The Ideas Behind Trump’s 1776 Commission Report

The Ideas Behind Trump’s 1776 Commission Report


A report by President Trump’s 1776 Commission, established to promote “patriotic education,” was written without the input of any professional historians of the United States, and does not include a bibliography or list of citations.

But that doesn’t mean the 45-page report, which drew harsh criticism from scholars when it was released on Monday, doesn’t have sources. Far from a free-floating product of the Trump era, it draws on talking points and a growing shelf of ideologically inflected scholarship and popular history books that aim to counter what it maintains is anti-American left-wing “historical revisionism.”

“The report seems to draw heavily from a rhetorical trick now quite popular on the right of reassigning slavery, racism, and fascism to the left,” Nicole Hemmer, a historian and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” said in an email. “But the underlying argument, that multiculturalism and liberation movements are fundamentally dangerous and un-American, has been a hallmark of conservative politics since at least the 1990s.”

Here are some of the main claims of the report, and the ideas they draw on.

The longest section of the report — nearly half of the main body — describes the country’s founding principles, which it argues is under siege by progressives, whose overly negative view of our history promotes “at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.”

“Neither America nor any other nation has perfectly lived up to the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice and government by consent,” it says. “But no nation before America ever dared state those truths as the formal basis for its politics, and none has strived harder, or done more, to achieve them.”

David W. Blight, a historian of the Civil War at Yale University who is highly critical of the report, said that the report falsely portrays slavery not as a core part of American history and society, but as a global institution “that had all but been imposed on Americans.”

Scholars have noted that the report has curiously little to say about the Civil War itself, suggesting that slavery’s end was less the result of a bloody conflict and more a kind of inevitable flowering of antislavery “seeds” planted in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.”

Dr. Blight also criticized the way the report “appropriates” Black leaders like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he said recalled longstanding myths of “Black Confederates.”

“The Confederate Lost Cause was very clever in how they also manipulated claims of Black loyalty to the South,” he said.

And the report, while admiringly quoting Lincoln, he said, also had echoes of books like the libertarian economist Thomas DiLorenzo’s “The Real Lincoln” (2002) and the tax attorney and author Charles Adams’s “When In the Course of Human Events” (2000), which argue that Lincoln’s true reasons for waging the Civil War was to expand the government “leviathan.”

“These were books that hated Lincoln and any mainstream liberal consensus interpretation of American history,” Dr. Blight said. “They hated the New Deal, admired the Confederacy and much more.”

The report argues that while fascism and communism may have been “bitter enemies in their wars to achieve global domination,” they were in fact “ideological cousins” that threatened the principles of “natural rights and free peoples” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

That equation of fascism and Communism has been a staple of conservative writing for decades, going back at least to Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic “The Road to Serfdom,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, a historian of conservatism and director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank in Washington.

But the report, he added, is perhaps less notable for what it says about America’s relationship to communism and fascism than what it omits.

“Note that this historically innocent reader of this report would have no idea that the U.S.S.R. fought on the same side as the U.S. in World War II,” Dr. Kabaservice said. “And there’s also no reference to the America First movement, which was the origin of McCarthyism and the conservative movement.”

The report’s discussion of the global fascist threat also invokes a particular, homegrown American villain: the so-called administrative state.

In its section on early 20th-century “Progressivism,” it describes the rise of the regulatory bureaucracy, a kind of unaccountable “shadow government” that the report characterizes as a betrayal of the founding principles.

In order to keep up with the complexity of society, the report writes, early 20th century Progressives like Woodrow Wilson — here compared to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — envisioned a regulatory regime run by unelected experts, under which, as Wilson wrote, “the functions of government are in a very real sense independent of legislation, and even constitutions.”

This idea has long been promoted by writers connected with the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that became increasingly influential during the Trump administration. (The editor of its journal, Charles Kesler, is a member of the commission.) And it has been popularized by figures like Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg, author of the 2008 book “Liberal Fascism.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017, Stephen K. Bannon, at the time Mr. Trump’s chief political strategist, injected the phrase further into mainstream political discourse when he assured the audience that “the deconstruction of the administrative state” was at hand.

“The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency,” he said. “That’s all going to be deconstructed.”

One passage that drew particular consternation among historians was the claim that John C. Calhoun, the ardent pro-slavery politician and intellectual architect of Southern secession, was a “leading forerunner” of left-wing identity politics.

“Like modern-day proponents of identity politics,” the report says, “Calhoun believed that achieving unity through rational deliberation and political compromise was impossible; majority groups would only use the political process to oppress minority groups.”

Traditionally, some on the ideological right have been more inclined to embrace Calhoun’s political theories, if not necessary his racial views. Russell Kirk, Dr. Kabaservice noted, wrote admiringly of him in his influential 1953 book “The Conservative Mind.” And more recently, some contemporary anti-government conservatives, while not necessarily expressing admiration for the man, have echoed his theory of “nullification” as part of their efforts to delegitimize government policies.

But however seemingly bizarre, casting the forces of so-called political correctness as intellectual descendants of Calhoun is not original to the report. In a 2013 article on the conservative libertarian website Law & Liberty, Greg Weiner, the assistant provost of Assumption University, declared that protesters calling for Yale University to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college were “Calhounian to their core.”

And more broadly, Dr. Hemmer said, there has been an increase in right-wing commentators categorizing white supremacy as just another form of identity politics and whites as a beleaguered group as deserving of consideration and protection as any other.

“While Calhoun is generally not considered a man of the left, even among the most trollish of commentators, reassigning white-power politics to the left is something we’ve seen more of since the rise of the alt-right,” she said.

In a five-page appendix called “Faith and America’s Principles,” the report turns to the contentious question of religion and the founding.

“History underscores the overwhelming importance of religious faith in American life,” it begins. “But some today see religious practice and political liberty to be in conflict and hold that religion is divisive and should be kept out of the public square. The founders of America held a very different view.”

Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at Binghamton University, said the report echoed longstanding arguments on the religious right, summed up most influentially in books like “The Jefferson Lies,” (2012). That book, by the evangelical pastor and author David Barton, depicts Thomas Jefferson as a “conventional Christian” who wanted to create a Christian nation.

The book was pulled from circulation by its original publisher after the accuracy of its historical evidence was widely challenged. But Dr. Laats, who has written about conservative efforts to influence textbooks, said that similarly “Christianity-centered versions of American history” can be found in textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and Abeka Books, a Christian educational publisher.

“In the big scheme of things, they are not used very widely,” he said. “But among conservative home-schoolers and at private schools, they are widely used.”





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