormous energy in the service of an historical revisionism that serves his political purposes.
In the early years of his rise to power, Putin worked hard to dissociate Russia’s KGB, for which he was a long time agent, from Stalin’s Great Purges. Felix Svetov, a writer whose family was a victim of those purges, observed that such a rewriting of history represents the effort of would-be dictators to change reality. “If the snow is falling,” he observed, “they will calmly tell you, the sun is shining.”
More recently, history textbooks were rewritten (with an eye to pleasing President Putin) to glorify Russia’s past leaders by emphasizing what they did to strengthen the state and neglecting other elements of their rule. In this version of history, Russia’s tsars and all Communist Party general secretaries are presented as enlightened autocrats. The cruelties they inflicted and their personal foibles are erased from collective memory.
Finally, long before Trump described America’s carnage and announced that he alone could fix the country’s problems, and long before last weekend’s law and order speeches, Putin was narrating an eerily similar version of Russia’s past.
“Why did the Soviet Union break up?” he asked twenty years ago. “Because,” Putin noted with Trumpian hyperbole, “things were allowed to happen; laxness. And if we continue like this, Russia will fall to pieces, and it will happen so quickly you and I cannot even imagine.’”
Like those he criticizes, President Trump invents a version of American history that simplifies what is complex and conjures demonic forces eager to tear down this nation’s heroic past. As he said at the White House on July 4, “We cannot let that happen. We will not throw away our heroes. We will honor them, and we will prove worthy of their sacrifice.”
But Trump’s heroes may not be those whom America most needs to honor. And, for all such heroes, if we want to truly honor them, we have to know them in all of their complexity. We are best served by a history that includes what they did to Americans as well as what they did for us.
In the end, democratic citizens cannot live without history and memory even when both make them uneasy as well as proud. Those who insist that we confront the discomfort as well as the pride are the true heroes of American history. “History,” as Robert Penn Warren once warned, “is the thing you cannot resign from.”
Allowing the President to decide what counts as history, and which facts are true, will further erode American democracy.