American history: Fake news that never goes away — and empowered the Trumpian insurrection

Only if we face the painful lies we tell ourselves about the past can we hope to overcome what's happening now

Published February 25, 2017 3:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump; Thomas Jefferson; Sitting Bull   (AP/John Locher/Wikicommons)
Donald Trump; Thomas Jefferson; Sitting Bull (AP/John Locher/Wikicommons)

Don’t worry, all of this will be forgotten. If the past is any sort of prologue, even the spectacle of Donald Trump will someday be turned into a vague creature of a bygone era when ethical progress stalled, and loud and lewd slithered its way into the White House. A persistent historical amnesia makes it possible to forecast that Americans in 2050 will be just as unable to recall the emotionalism of 2017 as today’s undergraduates are in attempting to grasp the panic-swept days after Sept. 11, 2001. Ask them. It’s something they’ve “heard about,” and that’s it. When their children hear tell of 2016-17, barring the collapse of civilization, it will be: “Yeah, weren’t there protests or something?”

One thing probably won’t change, however: the tendency to accept fake history. We take as real the enduring notion that America is and has always been a “land of opportunity,” which lovers of country perceive as their fortunate heritage. You say it often enough, and it becomes fact: “Through hard work, anyone can succeed here.” Equality of opportunity? It sounds real. It sounds like it’s based on empirical evidence.  

Fake history is fake news, only more widely believed.

Our past ought to be kept close at hand, and used as a barometer to test humility. But it’s not. It’s all too easy to ignore the unpleasant parts of history that live on in our DNA. One doesn’t have to lift a finger to embrace the cause of forgetting whatever gets in the way of pride. Just don’t read about Dred Scott, immigrant exclusion acts, lynching, Japanese-American internment camps or McCarthyism. It is who we are, at least as much as that bright bulb Thomas Alva Edison is who we are. (Not to destroy anyone’s faith in America’s tradition of technological innovation, but Edison also helped bring the electric chair into use.) Recent events recede faster and faster. As unwarranted as it might seem, the emotions we associate with the ill-conceived and utterly devastating Iraq War are already fading.

Here’s an illustration of how our historical amnesia began: Think of all the places you’ve been to that are names taken from Native American languages. Almost all of those languages are in disuse today, many entirely gone. The literal origins of America’s geography are devoid of recognizable roots: Chicago is Ojibwa for “onion fields,” but no one thinks of Chicago and conjures its premodern natural environment. Connecticut means “long river” in the language of a lost Algonquian tribe no one can name. Not a single linguist alive today knows what the word “Wisconsin” means – one must presume that at the time it became a state, many people did.

When meanings are abandoned, we lose a tiny bit of truth along with historical identity. Americans pretend not to despise the truth-seeking purpose of history, but they would rather convert the nation’s essence into a parade of heartwarming stories that feed commemorative ritual: Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, Christmas and its attending religious conviction, were all reinvented for commercial purposes.  

Hallmark says that Thanksgiving and Christmas are who we really are. Yet the so-called Pilgrims weren’t even given that quasi-religious label until 150 years after they arrived; until then, they were, prosaically, “the first comers.” Washington Irving, as far from a Christian enthusiast as you can be, conceived American Christmas as a means to bring cheer to children in the dead of winter. Borrowing Old World traditions, he converted a dour Dutch patron saint of yore into the jolly fellow we call Santa Claus. Think of brave Paul Revere on his midnight ride, warning all that “the British are coming,” which were not his actual words, and when he was merely one of several called on to carry out the same task. No one remembers the others, because it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who led the cheer for Revere and enshrined him in a poem of 1861, creatively reimagining the past.

But how dare someone with historical knowledge rain on that parade!  

One of the reasons we let these things happen is that we are taught when young to be worshipful. It’s the one duty to history we are never permitted to forget. We have our hymns – reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing “O Beautiful” and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner” at ballgames, in order to feel good about our civil religion. Rituals have a taming effect; they do not encourage the questioning of patriotic authority. The probing method of the professional historian is not the equivalent of atheism, but it is the protector of rights of conscience. The American historian’s creed says: If we are to deserve to be called a democratic republic, the twin ills of ignorance and apathy have to be cured.

Course corrections occur, even in the sunshine of our forgetfulness. But one thing seems to remain fairly constant: the insistent belief in the moral superiority of American democracy. Yet we “chose” the bulging, humorless, TV-ratings hustler to take over from the brainy biracial guy with the big smile. (The quotes around “chose” reflect the yet uncertain contribution of Vladimir Putin and the sleight-of-hand that infected voters with the idea that Hillary’s emails compromised national security – though historical amnesia is already kicking in on that one.)

The slogan “Make America Great Again” only meant something in 2016 because of the enduring appeal of the theory of exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States retains a unique place in human history and a unique responsibility as role model for all other nations. It’s a fittingly banal bromide for a blindly boastful Trump. President Obama’s so-called “apology tour” was the reactionaries’ symbolic proof that his election spelled the end of exceptionalism – which may explain why Obama felt impelled to invoke his belief in American exceptionalism so publicly and so repetitiously. Our politicians parrot old clichés because Americans have been eagerly accepting clichéd history ever since Parson Weems claimed that George Washington chopped down his dad’s cherry tree. Our people continue to adopt an overly sentimental grade-school mentality and take civics lessons in the form of fantastic morality tales.  

The vast majority of Americans suffer from historical amnesia, and others of us permit the condition to go untreated. In its finest rendering, our history is the story of a union of sentiment connected to the noble idea of self-government and individual freedom. The unprecedented Great Depression brought about FDR’s hyperactive federal relief programs and, thankfully, we still have Social Security; yet by and large, the American idea is associated not with beneficial government programs but instead with countless stories of individual success.

Sociologists report that the best predictor of success in America is wealth and privilege passed down from ancestors, or from parents to children. Despite this fact (the Trump system, if you will), we prefer to claim hard work as the dominant component of the national character. Biographical testaments to the power of freedom and democracy have worn us down. Columbus the intrepid adventurer – with his own national holiday. Washington the Solomon-like father figure. Lincoln the soul of us. Not to mention a hip-hop musical’s magical conversion of a British subject named Alexander Hamilton into the first immigrant-made-good story. Spoiler alert: Hamilton actually “made good” by marrying the daughter of a slave-owning land baron, and still died broke – after doing all he could to consolidate power and prestige in the hands of the moneyed elite. It’s not just Trump. No other nation names so many of its towns after land developers. Allentown. Astoria. Austin. Baltimore. Binghamton. Cleveland. Cooperstown. There are thousands.

But our received history masks financial motives. Facts are actively twisted to promote “the land of liberty” and the “American Dream.” You hear conservatives protest that their children are forced by “liberal” academics to hear about the deceit that accompanied the rampant theft of Indian lands or the large-scale exploitation of unpaid human labor. Slavery was imposed upon ungrateful Indians until men and women taken from West Africa proved a better investment for “liberty-loving” colonists. Poor children were exploited for their labor on farms, in factories and in coal mines until 1919. Those “liberal” academics must hate America, to dwell on such details.

Oh, and can we also do something to stop diabolical minds from equating expertise with elitism? Elitists are out-of-touch and unfeeling people with more money than they need, who belong to Trump’s exclusive golf clubs. Academics are, for the most part, regular people with lots of questions who read in order to better understand the human condition. They are not free from ideology; no one is. But at least they are trained to weigh evidence. That’s not so much “elitism” as it is self-improvement through active engagement. You know, what education is supposed to do for us. Why, then, is the pursuit of historical accuracy considered a “liberal” interpretation? Willingly suspending the capacity for critical thinking is, admittedly, not as subversive as, say, voter suppression; but it is certainly dangerous if you believe in the concept of democracy even a little bit.

Fake history is false advertising for bad consumer products. It’s how you get Citizens United, a travesty of monumental historical proportions. Who in their right mind thinks that the framers of the Constitution, or any truly representative government, ever envisioned the legal seduction of voters by those with the most money?

America is, at its best, an idea. Thomas Jefferson defined the moral component of political democracy in his First Inaugural Address, when he said, “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Needless to say, as an owner of human property, Jefferson did not have clean hands, but when he uttered those words he was steeped in a body of literature, a moral philosophy, that he commended to the new nation.   

Still, one thing that never seems to get old is the hero motif. The republican form of government was supposed to get us past king-worship. It introduced the idea that the educable, improvable citizen could play a positive role in his/her government; that we do not have to wait for someone to come and rescue the country. If you listen to what Trump says, it is, effectively: Whoever believes in me, whoever believes in my special ability, my insight, my genius (as proven by “great deals” in real estate), will live to see American greatness as never before experienced. It’s a ridiculous idea, and the unexceptional gambler with the God complex deserves all the ridicule he has received. Credulity is the antithesis of all that a representative democracy strives to achieve.

The goal of enlightened government is to protect its citizens from the dictatorship of a privileged minority (the minority voters we should really be monitoring closely), or an elected executive who is convinced that he knows more than the generals in waging war and more than scientists in combating pollution-producing corporations. Equal pay standards and the widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else should not be obfuscated in a modern democratic state. We should focus on what matters to the many. Not made-up stuff that diverts attention.  

But fear, exploited, digs in. Remember when, in 1990, the idea of women in the military was scary to a lot of people? In 1890, giving women the vote was scary to just as many. In 1790, it was eliminating each state’s sponsorship of its chosen Protestant sect, which conservative leaders swore would mark the beginning of the end of civilization. Just as no one with a head and heart says, “We sure are lucky conservative forces blocked that radical Civil Rights agenda from being implemented,” future citizens won’t be lamenting, “Too bad we don’t have any more like Mitch McConnell around to limit the numbers receiving affordable health care.”

Let us ask why, in a representative democracy, the general good does not prevail more often. The answer is, of course, credulity. To borrow from the simplified vocabulary of Trump, voter credulity is a DISASTER. It is credulity that allows privileged minorities – and money – to rule.

That said, what we’re seeing in the press, in the federal bureaucracy and on the streets today proves that expertise won’t coddle spite-filled anti-intellectualism in its moment of electoral triumph. Real threats loom that a shiny border wall won’t arrest. We must contend with the war on women’s bodies, willful ignorance of climate science and the fact that while medicine has done much to improve the quality of life, national priorities support capitalism, not human health.  

The future will stand in judgment whether or not we get the money out of politics and put money into projects that serve the interests of the many. If we’re worth remembering at all, it will be because of good government. The credulous will continue to believe the historical myth that individualism is the equivalent of freedom and the engine of democratic achievement, when it was, in truth, the federal government that created the middle class. Nothing succeeded so well as the GI Bill after World War II. Make Government Great Again!   

If you work hard at what you do but lack opportunities, you want government to help level the playing field. The American who most needs to hear this critical message is the credulous worker who is indignant, racist and anti-immigrant, having been fed the story that government helps everyone but him/her. GOP lawmakers have worked to dismantle unions with “right-to-work” laws; white workers who vote Republican are blinded, because their enemy is the corporate elite. White Protestants who think they’re losing the demographic war are especially vulnerable, and the first to buy into fake news-generated fear-mongering. Last year it was procreative Mexicans and “fanatical” Muslims, who in fact have done nothing to injure the folks who take offense at their presence – any more than gay marriage has ruined straight marriage.  

But here we are, in 2017, and millions remain deluded, still so tragically bent by Tea Party-inspired GOP demagoguery. Our glorious narratives promoting individualism won’t save a nation consumed by fear and fed lies. If we start by facing the past honestly, we might yet face the present in a manner that acquits us well when the future squints real hard and tries to remember who we were.   

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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By Nancy Isenberg

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American History Donald Trump Fake News History Trump Administration U.s. History